There's a game just as big as that season-ender against the Long Gray Line for Navy football in 2004. It comes against Notre Dame on October 16, the date to circle on your calendar if you're a Navy football fan. Army will always be the big one for the Middies, but this year, Notre Dame is just as big of a Big Game. In every way imaginable, this is the year Navy has to beat the Irish—if they don't now, they might wait another 40 years.
Consider: in 2002, Notre Dame beat the Midshipmen with big pass plays. In 2003, the Irish did the dastardly deed with a punishing ground game. Notre Dame hasn't been consistently good in any one facet of the game, as the Irish were very sloppy and uneven for most of each ballgame.
In 2002, Navy stood as a 28-point underdog going in at home. In 2003, an ascendant Navy team, on the road, was a much less substantial underdog, and beat the spread (for what it's worth; no one on the Navy squad, coach or player, took any real solace from that fact). No matter what the betting line has been, Navy has played the Irish tooth and nail in Paul Johnson's two seasons in Annapolis. There is zero question about Navy's ability to compete with the Golden Domers.
In '02, Navy forgot to finish in the fourth quarter. In '03, the very same thing happened.
In 2002, Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco saw substantial action due to Craig Candeto's injury and performed gallantly. In 2003, he watched from the bench as a healthy Candeto did a tremendous job of performing in the intimidating bowl known as Notre Dame Stadium. In 2004, Polanco gets another chance, this time as the starter going in.
Think about it: everything sets up well for Navy in this one. The game will be a home game (an official neutral site game, but certainly not in Indiana or anyplace in the Midwest); Polanco will be as prepared as he possibly can be (and as motivated); the game will probably be close to a Pick-‘em; the Middies will have total confidence in their ability to get the job done; the game will come after an off week (after playing Air Force for the Commander-in-Chief Trophy on Oct. 2); and Navy will have been humbled by past losses against the Irish that should galvanize Paul Johnson's crew and give them the focus to finish the deal in the fourth quarter. Navy has steadily improved as a football program over the past three years, while Notre Dame has witnessed a discernible decline.
So often in sports, and especially in football, three years represents the full amount of time needed to make a substantial progression. For Navy, the progression has in many ways taken just two years, but with respect to beating Notre Dame, we're all set for the fulfillment of a three-year plan. 2002 was the improbable high of nearly pulling off a titanic upset. 2003 witnessed the gallant just-miss effort of a team that began to realize how good and competitive it was.
2004? This is the year when victory over the Irish is supremely attainable, and ought to be expected. The demeanor of a team that expects to win should produce the kind of competitive fire blended with veteran poise that will accomplish the job… and end a 40-year walk through the desert.
With Notre Dame's fortunes on the wane, the ultimate question on October 16 will not be if Navy can put the Irish down. The question will be: can Navy KEEP them there?