What's the fun in almost a half-century of losing? That's the question Navy asks each and every year that it plays Notre Dame and contained within it is the more abstract question: What's the role of a service academy in modern college football? Is it to compete realistically against premier teams, or is it to pad somebody's schedule, or to preserve some quaint history and a faint possibility?
The Midshipmen brought their usual martial nobility to Saturday's game against the Fighting Irish at Giants Stadium. They beat up and down the field to the rhythm of their drum section, while in the stands the Brigade stood tirelessly upright in their tight neckties and crisp white shirts and hats, wielding their thundersticks like cymbals. Snap, plunge, tackle. Snap, plunge, tackle. They presented the colors, sang anthems and fed Bill the Goat's belligerent sideline enthusiasm. All to no avail. Final score: Notre Dame 27, Navy 9.
Notre Dame has now won an NCAA-record 41 straight games against the Mids. Perhaps significantly, in 33 of those games, the Irish have won by more than two touchdowns. Navy tries to justify continuing the series by pointing out that the Mids have had at least an outside chance to win six of the last nine games. But the overall historical record against Notre Dame now stands at 68-9-1. So why do they keep scheduling them?
It's not that Navy got slaughtered. And it's not as though some recent meetings haven't been close -- last year the Irish won with a field goal as time expired. But the close games have more to do with the disrepair of the Notre Dame program than with any great resurgence by Navy. The Midshipmen play from a position of inherent weakness against the Fighting Irish, we all know that. The Mids have to play flawlessly to beat them, and even then probably need a big break. "Against a team of that caliber we aren't good enough to miss plays," Coach Paul Johnson said. "We can't miss a read or check the wrong play or go the wrong way."
Quarterback Aaron Polanco put it another way, as he stood in a tunnel after the game, with a knuckle bleeding and claw marks on his arms. "We had to have played mentally almost perfect to give us a chance," he said.
In fact, it was clear within 15 minutes that Navy could not win. The Mids failed to get past their 36 in the first half. They did not complete a pass. Jeff Blumenfeld's 29-yard field goal with 7 minutes 52 seconds to go in the third quarter provided their first points. It was small reward for a drive that took 15 plays, 81 yards and a full 7:08 of effort.
Not even Peyton Manning could have rallied the Midshipmen, given that they were simply the smaller and slower team. Polanco absorbed five sacks for a total loss of 21 yards. "It doesn't make much sense to throw the ball when the quarterback is looking up at the sky every time he drops back," Johnson said.
But what's interesting is that what looked like a one-sided defeat to a dispassionate observers, was to the Midshipmen a game of inches. They convinced themselves they were still in it. "At halftime we were only down 17," fullback Kyle Eckel said. "If we can come out and score, it looks a lot closer."
The Midshipmen choose to play Notre Dame, and to compete at the I-A level, when basically every ounce of common sense indicates they shouldn't, because they understand that they are still relevant. Division I-A still means something to fans and alumni, even in its current schizophrenic form. Navy's presence, along with the other service academies', is an important part of the sport's landscape and values. The day they can't compete, or choose not to, is the day the sport has become irredeemable.
The gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots in college football is growing. There are two tiers of competition contained within I-A, and it's very difficult for teams on the lower tier to beat teams on the upper one. We saw evidence of that just last Thursday when Louisville couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead against Miami. Until the NCAA starts to distribute Bowl Championship Series money more equitably, we're going to continue to get games like that, in which the littles try to tell themselves they have a chance against a confederacy of bullies. There will be a Division I-A and a Division I-A-and-a-half until they start sharing the loot.
All that is fairly meaningless to Navy. More bowl money isn't going to help it recruit, or schedule. Navy is a non sequitur in the college discussion; as a service academy, it competes from a position of inherent weakness even against other non-BCS schools much less the BCS giants.
But Navy's role is to tilt at windmills. Even as they enter their fifth decade of losing to Notre Dame, the Midshipmen have managed to keep the faint but romantic notion alive that one of these days they just might beat that team -- and that faint possibility is important.
"We thought we had a good chance to win this game," Eckel said. "But they just beat us. They beat us in a lot of aspects of the game. If we play again maybe some things would be different, and maybe they wouldn't."
It's a possibility that too many BCS officials ignore. They openly intimidate the littles, suggest that they are irrelevant and undeserving and that the big schools don't need them, except to pad their schedules, and therefore shouldn't share equally in the bowl opportunities and money. If the BCS had its way, there wouldn't be any such thing as a true upset. It would take all the emotional stakes out of college football. All that would be left would be the financial stakes.
The ultimate argument for diversity in college football is this: It's more interesting. Stamp out the differences between schools, their size and their locales and their differing academic standards and missions, and what you have is a recipe for sameness and boredom. All you have to do is attend a Navy-Notre Dame game to know that.
So the question is not how much do the littles need the bigs, but how much do the bigs need the littles? College football would lose something, maybe everything, if there were no more Navy-Notre Dames.