Of all the losing former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis did in his final three seasons, the losses to Navy in 2007 that ended an NCAA-record 43-game winning streak against one opponent and another loss to the Middies last season probably did as much as anything to push him out the door. So, for Brian Kelly to replace Weis only to see the irish get pushed around by Navy in a 35-17 loss Saturday at New meadowlands Stadium woke up some very unpleasant echoes for the Golden Domers.
Kelly said Navy altered its scheme with an unbalanced line and a setup that was designed to focus on blocking inside linebacker Manti Te'o. Navy's players said they'd been doing the same thing for the past three weeks but executed better and did a better job of downfield cutoff blocks on the linebackers.
Whatever the case, Navy literally ran over the Irish for 367 yards rushing on 60 carries for a 6.1 average gain, and quarterback Ricky Dobbs completed the only two passes he was required to throw for another 71 yards and one touchdown. Fullback Alexander Teich, whose career-high of 85 yards rushing was established last week in a win over Southern Methodist, carried 26 times for 210 yards and caught took a screen pass 31 yards for a touchdown.
It looked bad, and Kelly knew it. He said there will be plenty of criticism to go around for himself, his coaches and the players, but he defended the progress his 4-4 team has made.
"I like where we're going," Kelly said. "I'm probably the one guy that is not going to blow smoke. We are doing the things I want to do internally. Where does that show itself? In years two, three and four, and you will see that on the field. I don't have to spin it for everybody. I know what we're doing; I like where we're going, but I don't like losing football games along the way."
Kelly is well aware of the impact losing to Navy has had on the program, particularly last year when the Midshipmen won, 23-21, in South Bend. That was followed by losses to Pitt, UConn and Stanford as a 6-2 Irish start dissolved into a 6-6 finish.
Describing his message to the team after the game, Kelly said: "I talked to them from my heart. 'Here's what I see. Here's what happened. Here's what's going to have to happen as we move forward. Last year, you lost to Navy, and you lost the rest.'
"Well, that means this football team broke apart. We're not going to let this team break apart."
Naturally, the atmosphere on the Navy side was euphoric. Senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, as a member of the Class of 2011, always will be able to say he's part of one of three classes to beat Notre Dame three times in a four-year span. The others were the Class of 1964 led by Roger Staubach and the Class of 1937.
"That's big, real big, especially from the past, when we were looked at like the little brother," Dobbs said. "We wear the same colors, and when you look at the two schools, they're great schools. So, this is kind of like turning it around. When they say Navy-Notre Dame, usually Notre Dame has [the win] in the bag. But now, it's always a great game to watch.
"It's priceless because we have so many players on our team who grew up watching the movie 'Rudy,' and you grew up watching Notre Dame and seeing what a great school it is and you wish you could play there. The opportunity to play against them and be successful is just priceless."