While it likely will not top the drama of the last minute heroics against UCLA, Irish faithful need to come down from post-Bruin euphoria (or is it relief?) to consider next week’s match-up with the Midshipmen of the Naval Academy.
Never mind the oft noted fact that the Notre Dame-Navy game is the longest-running intersectional rivalry in the nation; or that this Saturday’s game will mark the 80th consecutive go around between the two teams. Forget also that the last time Navy won Kennedy was president and Roger Staubach was the Middie quarterback.
What matters most is that Notre Dame continues to honor its promise to the Naval Academy, and the pageantry and tradition that surrounds the game annually.
Who among us wasn’t moved last season when Charlie Weis ordered his team to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Midshipmen during the moving rendition of the Navy Alma Mater? Or who isn’t touched by in-game videotaped messages sent by naval personnel from around the world serving the nation in a time of war?
Yes, what matters most about this weekend will be what makes the ongoing story of Notre Dame football so great.
Head coach Paul Johnson’s Navy team comes into this week’s game with the Irish after a much needed bye week following their 34-0 thumping at the hands of a surprisingly undefeated and still underestimated Rutgers team. Unfortunately for Navy it was during that game with the Scarlet Knights that they lost senior quarterback Brian Hampton to a torn ACL. It was Hampton whose marginal athletic ability, excellent decision making, and team leading 646 yards rushing, drove the engine of this season’s version of the vaunted Navy triple-option attack. An offensive scheme that, it should be noted, has given Notre Dame fits in the past.
Replacing Hampton will be sophomore Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada who played inconsistently in the last half of the Rutgers game. Kaheaku-Enhada is quick and smart, but lacks the passing ability of his predecessor. The most entertaining aspect of this game as far as the Navy quarterback is concerned should be listening to color-man and former Irish quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who will be in the CBS booth, try to pronounce the young Hawaiian’s name.
Luckily for Kaheaku-Enhada, the Navy offense will likely become even more reliant on outstanding junior fullback Adam Ballard. It was Ballard who became the first player in Navy history to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first three games after coming in to replace Matt Hall, who went down with a knee injury against Notre Dame last season. Significantly, Ballard has not fumbled once in his 104 carries this season and has only been tackled behind the line of scrimmage once.
Navy slot backs feature prominently in the option and Reggie Campbell, who at a diminutive 5’6”, 164 lbs., is one of the smallest players on the national collegiate football scene, but he may also be among the most elusive for defenses. He has thus far rushed for 399 yards with five touchdowns.
After last week’s breakdowns in the secondary, Irish fans can take some solace in the fact that the Navy receiving unit is, in a word, abysmal. It may be through sheer neglect (Navy hardly ever passes) but the grouping of senior Jason Tomlinson, junior O. J. Washington, and sophomore Tyree Barnes have managed to collect an anemic 161 yards and a single touchdown over seven games collectively. Thus far it has seemed as though they are as likely to drop a pass as catch it.
This season Navy returns 11 of 13 starters on defense. The unit has proven to be quite solid giving up an average of only 19 points per game. Senior hard-hitting inside linebacker Rob Caldwell anchors the group, and leads the way with 60 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles.
Caldwell is flanked by the equally impressive senior outside linebacker David Mahoney who will be after Walker and Quinn throughout the game.
The Navy secondary has been plagued by injury, most notably to starting safety, senior DuJuan Prince and rover Ketric Buffin. This has resulted in some serious gaps in coverage that the Irish will likely exploit.
With Notre Dame entering the second half of a still promising season, many questions remain unanswered. For the Irish to be solidly in a BCS Bowl at season’s end, or for Brady Quinn to land a Heisman Trophy that seems increasingly to be Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith’s to lose, impressive and, I hate to say it, sizeable, wins must be the game plan between now and the trip to Los Angeles on November 25th. The first step is a big win over a Navy team that is no where near as good as the one the Irish doubled up on 42-21 last season. Notre Dame should be able to put up big numbers both on the ground and in the air.
Nevertheless, let’s hope Navy remains on the Irish schedule. Forever.