Irish, Midshipmen both thankful for long-running series

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The belated congratulations came to Roger Staubach on a February afternoon in 2008 at the Daytona 500.

A Notre Dame alumnus wondered how Staubach, an owner of a NASCAR team with fellow Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, felt about Navy’s 46-44 triple-overtime victory at Notre Dame the previous autumn. The ear-to-ear smile spoke volumes for Staubach, who at the time was the last Navy quarterback to beat the Irish — back in 1963 while winning the Heisman Trophy.

It’s been 56 years since Staubach led Navy to a 35-14 win at Notre Dame Stadium and the Midshipmen will return Saturday for the 93rd meeting in what is billed as the nation’s longest continuous intersectional football rivalry.

It will be the first time since 1978 that both teams come in ranked in The Associated Press Top 25: Notre Dame (7-2) is No. 16 and Navy (7-1) is No. 21. The Midshipmen are coming off a bye week following their fifth straight victory, 56-10 over Connecticut. The Irish beat Duke 38-7 last week and return home, where they’ve won 16 consecutive games.

Notre Dame won 43 straight games against Navy — the longest in history between two FBS rivals — before that 2007 win that had Staubach smiling months later. Notre Dame’s 78-13-1 dominance has often provoked criticism from outsiders as to why the series has continued. Notre Dame’s response remains one of honor and perpetual thanks to the U.S. Navy for putting an officer’s training center in South Bend to boost attendance during World War II.

“For both of us to be ranked, it’s kind of cool,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, an assistant to coach Paul Johnson in that streak-ending 2007 Navy victory who has since orchestrated three victories over the Irish starting with a 23-21 triumph over Charlie Weis’ last team in 2009.

Niumatalolo’s last two wins came against Brian Kelly-coached teams in which Navy was the designated “home” team: 35-17 in New Jersey in 2010 and 28-27 in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2016. That team finished 4-8 for Kelly’s only losing season with the Irish.

“We had a nine-win team that beat them in Jacksonville,” Niumatalolo recalled. “They only had the ball six times and we played about as perfect as you can play, and we only beat them by a point and that wasn’t one of their better teams.”

Despite the annual difficulty of preparing for Navy’s triple-option attack, which is averaging a nation’s best 357.9 yards per game, Kelly enjoys the traditions of the series, including both teams standing together after games to hear the other’s alma mater.

“I think just the respect part of it in terms of who we’re going against, (future) leaders of our country,” Kelly said. “That, to me, is what’s great about this game – the history and tradition behind it and why this game is being played today.”

The Midshipmen are 2-4 in their last six games at Notre Dame Stadium following a 24-17 setback in 2017 when they controlled the block for 42:42 and forced the Irish to rally on a pair of Brandon Wimbush touchdown passes.

The game Saturday will end the streak of Notre Dame home sellouts at 273. It’s the second longest to Nebraska’s active string of 373, according to the South Bend Tribune.

The streak dates to the final game of the 1973 national championship season when Notre Dame beat Air Force on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, when the game was moved from Saturday to accommodate an ABC telecast. Notre Dame Stadium then had a capacity of 59,075 and the turnstile count was 57,236. The current capacity is more than 77,000.

Though the teams have never played at the 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, the series has been played around the country – last season Notre Dame prevailed 44-22 in San Diego – and twice in Ireland (in 1996 and 2012). The teams will meet again Aug. 29, 2020, at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

“My wife loved seeing the castles,” Niumatalolo said, “but for us, we got our butts whipped for three hours or so.”