Notre Dame game good for Navy

"Playing Notre Dame is something our young people look forward to. It is a school that attracts people to play against them. Bob Jackson, our fullback last year, talked in our highlights film about how his whole year was devoted to getting ready to play Notre Dame." --Former Navy Athletic Director Bo Coppedge in The Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1976

"You had better believe this: Over the years kids have come to the Naval Academy very, very specifically to play against Notre Dame. Our players are going to be very excited to play them."

--Former Navy interim coach Rick Lantz in the news conference before the Notre Dame game in 2001.

"Our guys are excited to play. That's why a lot of them came to school here, because they wanted to measure themselves against great Division I players and they are going to get a chance."

--Navy Coach Paul Johnson on Tuesday

Navy has not beaten Notre Dame since 1963. Some of the games have been ugly. Navy once went three years without scoring a point on the Fighting Irish (1979, 1980, 1981).

Someone who spent 1969-1972 at Notre Dame would have watched ND-Navy games that included the following yardage for the Irish: 720 yards (1969), 600 yards (1970), 570 yards (1972) and 540 yards (1973).

Yet Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said earlier this week that he has not serioulsy heard any proposals to discontinue the series. He has said the series will continue "in perpetuity."

Several players said the same thing; the emails they receive this week tell them over and over how special an opportunity this is, to play Notre Dame every four years.

I hope this rivalry never ends. I always wondered whether Navy players who were freshmen in even years were happier than those in odd years; after all, in the odd years Navy plays at Notre Dame, and those who were freshmen in, say, 2002 had a better chance of playing twice in Notre Dame Stadium (2003 and 2005). A freshman in 2003 would have to make the travel roster, not an easy task, to play there twice.

I am more confident of Navy's chances this year than I have been in a long time. These are unprecendented times at Navy.

Remember, Air Force has beaten Notre Dame five times in 25 years. Those Air Force teams were confident, very well-coached and had the added bonus of having played in bowl games, in a big-time atmosphere, and had extra weeks of practice leading to the bowl (a great way to get the timing down on the option).

Now, it's Navy who has those things.

A couple weeks back, one of the Denver writers who has covered Air Force since the early-1980s was talking about some of those early teams that beat Notre Dame. He recalled Ken Hatfield, the Falcons coach who led two of the wins over Notre Dame in the early-1980s, and what he was like.

The writer said the person he's seen who reminds him most of Hatfield is Paul Johnson. The excellent game plans, the genius play calling on a hunch, he said the coaches were very similar. He said the main difference was that Johnson had more of an edge to his personality.

The comparison made more sense this week, after published reports that Johnson is a candidate for the opening at North Carolina.

I believe the administration at the major conference schools are worried about picking a coach like Johnson, and it's at least in part because of Hatfield. He left Air Force for Clemson and then Arkansas and Rice. He never quite reached the same heights at those schools he did with the Falcons.

We know that Johnson's offense can work anywhere; the difference between him and Hatfield and their chances in a major conference is the topic for another column (and hopefully not for a long time).

But my best guess is Saturday is going to be very, very close. Navy is going to play lights-out, on offense and defense. And it doesn't matter if anyone from North Carolina or any major conference school is watching. Because Johnson is still Navy's coach, and with him in Navy's corner, they have as good a chance as ever to end the long losing streak.

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