Welcome to the Navy series, Marcus Freeman.
Some Notre Dame fans really hate this series because it tends to produce games like yesterday — sloppy slogs that trend to uncomfortably close results and Irish angst. I am not one of them. I genuinely like that we play Navy every year — I think it’s a really cool showcase for Navy, and a change of pace from the normal course of the season for Notre Dame. I think ND fan circles tend to overestimate any negative impacts of this game from a football perspective, as yeah sure a win doesn’t get you much and a very very rare loss (it’s only happened 17 times guys! It’s not common!) is painful, but would losing to Navy this year have been worse than the Marshall game? It’s the same as any buy game would be, except with a lot more history and meaning behind it. Besides, as Oklahoma and M***igan have discovered recently, playing service academies ain’t a cakewalk! Eventually the national media will catch on to this, right?
Point is, every team schedules “easy” games, and playing the Naval Academy every year is a heck of a lot better than playing Rutgers every year.
Do I think Notre Dame tends to lean into hyper-exagerated patriotism around this game and put too much emphasis on the Navy’s presence on campus during WWII? Sure. (Keen football historians will note this series actually predates the V-12 program by about fifteen years, Notre Dame’s longest continually-played rivalry until Covid. Which honestly is enough of a reason to keep it on the schedule, if you ask me.) Fr. Hesburgh’s famous promise to the Navy that there would be a sport for the Midshipmen on Notre Dame’s schedule as long as Navy wants it is probably the most compelling reason from the lore of the series to keep playing it, as Notre Dame should always strive for integrity. But the schools do have a lot in common. Notre Dame’s ROTC program is one of the most robust in the nation, especially among private, non-military schools, and strong associations with the military have always been forefront at Notre Dame. They also happen to be the only two schools in the country that play intramural 11-on-11 tackle football. (That fun fact brought to you by years of admissions tour guide experience!) The relationship between the schools may have been solidified by the WWII experience, but its grown and evolved since then. It’s a reminder of all the great things about college football, and how much of this sport is about everything but the sport itself.
If you’ve actually been to a Notre Dame-Navy game, you know it’s one of the unique atmospheres in college football. The schools throw around “mutual respect” so much it’s become a bit of a meme, but you can tell each side means it. It’s one of the only rivalries in the sport that’s genuinely pretty friendly — even Army-Navy is chippier. Name me another series where the visiting team’s mascot could trapse through the student section goofing around, as Bill the Goat did last year at Notre Dame, and the students embrace it with open arms. I can only write from the Notre Dame perspective, of course, but it seems like Navy shares a lot of these same feelings. I’ve been fortunate to meet a few midshipmen when the game’s played in South Bend, and they’ve always been very complementary of Notre Dame. That means a lot coming from students at an I’m also reminded of a quote from some years back where Navy called it the “Little Army-Navy” game, which suggests they place a lot of importance on the series and respect for Notre Dame at its heart. It’s a friendly, sibling rivalry, and not in the condenscending “little brother” kind of way that some college football rivalries shake out — more in the “I’m genuinely invested in your success and wish the best for you outside of this particular competition” kind of way.
Because, boy oh boy, does Navy want to win this game every year. It’s very easy to write about service academy teams in cliches — “they never quit, they’re so disciplined, etc.” but this game is annual reminder that cliches are generally rooted in truth. It’s well known in football circles that the service academies are some of the only teams still running a triple option offense, which is a wildly different kind of offense than almost anything else. It’s somehow even more run heavy than the 2022 Fighting Irish are, designed around controlling the clock and the pace of play. It also helps to neutralize the perpetual talent disadvantage the academies play with. (It’s honestly kind of incredible that Army, Navy, and Air Force are still able to compete in top flight football, with all the unique restrictions the academies must keep in place.) It looks more like rugby than modern football. In playing this way, the Midshipmen basically slowly grind their opponents into dust, keeping the ball out of the hands of their usually more explosive opponents. It’s the kind of smart strategy you’d hope for from a military school. But if you aren’t prepared for the triple, it hits you like a ton of bricks — it’s so wildly different from anything else you see in college football, and Navy runs it so well. This is especially true if, as the Irish were Saturday, you’re missing a couple of key defensive starters. It’s a good thing the atmosphere’s friendly, because very often these threaten to go sideways for Notre Dame and that patented Irish angst starts to take over.
So sure, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch the offense, once again, do basically nothing for a whole half while an opponent chipped away at what seemed to be a commanding lead, but that’s just how Notre Dame-Navy goes sometimes. Who exactly the failure to adjust to Navy rushing eight guys every snap is on is a little above my football paygrade, but Drew Pyne needed to get rid of the ball and Tommy Rees needed to call routes to let him do so. At least one of those things didn’t happen (though watching it looked like neither did!) meaning there was an unblocked rusher basically every play. It resulted in an absolutely brutal offensive performance that might’ve been the worst of the day if Texas A&M wasn’t still playing football.*
*I’d like it to be known that while searching for that tweet I discovered a) that Texas A&M just won a national championship in Intercollegiate Meat Judging and b) that there is such a thing as Intercollegiate Meat Judging. This isn’t college football strictly speaking but it’s just so in the spirit of things that it might as well be.
Notre Dame’s utter lack of offensive output turned the second half into a “fun” war of attrition math problem, where the defense needed to make the Middies take enough time off the clock while giving up few enough points that the substantial lead the Irish had built in the first half would be enough to weather the storm. A classic ten-minute Navy drive in the 3rd only resulted in three Midshipmen points, which was basically ideal for Notre Dame. Then things started to look real dicey in the fourth as Drew Pyne had yet another pass deflected at the line of scrimmage that was picked off by Navy deep in Irish territory. (For as inconsistent as this Irish team has been, the following would be a pretty solid prop bet parlay with how things have gone — Drew Pyne has a batted pass, the Irish block a punt, they face a backup quarterback at some point, and there’s a nifty play from a wide receiver that makes you wonder where they’ve been all season.) Of course, they scored, there was a fair bit of nothing from either side, and then Navy’s backup to the backup QB led a two-minute drive featuring ~passing~ to really put a scare. Two two-point conversions didn’t help matters and suddenly it was 35-32.
In the end, though, the Irish did the math right, Navy ran out of time (and timeouts), and the Irish special teams, naturally, sealed the win. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, it was something everyone should forget as soon as possible. It was a Navy game.
It’s was a textbook “a win is a win” game. On a day when many teams in the top half of the top 25 lost at home to unranked teams, Notre Dame got a road win. That’s nothing to sneeze at. They held on for dear life, but they got the job done.
Speaking of holding on for dear life, basketball!
We’ll start with men’s, just to rip the band-aid off. After *barely* surviving… Radford (no really!)… in the opener on Thursday, the Irish had a better outing Sunday, keeping Youngstown State at just about arm’s length most of the afternoon while the starters showed out. Defense needs to get better in a hurry though. Look, it’s men’s college basketball, upsets are part of the appeal, but it’s not exactly an encouraging sign when your veteran team with aspirations of conference and tournament glory needs a last-minute layup to put away… Radford… at home. There’s gonna need to be a lot more than that to make it through the gauntlet of ACC play. For a team that supposedly has Sweet Sixteen aspirations, there’s a bunch to work on.
You know what is a good sign? Absolutely blitzing a team in your home opener before finding a way to win away from home with three key starters in foul trouble for most of the second half.
Women’s basketball looks like they’re picking up where they left off, largely, with a forty-point dismissal of Northern Illinois that wasn’t that close to open things on Monday before heading to St. Louis in a bit of a homecoming game for Niele Ivey. It was very cool to both get to watch this game on national television and see NBC putting some weight behind women’s sports, finally.
Unfortunately, as national showcases for women’s basketball go, Saturday’s game could probably have been better. There were a grand total of fifty-nine fouls called, and it sure seemed like both teams spent more time in the bonus than out of it. The Irish scored an astonishing *third* of their total points from the stripe, which ended up being a major difference maker in the game. It was clear from the jump that the refs were gonna call basically *everything*, which meant each team had to adjust. It also made for a bit of a grit-and-grind afternoon from a team that’s used to putting on a little bit more of a show.
When Maddy Westbeld was sent to the bench early for, basically, being too good at basketball, things were maybe a little apprehensive, but the Irish were still thoroughly cleaning the Bears’ clock. When Olivia Miles picked up her fourth foul in the third quarter, though, things started to get dicey. What had been a pretty solid double-digit lead started to erode with the two stars on the bench, but the Irish never surrendered it. (In fact, pretty sure Cal didn’t lead all game.) It really helps that veteran Dara Mabrey and “so good and calm you think she’s a veteran” Sonia Citron were able to stay on the court to steer things — they and the bench were able to stave off the storm long enough for the starters to come back in and ice things.
In what’s become a bit of a calling card for Niele Ivey’s teams in her still relatively new tenure, five players had double-digit points, scoring spread across the team and court in what became a nice little double digit win after all. Special shoutout to Maddy Westbeld, who scored the first women’s basketball points ever aired on NBC and posted a frankly ridiculous 12 points in her limited 15 mininutes of action. If she can keep up the level of production she’s shown the last two games, look out for this team. Winning with your bench is always a nice cushion, and the Irish have shown they can in game two.
And to complete our weekend of white-knuckling hat trick, hockey snagged an dramatic overtime win Saturday night in what might have been as close as you can get to a season-saver in November. The Irish had gone four games without a win and worse, looked hopeless against Minnesota and Game 1 against M***igan, which might be the two best teams in the country.
The Friday game, which I had the misfortune of attending, looked decently close through the first period as the teams traded power play goals. Then the skunkbears cracked things open in a big way in the second, with three goals before the halfway mark basically burying the Irish for the third straight game. It was a long cry from Notre Dame’s season sweep of M***igan a year ago. Irish frustration started to boil over in the third period as three separate fights broke out, including a lengthy one after the skunkbears charged at goalie Ryan Bischel. Though hockey is a sport where this kind of extracurricular activity is arguably a feature, the college game doesn’t usually get this chippy, according to (limited) experience and what I hear from others. Clear rivalry emotions were running high.
Saturday started much the same as the second period Friday, with the Skunkbears notching two quick goals and looking like they were ready to cash in on a reeling Irish team. Then the comeback happened. Not only did the Irish keep the skunkbears off the scoreboard following the first period, they rallied back quickly in the second to tie it before the third period. The teams battled with an even scoreline for a while, sending the game into overtime where, in true Notre Dame hockey fashion, the Irish knocked back the game winner. A huge moment in the still-young season — avoiding a second straight sweep, notching a win over a rival, and stemming the tide of losses. Things don’t get easier as the irish head to Columbus, but hopefully they can find some momentum from the overtime win.
All in all, a very successful weekend of Irish sports. Now, can we please not have all the games be close next time?
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