Note: This Is part 1 of our preseason preview...
Where does one start? How can one even begin to comprehend 42 straight loses? Considering my life span is roughly only half that number, I sure can't. Although considering I watched my beloved NFL team, The Bills, lose 4 straight Super Bowls (granted I only understood the situation for one of those times) maybe I can. Either way, the advent of yet another football season is around the corner, and for our beloved Navy Midshipmen that means another year of losing to Notre Dame.
Or does it?
In the movie Little Giants, Coach Danny O'Shea (Rick Maranis) tells his group of awkwardly-placed pee wee football players that every day when he was a kid, he and his older brother (Ed O'Neil) would race their bikes down Cherry Hill Lane. And every day his big brother would beat him, I mean just flat-out leave poor little old Danny O'Shea in the dust. Until one time. Just one time, little danny boy beat big Kevin. .. I suspect that this is how the streak will be broken. The laws of Any Given Sunday/Saturday are universal and fundamental, but how long can they be stretched? Does Navy have a realistic or even a semi-realistic chance at defeating Notre Dame anytime soon? Or is every year just another shot in the dark, a vain hope that the planets align or the entire Notre Dame team comes down with an extremely bad case of Gastro-Esophogeal Reflux Disease.
Let's consider the disposition of the two teams in question...
2005 Record: 8-4
Wins Over Final AP Top 25: 0
2006 Returning Starters: 18
CFN.com Final Rank: 58
Last season Navy wasn't suppose to go 8-4 and win a Bowl. It was thought that Paul Johnsons program would need a year or two to rebuild after two winning seasons. However, Navy showed that it's Triple Option attack could function just fine with a group of young, often inexperienced players. This year, Navy returns 18 starters and the nucleus of what was the leading rushing team in the country. Defensively, Navy has been working to correct what at times was a very poor defense, and a veteran group of Linebackers should lead a defense which is fundamentally sound.
2005 Record: 9-3
Wins Over Final AP Top 25: 0
2006 Returning Starters: 17 (3 All Americans)
Final AP/Coaches Rank: 9/11
CFN.com Final Rank: 18
Under first year Head coach Charlie Weis, the Irish asserted themselves on the National Level last year and garnered an trip to the Fiesta Bowl. This year the Big Offensive three are back, as Quinn, Samardzija, and Walker will lead what may be one of the best offenses in college football. Defensively the team is rebuilding, but a new and explosive talent level is finding it's way into South Bend.
This Year's Preseaon Outlook: Last year Brady Quinn and the Irish air assault were able to accumulate 284 yards and 4 TDs against a Navy secondary which struggled for a good part of the year. The Irish return both Quinn and leading WR Jeff "the Shark" Samardzija, but lose WR Maurice Stovall (3 TDs in last years game) to the NFL. If WR Rhema McKnight becomes a viable secondary target for Quinn (and preseason indications are that he will) then the Navy secondary, while improved, will have its hands full against what may be one of the top offenses in the country. More bad news for the Mids defense as Notre Dame returns Jr. tailback Darius Walker. For those who watched the game last year, one of the most striking problems was the inability of Navy's defense to stop Walker and get penetration on the Irish O-Line. The Navy D-Line should be improved over last years, but not yet up to the task of taking on a nationally acclaimed Irish O-Line (even though reletivly untested). Offensives, Navy was able to move the ball last year against the Irish but fell short with turnovers. Speed and Size were also a problem, as the Navy line was unable to finish their blocks at times to stop the Irish Linebackers. A more experienced Navy Offensive line and a faster backfield may actually swing the running game in Navy's favor, but to do so the Midshipmen would have to play a flawless game. Overall, if Navy is to have any shot at taking down the Giant next year, they will have to play a near perfect game and the Irish will have to be off. Both teams are built around a solid core of Juniors and Seniors, but the talent level and ability of Notre Dame to literally send cruisers missiles through our secondary should lead to a Notre dame win. It's far to early to guess a score, but just for yucks the Irish take this one 45-28.
Navy fans should not despair though. We all know the Irish have a legit shot at making a run at the National Championship next season, and hanging around with them-even for a half-should be considered a strong indicator of what our team is capable of. Things however, really start to get interesting in 2007...
Consider that Quinn will be gone, so will Samardzija, and so will Defensive nightmare Tom Zibokowski. What if by chance, Walker were to leave early for the NFL? What if the new group of Irish superstars (Yes you Jimmy Clausen and friends) need a year to adjust to the big time? Would Navy have a shot at Notre Dame? To try to decipher this question, I enlisted the help of the Brian from The House that Rock Built. My question was simple: Does the window exist in 2007, and how long will it last? This is what he had to say...
"To answer your question, then, I think 2007 is Navy's best shot at an upset, because it certainly won't get any easier after that. The inexperience on defense bodes well for Navy, since it takes a lot of discipline and awareness to defend the triple option. With the young group out there, a bad decision or missed tackle can prove very costly against that scheme. ND will be breaking in new offensive and defensive lines, so the inexperience could be exploited. The game will be played right after the USC game, which should be a physically and emotionally draining ordeal. However, ND does have a bye week before the Navy game, which should give them some time to recuperate. [However], the advantage that Navy has enjoyed in terms of coaching,preparation, and motivation during the previous two coaching staffs at Notre Dame has been greatly reduced with the addition of a, you know,competent coaching staff."
Brain was gracious enough to lend even more analysis to Notre Dame's positional needs in relation to the 2007 and 2008 seasons. While Notre Dame should get good play out of now backup QBs Evan Sharpley and Zach Fraiser in the coming years (and of course, Jimmy Clausen) and get superb play from the RB position (I have been assured Walker is committed for a 4th year, and Freshman James Aldridge is of incredibly talent), The Irish face an impending O-Line crisis. "These positions are going to be ravaged by graduation and lackluster recruiting under Willingham. C John Sullivan(5th year) and whoever wins the battle this offseason for the RT position will be the only starters returning on the line. The other three spots will be filled by one of the six recruits we landed this year (so, guys that won't even step on campus until this fall), in what thankfully was one of the greatest OL recruiting classes in a longtime. Suffice to say, there are some very talented and physically imposing players, but they will all be sophomores with very little experience."
As far as defense goes, the Irish are starting Fresh with a new Linebacker core this year, and a "lackluster" D-Line. The impression I got from Brian was that Whillingham failed to recruit at the non-skill player positions, and the Irish are really going to feel that failure this and next year.
So, how will Navy respond? Even with great Senior leadership this year, we have a number of players in the making who could become key contributors for the 2007 season. Fullback Adam ballard could, (and I think will) develop into an Eckel or better type fullback by his Senior ('07) season. Reggie Campbell and Karlos Whittaker would most likely be the starting SB, both of whom have brought a new wave of athletic ability to the Academy. Looking ahead, either Jarrod Byant (aka Mr. Football), Troy Goss, or Kaipo would take over at QB. All of these young men have terrific athletic ability and are only getting better with more time under their belts. Defensively a good group of Linebackers (Sovie, Lisante in the lead) could step up to leave the void left by the '06 class. A talented group of receivers and corners also looks to develop, and this isn't even mentioning the NAPS and recruit were expected to be getting. Consider the 2006 Recruiting class for this Navy team. Across the board their was a general increase in speed, streagth, and perhaps most dangerously to other teams, size. Consider individuals like OL Dave Brown (6-3, 275 originally, commit to NM) or C Ryan Burke (6-3, 280, #4 center in the country). On defense a group that could include DT Andy Lark (480 bench as a Jr. In High School), Ian Meredith (6-3, 225) and Bayard Roberts could usher in a new wave of Navy players who combine a higher degree of speed and size then the current team. In analyzing the future Navy teams, especially of 2007, one must consider that this team is constantly getting better.
So. SB Karlos Whittaker could be a key contributer In 2007
Conclusion: Notre Dame, while a BCS contender, could be severely weakened in 2007 if the incoming Freshmen classes of this and next year do not pan out positively. Their are serious questions about the ability of the Irish to put together a good Defensive and Offensive Line, and the graduation of the current All Americans could leave the Irish open for an upset. However, the Irish are building what may become the best talent pool in the nation, and the opportunity to beat the Irish may only come in the developmental stage of that talent. Navy, on the other hand, is steadily improving but still yearning to prove it can play with College Football elite. Perhaps after this year, we will know where this team really stands, and can venture a more perfect guess at 2007, which may be the last window of opportunity this team gets at taking down Notre Dame in a long time.