KAI-po-NOAH cay-HAY-ah-coo-en-HOD-uh

Learn the name, people. You’re going to be talking about him for a long time to come.

The first overtime game in the 80-year history of Navy-Notre Dame became the first Navy win in the series since 1963, a 46-44 3OT thriller. There will be no more talking about the price of gas back then, no more talking about what the #1 song was, and no more talking about John F. Kennedy. And while I enjoy listening to anything Roger Staubach has to say, he never again will give another interview about being the quarterback of the last Navy team to beat Notre Dame. Because now, he isn’t. That title belongs to Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.

Kaipo was not intimidated by the big-game atmosphere. He thrived on it. When the Notre Dame Stadium crowd got loud, Kaipo would wave his arms to tell them to get louder. When the cameras were on him, Kaipo always had a smile on his face. He had boundless energy. He knew.

And knowing is what you’re taught at the Naval Academy. Paul Johnson talked to the players before and during the game, asking them, “Do you believe you can win?” With all due respect to PJ– and he’s due a whole hell of a lot of it– it isn’t about believing. It’s about knowing. It’s the difference between faith and confidence. You see, believing that you can do anything, while the theme for many a wonderful movie on the Disney Channel, is a bad thing in the military. Having faith in your own abilities means that eventually, you’ll bite off more than you can chew. When you do that, you endanger your own life as well as the lives of those around you. That isn’t what they teach at USNA. Instead, they teach training. Train yourself until you can’t get it wrong. Then, you don’t need faith; you have the confidence of experience. You know what you can do because you’ve done it before. And Kaipo knew. That’s the difference between this Navy team and the 43 that went before it. They all believed they could win. But this team knew. And when you know, all the crowd noise in the world won’t make a bit of difference, except to make the memory that much sweeter.

The way the Naval Academy motivates you to train is through fear. That sounds bad, but it isn’t. The very first thing that you’re taught as you walk through the gates on I-Day is that you, as an individual, no longer matter. You are simply a part of a team, and your own successes and failures are irrelevant next to those of the team. Ship, shipmate, self, as the saying goes. You train not to better yourself, but to better the team. And that’s where the fear comes in; you train because you are scared to death of letting down your teammates.

Ram Vela's magnum opusEnter Ram Vela. The Navy defense, leading Notre Dame 28-21 late in the 4th quarter, had forced the Irish to a 4th & 14 on their own 32 yard line. Ram came in untouched on a blitz. Just when it looked like he was going to get a sack that would have probably sealed a Navy victory, quarterback Evan Sharpley sidestepped the rush and delivered the ball to tight end John Carlson for a 1st down. Ram missed the tackle, and it gave Notre Dame new life. It could have been a catastrophic mistake. But on yet another 4th down play, Ram Vela was sent in on a blitz once again. This time, Vela had a blocker in his path. As the tailback went to block low, Vela would not be denied. The result was the above play, which will live forever as part of Navy football legend. Vela would not let down his teammates. He would not be stopped by any blocker. He would not be stopped by gravity. He would do his job. In the end, it was actually Chris Kuhar-Pitters who would get credit for the sack, which was a tremendous play of his own. But Vela taking flight will be the lasting image of the “not this time” attitude that defined the Navy team in this game.

On that note, I owe Ram and Buddy Green an apology. Last week, I wrote this:

If we’re going to send Ram Vela in on blitzes, then we might as well play defense with 10 people. He’s just too small, and he gets absorbed by the tackle every time. He’s a converted defensive back anyway. Just drop him into coverage. We’d probably be better off with him covering the TE than one of the other linebackers.

As it turns out, Buddy Green knows a little bit more about his players and the game of football than I do. Never in my life have I been so happy to be so wrong. And holy guacamole was I wrong.

Speaking of Buddy Green, he coached the game from the press box on Saturday. Chris Swezey noticed that too, and talked about it in his follow-up:

Saturday marked the first time since he came to Navy in 2002 that defensive coordinator Buddy Green spent the game in the coaches’ box rather than on the field. Johnson said the move was made to help Green see the field better, and that Green likely will be upstairs for the game against North Texas on Saturday.

I really think it made a difference. Navy still gave up a lot of yards to a bad offense, but Notre Dame ballcarriers didn’t have nearly the room to run that Navy’s previous opponents had. Players were in position to make plays, and Buddy Green put them there. Maybe that is the difference between those Navy defenses of years past and 2007. Maybe in previous years, Buddy didn’t have to sit in the booth because senior, experienced players already knew how to line up. We’ve seen the opposite before; a couple of years ago, Ken Niumatalolo was moved from the press box to the field because the offensive line was struggling at the time, and PJ thought they needed more hands-on leadership. Perhaps Buddy can better direct his young defense by seeing the bigger picture.

Team defense was improved, but Navy also put together a series of individual efforts that surpassed anything we’ve seen this year. With 4 sacks in the game, Navy nearly doubled its season total. Those sacks were set up in part by excellent coverage in the secondary. Seven different mids registered a tackle for a loss. Wyatt Middleton had 14 tackles. Freshman Kevin Edwards had 6 tackles and played tremendously in his first start. Nate Frazier played the way Navy fans knew he could, wrapping up 8 tackles and making the most underrated play of the game– in the second overtime, it was Nate who hit Evan Sharpley on 3rd down, causing a bad throw and holding Notre Dame to a field goal. And of course, the defense bailed out the offense twice; holding the Irish scoreless after a Shun White fumble in Navy territory, and scoring a touchdown of its own to give Navy its first lead of the game in the 4th quarter. This truly was a team victory.

Offensively, I wrote last week about the importance of manageable 3rd downs, and that we’d probably “play in a phone booth” as a result. For the most part, that’s what happened. Notre Dame focused on stopping the fullback. The spread formation is designed to open up running lanes by stretching the defense from sideline to sideline, but the Irish didn’t bother. They kept their linebackers between the tackles the entire game. To counter this, Paul Johnson brought his wide receivers in closer to the formation, and stayed that way for almost the entire game. This opened up outside runs by allowing wide receivers to make crackback blocks on linebackers attempting inside-out pursuit. When Notre Dame was forced to adjust, that’s when the fullback started to gain some yardage.

It wasn’t the most mind-blowing game on the stat sheet, with Navy totaling only 338 yards of offense. The statistics don’t tell the story of how well the offense played, though. They executed the gameplan with very few mistakes. Navy only averaged 3.9 yards per rush, but that was by design. The goal was to set up 3rd & short. Coach Johnson was asked about the importance of manageable 3rd downs in his postgame press conference:

It’s real important, and that’s why I call plays the way I do. There was probably some things that we could’ve had in the passing game. But there’s no use in taking a chance when you know you’re going to get four downs. I’m not real smart in math, but 3 a pop will get you 10 in four tries. That’s kind of the way we play, and the way we have to play where we are.

The most impressive performance of the whole afternoon might be that of the offensive line. This is the first Navy-Notre Dame game I can remember where the Navy o-line wasn’t just effective; they were dominant.

Does it matter that this Notre Dame team is no good compared to the last couple of years? No. Navy had lost to bad Notre Dame teams as well as good ones over the last 44 years. And nobody seems to remember that the team that Navy beat in 1963 only won two games. Does it matter that Charlie Weis made some questionable coaching decisions? No. That’s part of the game sometimes. As time goes on, all people remember is the final score. That, and superhuman sacks.

Extra Point: Charlie Weis and Notre Dame deserve a lot of credit for the grace with which they handled the loss. I was never as caught up in the Weis love-fest as most people when he led the Irish over to join Navy in singing Blue and Gold in 2005. I thought he did it because the cameras were on. It’s easy to be gracious after a win. But Weis showed that he was just as gracious in defeat. Not only did he lead his team to the Navy fans to sing Blue and Gold, but he also went out of his way to shake the hands of several Navy players. Some Irish fans have been blasting Weis for the comments he made to a sideline reporter after the game, but I heard nothing to be offended about as a Navy fan. Weis’ playcalling might be subject to criticism, but the graciousness with which he conducted himself afterwards should not.

Seeing Notre Dame fans line the tunnel to the locker room after the game, giving Navy players high-fives, was pretty cool too. I saw more of a connection between these two schools than I ever saw out of Air Force, a school that Navy is “supposed” to regard as a sibling.

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14 Responses

  1. thebirddog,
    Outstanding post —> You have hit the nail right on the head in just about every facit. That will be an incredible victory for decades to come.

    Frankly, after personally witnessing the “post AFA-Navy whining” while out in Colorado Springs on business back in early October, … I hope that ND beats Air Force this season, … and that Army gives the Irish all they can handle to set the stage for a competative Army-Navy battle.

    Go NAVY … Beat the Mean Green!!!

  2. Army doesn’t play Notre Dame this year, though.

  3. I do believe… I was so impressed with the calmness and moxie ( how great was it seeing Kaipo tell the crowd to “bring it on-then produce?).
    We saw more raw- teenage (dare I say ESPN like) behavior and emotion by our boys than I have seen at any other time.
    They actually fed off the emotion of that crowd and shoved it down their throats.
    Sorry but while Weiss showed class on the field (no respect of course as he had no intention of punting all day-even if 4th and 40 & why should he have?) his after game comments showed that he knew damn well that the streak was stopped on his watch-you could see it in his face and in his sharp comments.
    Thats ok- who cares about them now- we will have another great crack at them in Baltimore next year so lets start our own streak.
    I cant agree on the AF game as I hope they too beat ND – why not also be the first time in history for ND to lose 2 games to a service academy (sorry Charlie).
    Lets hope PJ keeps em focused and we blow through the last 3 games and I hope that Nate Frazier keeps that “let me burst through this line to get to my Thanksgiving table” attitude!
    GO NAVY-BEAT NORTH TEXAS!

  4. We go for it on 4th down more than almost anyone. Is PJ lacking in respect, or is he just trying to win a football game? Come on, Gary. Put aside your hate for a second.

  5. sorry Gary but in 1944 ND lost to both Army and Navy so if AF wins Saturday it won’t be a first, just first time in a long time.

  6. thebirddog,
    You’re correct —> I saw someplace last spring that Army was back on ND’s sked, … and somehow thought it was this year???
    My bad … But would still be “satisfied” to see ND beat the Zoomies … just so they couldn’t attempt to steal the spot-lite & claim that AF was better than Navy (despite the earlier loss).

  7. I think it says a lot about Notre Dame in general. There has always been respect for Navy from Notre Dame. I think this ranks up there with one of the best friendly rivalries in all of college football.

  8. Now I see why a prevailing thought from some is to have ND beat AF.
    But that wouldnt diminish what we did last week- If ND loses AF it would not make any major news flash.
    I still root for service academies and hope AF beats them anyway.
    I am also hoping against hope that Army beats the hated and still overrated Rutgers team-that would be sweet.

  9. Why do we want Notre Dame to beat Air Force? For the same reason we want them to beat Duke and Stanford: 4-8 at the end of the season will lend more credibility to this week’s win than a 1-11 or 2-10 final record.

  10. Sorry- no can do- Go Air Force (today).
    As you can see from many media outlets-no matter what credibility you are seeking-many still think Navy beating ND was a complete joke (not a Navy win but an Irsih LOSS) and continue to mock the Navy football program- while at the same time jumping all over ND for having the gaul to actually “LOSE TO NAVY”.
    All I have heard here in NY Tri-state area is ND losing to AF is one thing but losing to Navy is a complete insult.
    I think many Navy fans seems to just hate AF and no matter who they play want them to lose- while I support all the academies
    Last night even ESPN said that Army should “lower their schedule opponents” like Navy in order to have success.
    I dont think our schedule which contained Wake-Pitt-Rutgers-ND-AF was all that bad and certainly Rutgers true “CAKE” schedule last year was what catapulted them to their great season.
    But they make it sound like we loaded up a CAKE schedule.
    We get nailed for a so called “soft” schedule and gimmick offense by almost all the so called experts-so what credibility from any do we need anyway?
    I was a huge proponent of that media respect- now I could care less- win our games- get that Bowl- cash that check and keep it going for 10 more years.
    If we still get looked at as some “little train that could” program from most ignorant media pundits-screw them.
    Hey after all ND beat UCLA so do you really think that means we would do the same?

  11. Gary, you started that comment complaining about what media outlets were saying, then ended it saying that you don’t care what the media thinks. Which is it?

  12. Poor Gary just can’t seem to catch any “luv” from thebirddog these days … —> “As one soeth the seed …” (o;

    I too was a bit put off by that ignorant ESPN crew’s continued assertion that Navy plays a “soft” schedule, while poor Army plays a tough one —> Without actually examining the facts.

    When Army was winning with some consistency in the ’90s, … they were running a option type offense. They, … and AF went downhill when they both went away from the triple option type offense —> Given the size & caliber of talent in blue-chip athletes coming out of high school, the only real way for service academy teams to remain competative is to employ schemes that take advantage of discipline/smarts … and minimizes the disadvantage of not have size & pure athletic talent.

  13. Air Force never went away from the option.

  14. WEO their resurgence this seaon, AF has been down for a bit of a spell —> I thought that DeBerry had “tweaked” the offense some & tried to shift to something more “pro-style like”, … but I could very well be wrong, because I stopped following them that closely after they stopped playing Hawaii (post WAC/MWC shake-up a few years back???).
    Did their conference opponents just finally figure out how to play them, while getting better themselves?

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