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DelVecchio: Notre Dame-Navy ‘rivalry’ needs to come to an end

| Saturday, November 16, 2019

Tradition is everything at Notre Dame.

From academics to residence hall life to faith-building to athletics, there is little that goes on at Our Lady’s University that isn’t deeply rooted in tradition. Because of this, branching away from the way things have “always been done” and moving on from the old days is hard to come by for Irish students and fans alike.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. leaps over a Midshipmen after rushing downfield. The Irish routed Navy 52-20 on Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

Saturday’s contest between the Fighting Irish and the Naval Academy was the 93rd matchup of a “rivalry” that dates back to 1927 and was solidified during the days of World War II. You would be hard-pressed to find two programs more engulfed in tradition or as well-respected as Notre Dame and Navy are, but this doesn’t suffice for a reason to keep the series alive.

I put “rivalry” in quotes because, in my opinion, a series in which one team has 77 victories and the other has 13 isn’t much of a rivalry at all. It’s more like an annual game where Notre Dame can either win and receive no credit or lose and have their season ended.

When I think about the all-time great rivalries throughout history, I think about matchups like the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Celtics and the Lakers, Duke and UNC basketball, where (for the most part) every game you know you’ll be watching a battle until the end where either team can pull out a victory. That just isn’t the case with this Notre Dame-Navy series. Rather, the “rivalry” is viewed from the outside as a game that Notre Dame should win every year. 

This column also comes during a period in which Navy has seen some recent success against the Irish, as four of their thirteen wins against Notre Dame have come in the past 12 seasons. Yet, after Saturday, the overall series record stands at 77-13-1, which is clearly overly lopsided. This matchup has formed a new tradition between the two teams: the tradition of Notre Dame beating up on the Midshipmen.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Notre Dame won 43 consecutive games in the series between 1964 and 2006.

Now, this is definitely a unique rivalry in that it is built upon mutual respect, recognition and gratitude for both teams. It is also true that Father Hesburgh was a supporter of maintaining the series, citing the fact that the relationship has been everlasting and simultaneously “cordial.” Is that reason enough to keep the series alive? If things are kept cordial off the field, but the Irish are consistently beating Navy up on the field, does such cordiality even matter?

For those who don’t know, during WWII when Notre Dame’s enrollment significantly plummeted due to students enlisting in the war effort, the Navy set up a program to help money flow back into the University (which was also experiencing a decrease in endowment) by setting up the V-12 Navy College Training Program, or Naval ROTC, which helped bring in students to ND. Notre Dame then did Navy a favor by maintain this ROTC program throughout the Vietnam War when other universities across the country were abolishing theirs.

Notre Dame effectively payed it back to Navy at that point, and yet decades later we are still playing them every season to express our appreciation for what they did for us. It seems we have an odd way of expressing our admiration that consists of beating the Midshipmen on national television over 80% of the time.

This has been a debate for many years now, and both sides take interesting stances. On one end, some Notre Dame fans want to keep playing Navy because it has almost always been a game where you can pencil in a “W” on the schedule, but there are also those who dislike the annual matchup because it serves as a game where the Irish have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Still, there are those who support the matchup for purposes of maintaining tradition and paying it back to Navy for them helping keep Notre Dame afloat during WWII. And then there are people like me, who think that this isn’t much of a rivalry at all.

Moreover, playing Navy is the easiest way to wear a team out, especially when the matchup is slotted late in the season, as it typically is. A game against Navy‘s triple-option offense means your linebackers are going to be actively engaged the entire game, as they should be, but even more so due to the fact that they are responsible for halting the rushing attack that comes nearly every play. Thus, the potential for injuries to key guys in the middle for Notre Dame only increases during games against Navy. It’s a battle inside the trenches for 40 minutes, with cut-down blocks aimed at the legs and knees abounding, which makes it unlikely to come out unscathed. Football is a dangerous game in general, the potential for injuries is always there every game, every practice even. Yet it becomes more pronounced against a team like Navy.

To add on, preparing for Navy does nothing for future success throughout the season. For a week, the team prepares to play against the triple-option, which only helps for matchups with teams who run the triple-option. That list is probably as short as you might imagine. 

Beating Navy is expected for Notre Dame, even when the Midshipmen find themselves in the national conversation like they were heading into Saturday’s matchup, or have a quarterback as talented and elusive as senior Malcolm Perry. We all saw how that turned out. Navy rarely does ever to add any strength or fervor to Notre Dame’s schedule, which is most often the knock on the Irish; their weak schedule due to their status as an independent. Instead of Navy, we can add a matchup with a team that will actually help us out in the long run, maybe even another team from a power five conference.

Furthermore, the game against Navy was the first non-sellout in 273 games and 46 years. This most definitely came as a little bit of a disappointment for the University and its fans, and I think there’s definitely truth to those who say it has to do with the fact that the game against Navy isn’t one people are particularly fond of going to see (although it is true that the Irish aren’t expecting a sellout against BC, either.)

The fact of the matter is that this annual series is awesome for every reason outside of football. It poses a winless situation for the Irish, where they either take care of business for the sake of having to, or lose and soil their season reputation. It’s time for this marriage to come to a close — in reality, it has been for a long time.

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