-- So much was made over the past week about Navy's pursuit of Notre Dame, about how the Midshipmen scared the Fighting Irish in each of the past two years -- not to mention that they entered Saturday's game undefeated -- that it became easy to forget the salient facts about the rivalry. Not only did Notre Dame's 40-game winning streak in the series point straight to the lopsided nature of the matchup, but there was domination within that domination: 33 of the previous 40 games were decided by at least two touchdowns.
So in that sense, things returned to normal Saturday at Giants Stadium. There was no fourth-quarter lead for Navy to give up, no last-second field goal for the Irish to celebrate, no mysteriously questionable call for the Mids to stew over for generations to come. Rather, Notre Dame issued a methodical 27-9 whipping at Giants Stadium that was more in line with the overall history of the series, running the winning streak to an NCAA-record 41 in a row and ensuring that "maybe-this-is-the-year" talk remained mere wishful thinking.
"We were our own worst enemy," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "And against a good football team, you can't do that."
Unlike the last two years, the result allowed the Irish to believe they are a good team. Notre Dame (5-2) scored on its first two possessions, established its own running game with senior Ryan Grant, who finished with 20 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns, and quickly extinguished the notion that the streak would end. The Irish needed just six plays to go 81 yards on their first possession, and when third-string tailback Marcus Wilson bounced outside for a 33-yard scoring run, the athletic difference was apparent, as was Notre Dame's determination to make quick work of the Mids.
"It was great just sitting there on the bench," Notre Dame linebacker Mike Goolsby said, "and watch that clock tick."
Navy (5-1), with its difficult-to-decipher option scheme, is used to making opponents sit back and watch the clock run down, and the Mids hoped to do it again against the Irish. They had those two most recent games against Notre Dame -- a 27-24 loss in 2003 and a 30-23 setback in 2002 -- to buoy their confidence, even if they hadn't won.
Navy, though, came so close in those games because it executed Johnson's intricate offense nearly flawlessly. That wasn't the case Saturday against a Notre Dame defense that understood that in order to slow down the Mids, who were averaging 259 yards rushing per game, each man must take care of his individual responsibility and not become dazzled by the deception.
"You heard about it all week," Goolsby said. "It was all about discipline."
It showed. Yes, Navy finished with 216 yards on the ground, including a 22-carry, 102-yard performance from straight-ahead fullback Kyle Eckel. But only 95 of those rushing yards came in the first half, which helped the Irish achieve yet another goal: get a lead, and keep it.
"We knew that the longer they hung around, the worse it would be for us," Notre Dame linebacker Derek Curry said. "So it was about jumping out fast and trying not to let those guys hang around."
There were only a precious few times in the first half when the Mids threatened to hang around. One came on Notre Dame's second possession, when the Irish faced third and eight and Navy linebacker Lane Jackson had a clean shot at Irish quarterback Brady Quinn. But Jackson tripped just before he reached Quinn, and Quinn completed a 30-yard pass. Grant scored on a one-yard run, and just more than seven minutes into the game, it was 14-0.
Then came the mistakes. Notre Dame finished with five sacks, and it flushed Aaron Polanco (3 of 5, 44 yards) from the pocket countless other times.
"I think that anybody who watched the game realized there was a little difference between the two lines of scrimmages of both teams," Johnson said.
Throw in a key offside penalty on fourth and one in the first half, and a fumbled pitch on the Mids' opening drive in the third quarter, and they could get no closer than 17-3. Navy's lone touchdown, a five-yard run by Frank Divis, came with 4 minutes 19 seconds remaining, when the game had long been decided.
So afterward, there was no sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that the Mids still have much to play for, including the chance to go to a bowl game in back-to-back years for the first time since 1980-81. But that mattered little, for in the one year when Navy thought it might be able to line up against Notre Dame and win, it couldn't.
"They just beat us," Eckel said. "It didn't have anything to do with the long break or with people saying we could win this game. People say that every year. We don't listen to that. . . . It was just one of those games. Mistakes kill you."