Nov 1, 2013, 5:33 AM EDT
As winners of three straight (and five of the last six), Notre Dame’s season is coming into focus after a rough start. The quarterback play of Tommy Rees has improved steadily since back-to-back tough games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. The defense has tightened considerably, playing its best football during the winning streak, with two consecutive second-half shutouts and three straight perfect third quarters.
While injuries have taken their toll on the team, Brian Kelly and the Irish enter November knowing exactly what they need to do: Win.
Now comes one of their most familiar opponents. Notre Dame and the Navy have played every year since 1927, one of college football’s longest running rivalries. After the longest winning streak in college football, the Midshipmen struck back winning three of four, until the Irish took back the power with two-straight 40-point victories.
Let’s dive into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Navy do battle at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
History is vital in the appreciation of this rivalry.
Notre Dame and Navy share a mutual respect that exists because of the rich history these two institutions share. Before Notre Dame was one of the most powerful and financially secure universities in the country it was a school that could’ve closed its doors when the war took its toll on enrollment and the student body.
Navy established a college training program in 1943 that saved the university, with enrollment numbers that were down to almost Great Depression era levels skyrocketing back to health. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s beloved former president, talked about how important Navy was to the university.
“All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students,” Father Hesburgh said in 2010. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”
If you’re wondering why the Irish will join Navy at the end of Saturday’s game in honoring their school, it’s because the Navy supported Notre Dame in its time of need. That’s something that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Notre Dame’s staff might have been fooled once by Ken Niumatalolo. It hasn’t happened again.
The loss in 2010 to Navy was one of the most lopsided in Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. Sixty carries for 367 yards, a staggering 6.1 a clip. Since then? The Irish have held Navy under 4 yards a carry, with the Midshipmen failing to break 200 yards in either game since then, and held to just 149 in last season’s opener, Navy’s second-lowest output in a game since late in the 2010 season.
When asked about trying to forget that dreadful day in the Meadowlands, Kelly made it clear neither he nor his staff have forgotten the ugly 35-17 loss.
“I just think that we felt like there’s only been a couple of times since we’ve been here where we felt like we let the players down, and as coaches you never want to feel that way,” Kelly said when thinking back to that game. “I take full responsibility for that. You want your team prepared. That’s why we’re in this profession, to prepare our kids. We weren’t prepared properly. We redoubled our efforts based off that game to make sure that never happens again.”
It’ll be a fun game for the Robinson family, who can certainly be considered a house divided.
Expect to see your fair share of David Robinson on the TV screen this weekend. The seven-foot NBA Hall of Famer is also easy to spot with a TV camera, but Navy’s most famous ex-athlete will also be supporting his son Corey, who will take on the Robinson family’s roots when he goes up against Navy.
Robinson likely always saw this game as part of his future — at least if he was going to play football in college. He just always thought he’d be playing for the other team.
“My whole life,” Robinson said, when asked if he saw himself following his father’s footsteps to Navy. “When Notre Dame offered me, I kind of opened up my mind a little bit.”
Our friends over at Irish Illustrated captured Corey’s interview on Wednesday this week, and the freshman was at least with the camera in his face, full of energy as he talked about the excitement that came with his first touchdown and playing against the Midshipmen.
For Notre Dame fans eagerly awaiting the return of Everett Golson from his academic exile, Brian Kelly revealed that day may be coming sooner than anybody thought. When speaking after practice on Thursday, Kelly said that Golson would join the team (in practice) this season, not waiting until spring ball to begin to take reps.
“Let’s say he’s admitted back into school on December 15. He would be eligible to practice,” Kelly said. “If that’s the case, then we would practice him, but he would not, of course, be eligible to compete. Provided of course he gets readmitted.”
Getting Golson back on the field and working with the team would be great for jumping starting development, one of the key factors to Brian Kelly’s bowl preparations. If the Irish get to the BCS, there might not be a better scout team quarterback to face than Golson, who could replicate a dual-threat quarterback like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, or take the place of just about anybody to give the starting defense a good look.
On Thursday, Golson took off from his ten-week training stint in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield. It’s the longest Whitfield has ever had to work with a single quarterback, and catching up with Whitfield, he said Golson’s physical, mental, and mechanical gains were incredible.
Golson’s physical strength also benefitted, gaining almost 15 pounds of good weight, checking in at 204 after joining Whitfield at 190. He’s also throwing the football using the laces, a relief for some Irish fans that worried about the young quarterback’s mechanics looking fairly freestyle.
More option, less Louis Nix. (But better depth eases the blow.)
Another week against an option opponent. And another Irish defense without All-American Louis Nix. The 350-pound senior defensive tackle will sit out this week against the Midshipmen, pushing Kona Schwenke into the starting lineup again next to Stephon Tuitt, who shifts to defensive tackle in a four-man front.
The Irish will also be without defensive end Ishaq Williams, who injured a knee on a low block early in the game against Air Force. But the Irish depth on defense showed itself, with little used veterans like Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo playing very well, two guys that’ll likely see time on Saturday as well.
With Jaylon Smith locked in at outside linebacker, Ben Councell was spotted putting a hand on the ground as well. The Irish also have support with sophomore Romeo Okwara, so while guys like Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate should be back and playing, there’s confidence being built in the depth chart, a beneficial thing this time of year.
Big defensive plays. Game-changing special teams. Expect the unexpected against Navy.
Ever since former Notre Dame defensive end Renaldo Wynn ran back a 24-yard fumble for a touchdown in 1996, the Irish and Navy have been making plenty of big plays on defense and special teams. Ten times in the last 17 meetings Notre Dame or Navy has scored a touchdown on defense or special teams, with Stephon Tuitt supplying the highlight last season with his 77-yard fumble return.
Here’s a rundown of the highlights since 1996:
2012: Stephon Tuitt, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2008: Toryan Smith, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2007: Chris Kuhar-Pitters, TD Fumble Return (Navy)
2002: Vontez Duff, TD, Kickoff Return (ND)
2001: Gerome Sapp, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
1999: Davede Alexander, TD Interception Return (Navy)
1999: Chris Oliver, TD Punt Block (Navy)
1996: Renaldo Wynn, TD Fumble Return (ND)
Making things all the crazier? For as many big touchdowns that have happened on defense or special teams, Notre Dame has only managed to punt just seven times in the past eight games against Navy, with three coming during the Irish’s 2008 victory.
The Irish lost in both 2007 and 2009 without punting the football, making them a ridiculous 2-2 against Navy when not punting.