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At the top of the hill

Joe Hettler | Friday, November 7, 2003

There’s a reason Navy hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since 1963, and Midshipmen head coach Paul Johnson knows why.

“They probably have 35 Parade All-Americans, and we have 35 guys that have marched in a parade,” Johnson said. “It’s not apples and apples.”

Does that mean Navy doesn’t have a chance to beat Notre Dame this weekend in South Bend?

“I hope not, but I don’t think anybody will have us favored,” Johnson said.

The last time the Midshipmen won against the Irish was the same year President John. F Kennedy was shot and killed, Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” and Navy quarterback Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy. The Midshipmen won 35-14 at Notre Dame Stadium that year.

Since then, the Irish have claimed an NCAA record 39 straight victories over the Midshipmen, with 2003 marking the 40th year since Navy last won in the series.

Notre Dame has won as impressively as 56-7 in 1970 and as narrowly as 18-17 in 1984. They lead Navy in the all-time series 66-9-1. Usually, when the two teams meet, Notre Dame is 7-1, 5-2 or 8-0, and Navy is 1-7, 2-5 or 0-8.

But this season, the teams enter the game with reversed records – the Midshipmen are 6-3, while the Irish are a struggling 2-6.

Navy nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history last season when it lead by eight points in the fourth quarter at Baltimore’s Ravens Stadium. Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday had to find Omar Jenkins on catches of 29 and 67 yards in the final minutes to help 8-1 Notre Dame escape 30-23 against a Midshipmen team that had a lowly 1-7 record entering the game.

With the 2002 game in mind, many feel this could be the year Navy pulls off the incredible upset.

Looking back

Had Navy not been there for Notre Dame during World War II, the University might not be standing today.

Notre Dame was in dire financial straits during the war and looked to Navy for a helping hand. The Midshipmen kept the school afloat by putting a half-dozen programs on the Notre Dame campus. After this gesture by the Academy, the schools decided to play annually on the football field for as long as Navy wanted.

The two teams had met for the first time in 1927, with the Irish winning 19-6. Notre Dame won the first six meetings before losing three of the next four decisions, then won 17 of the next 19. Navy won five of the next eight games between 1956 and 1963 before losing the last 39 games against the Irish.

But the last few meetings between the teams have been especially interesting. Besides the 2002 game, Navy nearly upset Notre Dame in 1997 and again in 1999.

In the ’97 game, the Midshipmen out gained the Irish 399 to 283 and had 117 more rushing yards, but still lost 21-17 when Autry Denson scored with 5 minutes, 48 seconds remaining in the game. Navy quarterback Chris McCoy threw three interceptions that day in South Bend but completed a Hail Mary on the last play of the game to receiver Pat McGrew, who raced to the Irish 2-yard line before being knocked out of bounds by Allen Rossum.

But the loss that hurts Navy fans the most was in 1999.

Notre Dame trailed 24-21 with 1:30 remaining and had the ball at the Midshipmen 37. On fourth-and-10, with no timeouts left, Notre Dame quarterback Jarious Jackson hit receiver Bobby Brown for a 9-yard gain. The Navy sideline celebrated what they thought was a victory, only to see the referee give Notre Dame a very generous spot. The Irish got the first down by a few inches, then scored six plays later to win 28-24.

As much as Johnson won’t admit it, the 2003 Navy team feels this could be the year they finally get to the Irish.

“I think, in all honesty, for us to beat them we have to play close to perfect, and they have to help us some,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re going to be afraid. I think our guys will go in and play. Now, we may just be way out-manned, and if they bring their ‘A’ game it’s going to be tough. I don’t think we’re going to be in awe or afraid. Maybe we’re not smart enough to be afraid.”

The Midshipmen are led by quarterback Craig Candeto, who has rushed for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns, and running back Kyle Eckel, who leads the team in rushing yards with 806.

Navy also averages 309.6 yards on the ground per game – good enough to lead the country in that category.

Johnson said even though Notre Dame is 2-6, they will be a huge challenge for the Academy.

“They’ve lost to the No. 2 team in the country, the No. 3 team in the country, the No. 7 team in the country, so I think their record might be a tad deceiving,” he said. “I doubt it seriously if you asked [the Notre Dame coaches] if they wanted to come swap anybody they would swap any of theirs for any of ours.”

Meanwhile, Navy’s schedule is one of the easiest in the country, with several Division 1-AA teams on it.

Avoiding history

When Notre Dame lost to Navy in 1963, the Irish finished the season 2-7. This year’s 2-6 team knows that the 2003 Navy team isn’t the same as in past years.

“We have to prepare for them because they’re a very good team – by their record and by how they play,” Irish running back Ryan Grant said. “They’re going to come with their ‘A’ game and they’re going to want to take from us what we don’t want them to take.”

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham has the same mindset as Grant.

“Navy is a very good football team,” Willingham said. “They lead the country in rushing and to do that you have to do something right – and they’ve done things right,” Willingham said. “Our football team has to be ready to play a darn good football team and probably face the best Navy football team in the last 20 years.”

For the Irish to be successful Saturday and win its 40th straight game over Navy, they will have to play better than they have throughout the last few weeks. Against Michigan, USC and Florida State, Notre Dame has been outscored 120-14. The team hasn’t scored a point in its last seven quarters at home and hasn’t had a start this poor since that 1963 team.

Add all that up, and many feel a Notre Dame win could even be an upset.

“We’re trying to stay positive right now,” Irish running back Julius Jones said. “This week with Navy, they’re an excellent team, and they’re going to play us tough no matter what the situation.”

Jones denied any additional pressure in losing to Navy and breaking the streak.

“That streak really doesn’t mean anything with Navy, because they come in here and play their best game of the year,” he said. “[And] there’s pressure on us to win every game. We have to win every game.”

Willingham agreed that this game and the streak do not add any more pressure to the coaches and team in preparing and playing Saturday’s game.

“It is simply this game that counts and this game that is most important, and I think as a competitor, you recognize that,” Willingham said. “You recognize that the past is great, especially when it’s very successful from your viewpoint, but at the same time you have to play the game today and that’s the only thing that counts.”

The bookies seem to think the Irish will prevail. Notre Dame enters the game between an eight- and nine-point favorite.

The streak and the team’s records aside, Willingham said it doesn’t matter who the Irish are playing – the team will have one objective this weekend.

“I think for our team it’s just trying to get a win, and we have not done that in a couple of weeks,” Willingham said. “We need to get back in the saddle of winning football games.”