It’s Notre Dame week, but you might not have noticed.
There was a time when the week before the Notre Dame game was a bit crazy for Navy fans. Prior to Navy’s TV deals with HDNet and CSTV/CBS College Sports, the Notre Dame game was one of only a handful of chances that Navy fans across the country had to see the Mids play. Everyone would get all riled up telling each other that this would finally be the year that the losing streak to the Irish would end. National media outlets that usually paid no attention to Navy would swoop down on Annapolis and start asking questions about the streak and 1963 and Roger Staubach and every other recycled storyline you can think of. Nervous anticipation ran wild. Two years ago, the streak finally did end, mercifully. That just set up a new angle for last year. Can Navy do it again? Will Notre Dame get revenge? A different verse of the same song, for the most part. The same anxious buzz accompanied the week preceding the game.
This year, though, feels downright… normal. There’s no streak to talk about. The Irish won last year’s contest, so there’s no “revenge” on the line. There’s a bit more media attention on the Mids this week, but not overwhelmingly so– certainly not to the extent of years past. It’s not that Notre Dame isn’t a big game. It’s just that the hoopla that defined the rivalry for generations no longer applies, and that’s fine by me. As much as I enjoy the series with Notre Dame and recognize its importance to the Navy program, I’ve always sort of hated the week leading up to the game. It’s not that the media attention was bad, even if they just repeated the same theme year after year. Media exposure is a big reason why the Naval Academy schedules Notre Dame in the first place. No, I dreaded Notre Dame week each year because it always tends to bring out the worst in Navy fans.
The Naval Academy is not like other college football programs. The challenges that come from being a 4000-student military school with high academic standards and a service commitment after graduation make fielding a Division I football program a bit of an uphill climb. You’d think that Navy fans would understand this better than most. Some do. Others, not so much. Everyone says they do. People certainly pay lip service to the obstacles that confront the Navy program, but I don’t think everyone really takes it to heart. A winning record, CIC Trophy, and bowl game are generally how we measure success around here, but for some fans, that isn’t enough. Some people worry about impossible-to-quantify measures like “perception” and “respect,” or about getting mentions on ESPN, or getting ranked in top-25 polls. I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t think it’s cool to see “#21 Navy” on my screen at game time, but I also don’t care if I ever do. It’s a shame that some people can’t enjoy Navy football for what it is instead of seeking validation from the same dull, hype-filled nonsense that permeates the collective mindset of the rest of the college football world. And that’s where Notre Dame comes in. For these folks, the game against college football royalty like the Irish is Navy’s big chance for the validation they crave. They get to spend the week joining the chorus of college football’s grand cliche– hating Notre Dame— and seeing people actually care about who Navy’s playing this week. They’ll hear Navy mentioned on Gameday, and see the highlights on Sportscenter. All the important stuff, right? If they say so.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing on the line for the Mids this week. There’s a big difference between 7-3 and 6-4, and the loss to Temple means that Navy needs to beat Notre Dame to have a shot at a 10-win regular season. A win would also clinch a spot in the Texas Bowl for Navy, who needs 7 wins due to their 13-game schedule.
Getting there this week is going to be tough. Notre Dame has traditionally run the ball against Navy (including last year), keeping things simple rather than risk upset by throwing interceptions and dropping passes. The Irish are certainly built to be able to do just that. Starting running back Armando Allen is reportedly out this week, but his replacement, Robert Hughes, ran for 138 yards last Saturday against Washington State, has the same average yards per carry on the season (4.9), plus one more touchdown. It’s easy to plug in a new running back with that kind of success when your offensive line consists of 5 seniors that average almost 6-6, 314 pounds. But does that mean that running the ball is the game plan against Navy? I don’t think it will be.
Charlie Weis was hailed as a hero in South Bend, leading Notre Dame to consecutive BCS bowl berths in 2005 and 2006. The wheels fell off the wagon in 2007, though, as the Irish fell to 3-9. Last year was somewhat better, but going 7-6 and playing in the Hawaii Bowl isn’t what Notre Dame boosters and fans expect. Emblematic of the struggles of the last two years is Navy’s 46-44 win in 2007 that ended the 43-game winning streak that Notre Dame had over the Midshipmen. The Irish are playing pretty well this season, sitting at 6-2 and ranked #22 in the BCS; they will want to show that the days of close games against Navy are over. Notre Dame needs 9 wins and a top 14 BCS ranking in order to be eligible for an at-large BCS bowl berth, which means that they’re going to need votes in the polls. Blowouts help their case. I have no doubt that Notre Dame will throw the ball in an effort to run up the score a little bit.
It’s not like they haven’t been chucking the ball all season anyway. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played his way into Heisman contention, completing 67% of his passes for 2318 yards and 18 TDs through 8 games. Most importantly, he has thrown only 2 interceptions, compared to the 9 he threw by this point in the season a year ago. His 289 yards passing per game is 8th nationally, and he is 2nd in passing efficiency. In his arsenal are a pair of wide receivers in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd that might be the best tandem in I-A. Tate is 4th in the country with 115 receiving yards per game. Floyd’s injury has forced Tate to shoulder the bulk of the receiving load for the last five weeks, revealing all-around skills that might have been undiscovered had Floyd not broken his collarbone. Floyd was actually considered the playmaker of the two, with 320 yards and 4 TDs in the first two games of the season. Weis says that Floyd looks good and is ready to go against the Mids:
“He’ll be in there plenty. He has fresh legs. He has had a month and a half where he hasn’t taken the beat down that everyone else has. He looks very spry.”
Floyd’s return just makes the game that much harder for the Navy secondary.
Notre Dame isn’t the only team getting players back from injury, though. Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs is ready to return, and by all accounts, looking great. Also ready to make a return is slotback Marcus Curry, the Mids’ best home run threat. That’s good news for an offense looking for a little redemption itself. Not only are they looking to recover from a disappointing loss to Temple last week, but they also have a little to prove after the mental breakdowns in Baltimore a year ago… Stuff like missed assignments that left players unblocked on the perimeter:
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has indicated that the defense he used against the Mids a year ago would be the basis for his plan tomorrow. This could be a smokescreen like we saw from SMU, but with the statistical success that the Irish had, I doubt it. Will a worn-down Navy team make the same mental errors? Or will Ricky’s return bring a renewed focus and energy to a banged-up offense?
I won’t go so far as to say that Navy should have won last year, but without the mental mistakes, they certainly could have. This year, the Irish are a much different animal offensively. The Mids are going to have to score points in order to keep pace. I think they can. If they fall back to last year’s blunders, though, the game will be too far gone for any onside kicking miracles to be able to save them.