The chances for the shock dissipated some when starting quarterback Brian Hampton went down for the season. The senior injured his left knee in the 34-0 loss to Rutgers. How important was Hampton to the team's success? He was averaging 92 yards per game rushing and had 10 rushing touchdowns. It's a painful loss any time a team losses their trigger man for an option offense. Insert Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who will be making his first career start on Saturday. Head coach Paul Johnson is trying to get his team to move forward from the devastating blow.
"We got a day or two extra, but that is water under the bridge," head coach Paul Johnson said about preparing his team for life after Hampton. "That's old news now. Move on. We've had plenty of time to get through that. We haven't played a game yet, but we've practiced. Until you mentioned it I hadn't even thought about it."
Johnson has quite the resume. He's in his fifth year with the Naval Academy. Remarkably, as a testament to his coaching skills, Johnson has led the Midshipmen to three straight bowl games, two of which they've won. Johnson's .742 career winning percentage ranks 12th among all active Division 1A coaches and the highest mark for a coach not leading a BCS-conference school. In the last four years, he's 11-1 coming off a loss and with an extra week to prepare, Navy is 14-5 under Johnson. A win on Saturday will break Notre Dame's 42-game win steak over the Midshipmen. Johnson can sense his players are ready for the challenge.
"Our guys are excited to play," Johnson said. "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. Everybody is going to get themselves ready in their own way, but we have nothing to lose. Our guys need to go out there and just play. Nobody gives us a chance to win anyway, so we have nothing to lose."
Johnson's team will have their hands full with Irish quarterback Brady Quinn. So far this season, Navy has seen the likes of James Pinkney, Liam Coen, Trent Edwards, Paul Smith, Matt Bonislawski, Shaun Carney and Mike Teel under center. These aren't exactly household names. Quinn surely is. The senior Notre Dame quarterback has 18 touchdowns on the season and last week became the 32nd player in Division 1A history to toss for over 10,000 career yards. Last year in the over Navy, Quinn tossed four touchdowns.
"I think he's a really good player," Johnson said. "He's very talented. When he gets in a zone he's as good as there is. He's a really good player. He's a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. That should tell you enough right there."
The site of the game is in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium. Usually, when Notre Dame travels to a venue like this, a ton of Irish fans show up, maybe even more than the anointed home team. It's a good bet that there will be a strong contingent of Irish fans there on Saturday. The question is how many Navy fans will occupy the stadium.
"You would hope, but we just have to play the game," Johnson said about packing it with Midshipmen fans instead of Notre Dame fans. "I don't get all hung up on that stuff. Sure I would like to have a partisan crowd on our side, but it is what it is. They are a national team, too."
Navy will need to do the little things to pull the upset. The Midshipmen can use their option game to eat time off of the clock and keep the Notre Dame offense on the sidelines. Navy ranks 8th in the county in time of possession. They are a disciplined bunch as well, committing just four penalties a contest. If the Midshipmen could win the all-important turnover margin, that would be another plus in their favor.
"We will have to play very well, there's no question," Johnson said. "We will have to play by far our best game of the year, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Hell, if I didn't think we had a chance I wouldn't go."
***The Navy Sports Information Department contributed greatly to this report.