The turning of the tide
Navy, not Notre Dame, looked like the powerhouse program Saturday
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Notre Dame-Navy rivalry used to be as lopsided as it gets -- literally. The teams have played each other every year since 1927, and Notre Dame won 43 straight times from 1964 through 2006 -- the longest winning streak against an opponent in NCAA history.
These days, that streak seems like a distant memory. The Midshipmen have won three of the teams' past four meetings after manhandling the Fighting Irish 35-17 at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Navy won its third straight game to move to 5-2 on the season. Notre Dame had a three-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 4-4 under first-year coach Brian Kelly.
"You get what you deserve," said Kelly. "We got beat today. Navy was the better football team today."
Saturday's matchup was technically a home game for Navy, but judging by the number of green shirts in the stands, the Fighting Irish likely had more fans in attendance among the crowd of 75,614. And they witnessed yet another demoralizing defeat in this down era of Notre Dame football.
The first half was the key to the game -- more specifically, two critical decisions: one by the Notre Dame coach and one by its quarterback, both of which backfired.
On the opening possession of the game, the Fighting Irish marched down the field, driving all the way to the Navy goal line. But facing fourth-and-goal inside the 1, Kelly had a choice -- try to punch it in or settle for a field goal.
Kelly elected to go for it, quarterback Dayne Crist was stuffed on a sneak and Navy took over on downs. The Midshipmen subsequently drove 99 yards for a touchdown, snatching the momentum of the game for good.
"We outman 'em by 70 pounds on an average up front," Kelly said. "If you can't get a foot on the one-half yard line, you get what you deserve."
Crist made the other momentous decision of the first half. With Navy leading 14-10 late in the second quarter, Notre Dame got its first defensive stop of the half and took possession deep in its territory. At the very least, you expect to go into the locker room down only four points. Instead, Crist threw an interception on third-and-6 from his 7-yard line, Navy punched it in for a 21-10 lead at intermission, and the Fighting Irish could never recover.
"I guess [I was] just trying to do too much," Crist said. "But at the end of the day, it falls on me. I can't get those back."
To be fair, Notre Dame losing to Navy is not nearly as embarrassing as it would have been in years past -- in fact, it's hardly embarrassing at all. The Midshipmen have won eight or more games in each of the past five seasons -- including 10 wins a season ago. They've appeared in a bowl game in seven consecutive years and beaten archrival Army eight straight times.
Beyond that, Navy is always a difficult team to prepare for because it runs the rarely-seen triple-option offense. The scheme is so unique, Notre Dame started preparing for it at the beginning of the season, even though the Navy game was the eighth on its schedule.
The extra preparation did not pay off. Navy rushed for an astonishing 367 yards, including 210 by fullback Alexander Teich. Navy threw only two passes on the day (both completed), so Notre Dame effectively knew what was coming, yet it still allowed Navy to average 6.1 yards per carry.
Kelly said Navy threw a wrinkle into its standard triple-option offense, which made it even more difficult to handle than usual.
"They did an unbalanced over-tackle positioning, where they stress that off-tackle because they can get him veered down onto your linebacker," Kelly said. "We were trying to make some adjustments on the fly. Navy is well-schooled in all variations, and they need to be credited for their execution of the scheme that they had in mind.
"My hat goes off to coach Ken [Niumatalolo] and his staff. We had no answer for them today."
"[It was a] different look than what they've typically done, but it wasn't a whole lot different," said senior starting safety Harrison Smith. "They're still running their offense. We just couldn't stop them."
Despite their team's struggles in recent years, many Notre Dame fans still expect the Fighting Irish to compete with the top teams in the country and dominate less prominent FBS programs like Navy. But the hard truth is, that's simply not happening anymore.
Kelly insisted that he's making progress in his first year on the job, despite the four losses.
"Right now the things that are taking place are behind closed doors," Kelly said. "You can't really see 'em unless you're with me every day. I like where we're going. Listen, I'm probably one guy that -- I'm not gonna blow smoke. We're doing the things that I want to do internally. Now, where does that show itself? Absolutely, in Year 2 and Year 3 and Year 4 and 5 and 6."
But Year 1 has had its fair share of disappointments -- this game being the biggest one by far, especially if you consider the margin of victory. In Navy's two wins over Notre Dame the past three years, the games were at least close -- Navy won 46-44 in three overtimes in 2007 and 23-21 last season. This time around the gap was 18 points -- and that includes a Notre Dame touchdown in the fourth quarter after the game had been put to bed.
Notre Dame still leads the overall series with Navy by a lopsided record of 71-12-1.
But on this day, Notre Dame wasn't in the United States Naval Academy's league.
Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com, covering college sports in particular.