Notre Dame says thanks to Navy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SOUTH BEND, IND. -- Their football programs became entwined during World War II, and for two decades thereafter, Navy held its own with mighty Notre Dame, winning or tying in seven of their 20 meetings.

But, since 1963, it has been a one-way ride and when they clash today for the 79th time at Notre Dame Stadium, the seventh-ranked Irish will be striving for an NCAA-record 42nd consecutive victory over Navy.

Notre Dame (6-2) is a topheavy choice to achieve that goal before its 184th straight sellout crowd at home and a national television audience. Kickoff time for the longest continuous intersectional series in college football is 1 p.m.

"The Streak" is always the topical item leading up to this game, but both sides prefer to downplay it.

"That's a thing that's in the past," said Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, a Heisman Trophy candidate. "It's great to look at and a lot of people will say that we don't want to be that team that has it broken. But the coaching staff has trained us not to look at the past."

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis doesn't want to be the man in charge when the run ends and said his players "better think that way" as well. "But I'm only looking at this week."

Despite the continuous domination by the Irish, the game goes on each year. The most frequently asked question about the Navy-Notre Dame series is: "Why do they keep playing?"

The answer is gratitude. Notre Dame was a small, all-male institution when World War II broke out, and when so many would-be students were being drafted, the school was almost ruined financially.

In stepped the Naval Academy, which could not produce enough officers for the war effort in a short amount of time. Several schools were chosen to train additional officers, and Notre Dame was one, providing much-needed students. Navy also built a number of campus facilities in South Bend.

At the direction of Notre Dame leaders, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, and Rev. Edmund P. "Ned" Joyce, Navy was credited with saving Notre Dame. They vowed that the Irish would always play Navy, as long as the latter wished.

An opportunity to play on the big national stage against Notre Dame is one of the big selling points to Navy recruits, many of whom accept the academy as their only chance to compete at the Division I-A level. And they have nothing to lose (except another game) in the matchup for which coach Paul Johnson often says: "They have 65 Parade All-Americans. We have 65 guys who have marched in a parade."

"They're huge and full of All-Americans," said Navy linebacker Tyler Tidwell. "It's a great challenge."

Johnson was at his quipping best when reminded that Weis was accenting the fact that the Midshipmen have won 10 straight games in which they scored first. Almost invariably, Navy defers to the second half if it wins the opening coin toss. But Johnson said he might take the ball at the start this time.

"I will do that if he [Weis] guarantees us that if we get the ball and score, that they will quit," Johnson said.

No chance. Notre Dame is driving toward a berth in the Bowl Championship Series, and its lucrative payout and will be a strong favorite in its final three against Navy, Syracuse and Stanford. The Midshipmen (5-3) need a win to qualify for any bowl.

Johnson cited Quinn as the "biggest difference" in this Irish team from the one that dominated Navy, 27-9, last season at Giants Stadium. Of course, Weis, who recently received a new 10-year contract, has also been an overwhelming influence.

"Coach Weis has had a lot to do with it," Quinn said. "He has us take a tough, physical attitude. He takes an extreme business approach to a lot of different things."

So, the accent at Notre Dame has been how dangerous Navy can be to its aspirations despite the obvious disparities in size, speed and skill. Weis knows how plucky the Midshipmen can be, as evidenced by losses by four points or fewer in three of their past four games at South Bend.

"They're a little scary," he said. "They definitely have our players' attention. ... Because of their military background, they seem to be more fundamentally sound than just about anybody. And they're driven to be successful."

He said he reveres the military academies as "a separate entity. They're not going to play in the NFL. They're not going to some cush job. They're going to represent our country. The respect factor is higher than anyone else you're going against."

kent.baker@baltsun.com

Today's game

Navy (5-3) @No. 7 Notre Dame (6-2)

Site -- Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

Time -- 1 p.m.

TV/Radio -- Chs. 11, 4/1090 AM, 1430 AM

Line -- Notre Dame by 23 1/2

Series -- Notre Dame leads 68-9-1

Last week -- Navy beat Tulane, 49-21; Notre Dame beat Tennessee, 41-21.

Outlook -- This would be the most significant win to become bowl-eligible in Navy history if the Midshipmen can break Notre Dame's NCAA-record 41-game winning streak in their series. The Irish are looking to run the table to finish 9-2 and wind up in a January postseason game. To pull the upset, Navy will have to slow the Irish's potent offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Brady Quinn, who needs 107 yards through the air to break Jarious Jackson's single-season Irish record. He has an offensive line that is one of the most experienced ever at the school and two 6-foot-5 WRs, Jeff Samardzija (12 TD catches, a Notre Dame record) and Maurice Stovall (two school records with 14 catches and four TDs against Brigham Young). Sophomore RB Darius Walker (679 yards) heads a ground game that pounded Navy relentlessly last season in a 27-9 win. Senior co-captain Brandon Hoyte is the Irish defensive leader with 61 tackles, 11.5 for losses and four sacks, and two Gilman grads, DE Victor Abiamiri (4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and CB Ambrose Wooden (55 tackles), are key contributors. Navy will count on the triple-option offense that piled up a season high of 418 yards rushing last week, vaulting the team to second nationally on the ground and its usual bend-but-don't-break defense headed by LBs Rob Caldwell, David Mahoney, Tyler Tidwell and Jake Biles. The Midshipmen have a recent history of playing well at South Bend only to lose heartbreakers. In their 2003 meeting at Notre Dame, D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked a 40-yard field goal as the clock expired to give the Irish a 27-24 victory.

Kent Baker

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