So why should Navy keep playing Notre Dame in football?

In case some people still are asking that this morning, they must have missed Saturday's game.

Sure, Notre Dame won, 30-23. Sure, the game came out the way it always has -- at least for the last 39 years. Yes, it ended the way it has even those times when Navy played the Irish tough and close -- and this surely was one of those times.

It ended as it usually does even though the Midshipmen led by eight points until only 4 minutes 28 seconds remained, even though they came from behind three times during the game, even though they still had a long-shot chance to win until the last 31 seconds. It ended in crushing disappointment for 28-point underdog Navy, even though Notre Dame fans had to stand worriedly at Ravens Stadium as late as the final minute, hushed and hoping -- if not praying.

For the longest time, Notre Dame looked in desperate need of the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, George Gipp and Joe Montana -- all of them. Navy seemed destined to still Notre Dame's echoes. Oh, yes, it has seemed that way during the course of a few other games since the Roger Staubach-led Navy team beat Notre Dame in 1963. The Irish, merely mortal in recent seasons, thought they had ushered in a new era with first-year coach Tyrone Willingham. And they might well have. But for the longest time Saturday, it looked like the dawning of a new era for Navy football under its first-year coach, Paul Johnson. And it might well have been.

For now, however, the Irish remain bigger, faster, deeper -- more talented -- than Navy.

But they have no greater heart, they provide no better example of doing all they are capable of, than the Midshipmen.

On an autumn afternoon not soon to be forgotten by 70,260 spectators, the Irish were fortunate to escape with their streak over Navy upped to 39. They earned it; they scored two touchdowns in the span of 2 minutes 20 seconds near the game's end. Those rare occasions when Irish runners and receivers found daylight with their speed were enough to turn the game. But for so long into the afternoon, Navy kept Notre Dame contained -- with sharp blocking and tackling, with a blitzing defense led by junior linebacker Eddie Carthan, with resourceful quarterbacking by sophomore Aaron Polanco after starter Craig Candeto was injured on the fourth play.

Not to worry, Navy fans. Not to worry, Notre Dame fans. This series, the longest continuous intersectional rivalry, 76 consecutive years, will continue as long as Navy cares to play. And that ensures more days like this, when there had to have been fewer better places to be in America than where the Irish and the Midshipmen were playing, especially when the outcome was in doubt almost the entire game, when the possibility existed almost to the very end that Navy might win, sustaining hope that some time it will.

For Navy, playing Notre Dame means a big payday, largely because of national television. For Notre Dame, playing Navy is as certain a victory as possible. But there should be better reasons for both teams to keep this game on their schedules -- and there are.

Happily, the game is booked for years to come. Chet Gladchuk, Navy's athletic director, said Saturday that the series is "ongoing."

Significantly, from Notre Dame's standpoint, it's about a long-standing friendship with the academy. It goes all the way back to 1927, when the series began; even before, the two schools had been in touch. "This relationship is a little bit deeper than just a football game, if I am correct," Willingham said earlier in the week. "There's great reason for this football game to take place."

From Navy's standpoint, among other things, having Notre Dame on the schedule is a recruiting tool. But, if anything, Navy players love to take on Notre Dame even more than they had imagined. "There never was a requirement for a coach to get a Navy team up for Notre Dame," said Bill Byrne, quarterback of the 1984 team that barely lost to Notre Dame, 18-17.

"Navy-Notre Dame comes close to rivaling Army-Navy."

Even though Notre Dame leads the series 66-9-1, playing the Irish gives Navy's athletes the opportunity to play a traditional, and glamorous, football power. It's not a concept to be discarded: having the chance to test oneself against the bigger or the more heralded.

Navy can get better. Picking the right coach and having continuity would help. Stability is one advantage Air Force has had among the service academies, with Fisher DeBerry, who has coached there 19 seasons. Navy hasn't had stability in two decades.

Johnson might be the one to bring it to Annapolis -- although ever-changing academy superintendents always have their own ideas. Hired only last December, Johnson hastily landed a few good recruits who already are playing at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I.

A sound case can be made for Navy joining with Army and some other eastern schools in a league of their own. Army, in every way but the money it apparently can make, seems to have gone badly astray in joining Conference USA. Winless this season, the Cadets have little in common with schools in that conference, geographically for starters. Navy has remained one of the last independents, and Gladchuk said Saturday that scheduling "flexibility" is a good thing to have while rebuilding. But "ultimately," he said, he would like to be in a conference with Army and other mid-Atlantic schools with similar academic and athletic goals.

Navy still could play Notre Dame, Air Force and Duke perhaps, while belonging to a new and attractive conference that should produce a worthy candidate for a mid-level bowl with revenue to be gained for all the conference teams.

As for Navy-Notre Dame, one reasonable opinion suggests that it be played every other year or even once every four years, giving each Navy class a chance to play the Irish at least once. I say let them keep playing every year.

Certainly, Gladchuk feels that way, for a lot of reasons. The most obvious reason he put forth also was most appealing.

"Look no further than the environment," he said at halftime Saturday, when the Midshipmen were trailing by only 9-7 and would yet make the game even more exciting. "Look at the spirit and enthusiasm."

He was right. Being at the Navy-Notre Dame game was a good place to be. And not even the final score changed that.