Leave it to Notre Dame. The Irish, no matter how mediocre they may have become on the football field, always seem to push a good story out of the woodwork.

Try this one. There's a kid, the son of Irish immigrants, growing up in California, near San Francisco. He ends up going to the Naval Academy, which is kind of strange.

He never dreamed of ships or jets or submarines. He dreamed of Notre Dame.

His hero was Joe Montana. He grew up watching the national championships, the miracle finishes, and he made up his mind. He was Catholic; he was, obviously, Irish. The only place he ever wanted to go to school was South Bend, Ind.

He was too tall and skinny to attract much attention in high school, even as the quarterback of an undefeated team, so he came to Navy, a place he says he does not love.

After practice ended last spring, this player, now a sophomore, was listed as the No. 6 quarterback on the team. His picture and biography were left out of the press guide. He was hoping to make his way to third team, so he could travel. "I wanted to go to the Notre Dame game that way," he said.

This Saturday at 12:20 p.m., when Navy (3-3-1) plays the Irish (4-4) at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Bill Byrne, this quarterback, will be at the game. He comes not as a bench warmer, but as Navy's most important player.

"This is just what I've been waiting for for years," Byrne said today before practice. "I just fell in love with the Irish. I wanted to go there so bad -- that was my lifelong dream. When I decided to go to Navy, I knew we played Notre Dame every year, and it got me fired up a little more."

This is only part of the story. Byrne, who has started every game for the Midshipmen in an up-and-down season, has a younger brother named Tom, also a quarterback. Naturally, he plays at Notre Dame. (Which means their parents are flying in from California for the reunion.) Actually, Tom is being redshirted this season, although the Irish consider him a top prospect.

Bill Byrne certainly was not when he arrived here from Pacifica, Calif. After a year at Navy Prep, he played for the junior varsity, running the other team's offense in practice last season. He didn't enjoy either year very much.

But, since the spring, two quarterbacks have quit and he has passed the other three. He has thrown for 1,340 yards on 98 completions in 194 attempts and has set a school record with 11 touchdown passes. Last week, in a dramatic 28-28 tie with Pittsburgh, he threw for 340 yards for another school mark.

Byrne was sitting in all black, having just arrived from class on his way to the field. He says he has answered the same questions "hundreds" of times now. He is almost getting famous.

Behind him, on a cream-colored stoneblock wall in the sports information department, simple frames surround Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach as they peer out, in dress uniform, from respective Sports Illustrated covers. Leaning nearby are two crisp black-and-white pictures of tailback Napoleon McCallum, who was Navy's most important player until he broke his ankle in the second game of the season.

Images of Byrne are not nearly as permanent. In his opinion, his best play was the 60-yard touchdown pass to tailback Rich Clouse that won the opening game against North Carolina, 33-30. It was quite a way to start. His worst plays came last week against Pitt, he says, after he brought Navy back with two touchdowns in 13 seconds. He missed Clouse on a screen pass, then threw an interception on a drive that could have won the game.

When Navy Coach Gary Tranquill props his feet on his desk and is asked to compare Byrne to somebody else, he can't come up with an answer.

"He's a little bit unique in his delivery," Tranquill said. "In coaching terminology, he 'short-arms' the ball a little. He doesn't have a classic delivery."

Byrne has a tendency to drop his elbow as he brings the ball back. Coaches teach quarterbacks to keep their elbow above their shoulder as they throw. Byrne doesn't always do that.

Is Tranquill going to change that?

"No," he said, laughing.

"I don't love it here at all," Byrne said frankly. "I'm putting up with it. I don't like the (social) restrictions I'm going through, but I know I'm making a sacrifice now so I'll be better off in the long run.

"I'd like the freedom my brothers have at their civilian colleges (older brother John is a starting defensive tackle at Oregon) and I'd like the social lives that they have. But I'm happy here."

He is even happier this week. Notre Dame excites him. "They're good, they're always good. Their defense is just nails. When my brother and I talk, I ask him about what's going on there (the .500 record). He is confused. The coaches are confused. Maybe they're not playing up to their potential, not playing as a team."

You don't have to tell this man to respect Notre Dame. However . . .

"We can beat Notre Dame, we definitely can beat Notre Dame if we don't commit any turnovers on offense and we don't beat ourselves," Byrne said. "If we execute, we definitely can beat Notre Dame. We can score on them offensively and our defense can stop them."

It's Notre Dame week. Anything is possible.