Irish no longer under construction

Originally Published: October 16, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The most remarkable characteristic of Notre Dame's 27-9 victory over Navy was the utter unremarkability of it. Dog bites man. Hare beats tortoise. And, yes, Notre Dame beats Navy, extending its NCAA record streak to 41 games.

The difference is that Notre Dame played the way Notre Dame is expected to play. The last two years, the Fighting Irish needed late-game comebacks to beat the undersized, overhearted Midshipmen.

On Saturday, before 76,166 at Giants Stadium, Notre Dame (5-2) scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, committed no turnovers and no second-half penalties. In the tumultuous three-year tenure of Irish coach Tyrone Willingham, the fact that his team soundly defeated a less talented team should be celebrated for the sign of maturity that it is.

"We've had a lot of young guys grow up and step up," senior linebacker Derek Curry said. "The attitude has changed tremendously."

Willingham won his first eight games at Notre Dame, which was kind of like putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that needed to be rebuilt. With the victory Saturday, Notre Dame is 13-12 since that 8-0 start. Saturday, the Irish looked as if they have taken down the "Under Construction" signs.

"We came out and executed," Willingham said. "When you execute, good things happen."

If you forgive Willingham for occasionally sounding like Chauncey Gardiner in "Being There," the wisdom in his remark is staring you in the face.

Notre Dame exploited its significant advantage in size. The Irish offensive line averages 6-foot-5, 297 pounds. The Navy defensive line averages 6-1, 260. On Notre Dame's last touchdown drive, the Irish ran the ball on 10 consecutive plays, concluding with Ryan Grant's second one-yard score of the day.

Notre Dame rushed for 204 yards, 89 yards above its average. Navy rushed for 216 yards, 51 below its average.

On defense, the Irish not only sacked Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco one more time (six) than he threw passes (five), but they also held the senior, the Midshipmen's leading rusher, to 19 net rushing yards, 73 below his average.

Notre Dame won the field position game, the rushing game, and every other game within the game. Navy had its billy goat on the sideline, as well as former All-American running back Napoleon McCallum. Nothing helped.

"They're much bigger and quicker than we are. That has something to do with it," Navy coach Paul Johnson said. "I'm not going to lay it all on them. For us to win this game, we need to play very well, and we probably need to get some help. That didn't happen."

The Midshipmen make up for their lack of size with efficiency and fight. They showed up with the latter Saturday, but not the former. Some of Navy's mistakes were glaring; some were of the one-of-those-days variety.

Trailing 7-0, Navy had Notre Dame in a third-and-eight at the 50. Linebacker Lane Jackson blitzed, came in untouched, and tripped. After he fell at Brady Quinn's feet, the sophomore quarterback threw to Matt Shelton for a 30-yard gain. Two plays later, the Irish led, 14-0.

On the opening possession of the third quarter, Navy's drive slowed when Marco Nelson fumbled the pitch from Aaron Polanco. Nelson fell on the ball at the Irish 12, and the Midshipmen settled for a 29-yard field goal by Geoff Blumenfeld.

Later in the quarter, with Navy trailing 24-3, receiver Lloyd Regas mishandled a pitch, and Irish nose guard Derek Landri fell on it at the Navy 13. The Irish converted that turnover into a 20-yard field goal from D.J. Fitzpatrick.

"We had too many mental mistakes," said Polanco, a senior, but a first-year starter. "Personally, I had too many mistakes. I'm going to have to work to get better."

The Notre Dame of the last two seasons could not have played the way that the Irish played Saturday.

"The beauty of defense is you can make a mistake and make up for it with effort," Notre Dame senior linebacker Mike Goolsby said. "In this game, you can't. If you make an alignment mistake, it hurts you. We heard all about it all week. It comes down to discipline. We're still in that (maturing) process. I know one thing: we're tough as hell. We've got a lot of heart."

When the game ended, the Navy team walked downfield and stood with helmets off and hands over heart as the Academy band played its alma mater. Behind them, the Notre Dame team stood with helmets off as well.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," Goolsby said. "You're pulling hard for those guys, but you've got to get the win. You know how hard those guys work. It's a bittersweet victory, but we'll take it."

The streak extends to 41 games and counting. Notre Dame arrives at the meat of its schedule with a 5-2 record. The Irish have lost three in a row to Boston College (Oct. 23), three in a row to No. 14 Tennessee (Nov. 6) and two in a row to No. 1 USC (Nov. 27).

All of those teams are bigger and faster than Navy. But the point is that the Irish played as they should have played Saturday. That's not damning with faint praise. That's acknowledging that Notre Dame is no longer under construction.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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