In the years between 1944 and 1956, Navy failed to beat Notre Dame. For over a decade, the Midshipmen could not solve the Fighting Irish, which fielded great teams under coach Frank Leahy and produced multiple Heisman Trophy winners (Johnny Lujack in 1947, Leon Hart in 1949, and Johnny Lattner in 1953). A victory drought of more than a decade felt pretty substantial at the time.
Little could Navy fans have known what drought was in store for them once Navy's greatest eight-year period came to an end.
From 1956 through 1963, Navy made two New Year's Day bowls and produced two Heisman winners of its own, Joe Bellino in 1960 and Roger Staubach in 1963. Navy competed for national championships and catapulted itself into the top tier of the sport. During those eight seasons, Navy won five of eight games against Notre Dame, putting that 12-year drought in the rearview mirror. Entering the 1964 season, the decline of service academy football was not easily seen. It wasn't something as obvious as what we can appreciate in the present day. We're more than half a century removed from that part of college football history. The changes that have occurred in the sport over that period of time are too numerous to count.
Yet, even when acknowledging how different this sport has become, it was and is startling to see Navy's win total against Notre Dame remain unchanged for a lot more than 12 years.
The 1960s and '70s came and went. Then the 1980s. Then the 1990s. Then the first seven years of the new century. A total of 43 Navy-Notre Dame games were played. Navy won none of them. What was also very surprising is that from 1964 through 1973, Navy never got closer than 19 points against the Irish. Yes, Notre Dame was in the heart of the magnificent Ara Parseghian years, but Navy had established a high standard with Staubach. The precipitous nature of the drop-off was jarring. Navy played the Irish close in 1974, losing 14-6, and then 27-21 in 1976 in Cleveland. The gap was seemingly closing, and when you recall that Navy enjoyed a very fruitful period from 1978 through 1981 under then-coach George Welsh (as documented last week), it made sense that the Midshipmen would break through.
From 1978 through '81, Navy scored a TOTAL (yes, a total) of seven points against Notre Dame. Such was the nature of this rivalry in the 43-year drought.
With Notre Dame plummeting under Gerry Faust, Navy had a chance to ambush the Irish in 1984, but fell just short, 18-17. When Notre Dame was briefly vulnerable, Welsh left, and the Midshipmen's coaches declined in quality. In 1996, Navy fielded its best team in the final 15 years of the century. Notre Dame, in Lou Holtz's final season, won by a 54-27 score.
In 2000, Notre Dame won by 31. In 2001, the Irish beat Navy by 18. In 2002, when Paul Johnson began to build up the Navy program, the results immediately tightened, with the Mids coming within seven points of the Irish, and then within three points in 2003. However, from 2004 through 2006, with Charlie Weis taking over from Ty Willingham, the Irish fielded two BCS bowl teams (2005 and '06) and popped Navy by margins of 18, 21 and 24 points. The gap was once again widening just when Navy fans had begun to think the breakthrough was at hand.
Funny how life works -- just when you least expect it, the moment happens.
It happened in 2007.
Notre Dame finished that 2007 season with a 3-9 record, and entered the game against Navy with a 1-7 record. However, ghosts have been known to reside at Notre Dame Stadium, where the game was played. Many a team has been spooked by the aura of the Irish in their own home, in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus. As long as Notre Dame plays hard, it is a tough team to beat in South Bend even when everything else suggests the scoreboard shouldn't be close.
Keep this in mind about the 2007 game from a Navy perspective: The Midshipmen had overlooked Delaware the week before, losing at home to their FCS opponent. If Navy was weak enough to lose to Delaware at home, it was also weak enough to fail to beat Notre Dame if it didn't persevere.
Thankfully, perseverance has become one of the Navy program's signature virtues under Johnson and his successor, Ken Niumatalolo. It was very much on display against Notre Dame.
Carrying the weight of the moment on their shoulders -- and confronting the reality that Notre Dame did have a fair amount of size on its offensive line -- Navy fell behind Notre Dame three separate times in the first half. Three times, Navy was able to respond before taking a fourth-quarter lead. Yet, when leading 28-21 inside the final four minutes of the game, Navy watched the Irish mount a rally with a tying touchdown drive. With the score knotted at 28 in overtime, Notre Dame had to feel good about its chances as daylight evaporated and the contest became a night game.
The enormity of the struggle for Navy -- this 43-year struggle distilled into one urgent moment -- was magnified when the Midshipmen's defense forced a field goal in the second overtime inning, only for the offense to fail to win on a touchdown moments later. Navy found its opening but couldn't bust through the door. Anxiety mounted on the visitors' sideline, but with the first possession of the third overtime, the offense was immediately presented with a chance to rectify that failure.
Scoring a touchdown was one big step, but the other step -- the one just as important if not more so -- was to score the (rule-mandated) two-point conversion attempt in the third overtime, a way for college football to prevent seven-OT marathons from recurring. Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada hit Reggie Campbell with a two-point pass for a 46-38 lead, and when Notre Dame -- following a touchdown on its ensuing possession -- failed on its two-point try, that last conversion by Kaheaku-Enhada became known as the play which ended 43 years in the Notre Dame desert.
46-44. An end to 43 years. Navy didn't have to deal with any more cruel teases. Everything else the program accomplished under Paul Johnson was given new validation and affirmation by that moment in South Bend. Everyone in Annapolis was able to breathe a little more deeply that day, and celebrate one of the best prolonged periods in the life of the Navy program. Even now, that one day -- reinforced with two subsequent victories over Notre Dame under Niumatalolo -- resonates so profoundly for anyone who cares about Navy football.