The Power of Ending a Streak
Monday, November 5, 2007; 11:43 AM
It is difficult to know where to begin in trying to describe what happened inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, when Navy somehow beat Notre Dame, 46-44, in three overtimes.
Some will see the score, shrug their shoulders and note that the Fighting Irish reached a nadir in dropping to 1-8 on the season while seeing their 43-game winning streak against Navy -- the longest in the history of college football -- come to an end.
In doing so, they will entirely miss the point.
There is simply no way that any Navy team should beat any Notre Dame team at this point in time. Notre Dame -- even a 1-8 Notre Dame team -- is always going to have athletes who are bigger, stronger and faster than Navy's. Notre Dame is one of the glamour teams in college football, even in a bad year. It has more tradition than anybody; more money than anybody; its own network television contract and more blue-chip recruits than anybody.
Navy beat Notre Dame with a 5-foot-9, 195-pound linebacker making a key sack in the fourth quarter. It won with a 5-6, 168-pound slotback producing the eight points that won the game in the third overtime.
It won with a team that -- physically -- had no chance to win, but won because a huge heart can overcome a lot of things, and you can't play football at Navy (or Army or Air Force) for any extended period of time without a huge heart.
The Midshipmen have all the things Dorothy's friends wished for: brains, heart and courage. On Saturday, that was enough. It was even enough to -- once again -- overcome an officiating crew that played the role of Notre Dame's 12th man.
In 1999, it was a line judge named Perry Hudspeth who moved the ball up a full yard after Notre Dame had been stopped short on fourth down in the final 90 seconds with no time outs left. That spot gave the Irish a first down and, ultimately, a tainted victory. This year, after Navy's Blake Carter had made a big-time play to knock down Notre Dame's two-point conversion pass in the third overtime, two officials made a brutal pass interference call.
"You can't make that call there. That's a good defensive play."
That was not me -- biased Navy broadcaster talking -- that was Pat Haden of NBC talking as he watched the replay. When NBC showed a shot seconds later of Navy Coach Paul Johnson arguing the call, Haden said, "I don't blame him for being upset."
This time though, the Midshipmen didn't let the officials beat them. Johnson and defensive coordinator Buddy Green out-thought Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis, the self-described offensive genius. They told their players to expect a run and to sell out on it completely. Sure enough, Weis called a running play and tailback Travis Thomas had barely taken a step when he was buried by linebacker Matt Wimsatt and what looked like half the brigade of Midshipmen.
Wimsatt is a senior. Unlike many of the Notre Dame players he harbors no dreams of playing in the NFL next season or any time in the future. His future, he hopes, will be as a Marine pilot, following in the footsteps of his two brothers who are both Marine pilots right now.
When you play for the Mids, you know that the only uniform you are going to wear after graduation will be a Navy or Marine uniform. Oh sure, every twenty years or so there are exceptions: Roger Staubach, Napoleon McCallum and Kyle Eckel -- classes of '64, '85 and '04 -- have played or are playing in the NFL. That's pretty much the list.
When Coach Paul Johnson goes into the homes of high school seniors he isn't selling a possible NFL career the way Weis and other big time coaches do. He's selling an education; a high-risk/high-reward life and, yes, the chance to play against Notre Dame. Even after 43 straight losses Notre Dame is a yearly challenge the players cherish.
They did the impossible on Saturday -- in spite of the crowd and the superior athletes and the referees and the pressure of the losing streak to Notre Dame. They got knocked down time and again and kept getting up, because the kids who play football at the service academies never think about staying down.
When it was over, the Notre Dame players stood at attention while the Navy kids listened to their alma mater, "Blue and Gold." Weis deserves credit for being the first Notre Dame coach in memory to keep his team on the field for Navy's traditional postgame singing and playing of the song. Twelve years ago, when Lou Holtz was the coach at Notre Dame, the Notre Dame band began its postgame performance while the Navy band was still finishing "Blue and Gold."
Of course it would have been nice if Weis had acknowledged what the Navy players had accomplished. He took the low road, claiming the streak meant nothing and that he was more concerned with losing five straight home games. His claim that he wanted to win the game so that Fighting Irish running back Robert Hughes, whose brother was killed last week, could sing the Notre Dame fight song in the locker room, would have sounded a lot more genuine if he hadn't used it as a way to deflect a question about the streak.
Make that The Streak. It was one of those sports certainties every year -- Notre Dame, one way or the other, beating Navy. It was just as certain as the grainy films of the '63 game, interviews with Staubach about that game and references to how much gas cost or the fact that almost no one in America had heard of the Beatles when the Midshipmen last beat the Irish.
Now, that's all gone. Navy has a one-game winning streak over Notre Dame.
That is proof that anything really can happen in sports, especially if you have a team of true believers who might lack speed or strength or size but will never lack in guts or toughness or desire.
Navy 46, Notre Dame 44.
To steal a line from the past: "Do you believe in miracles?"
After Saturday, the answer is: absolutely.
John Feinstein is the author of "A Civil War -- A Year Inside Army vs. Navy, College Football's Purest Rivalry." He has been a commentator for the Navy football radio network for 11 years.