Nov. 7, 2003
by Bo Rottenborn
After facing three of the most dangerous passing teams in the nation in their last three home games, the Irish (2-6) will face an altogether different challenge this Saturday as the nation’s top rushing team, Navy (6-3), comes to Notre Dame Stadium with the aim of clinching its first winning season since 1997.
The Midshipmen have lost just three times in nine games this season. The first defeat of the year came on Sept. 6 against TCU. Navy drew first blood with a first-quarter field goal, but the Horned Frogs, now ranked 12th, mustered 17 second-half points to gain the victory. Two weeks later, Rutgers exploded after being tied 14-14 in the second quarter for a 48-27 victory. On Oct. 25, it was Division I-AA unbeaten Delaware that downed Navy, rallying from a 14-0 deficit for a 21-17 victory.
Indeed, there has been no magic formula for topping the Middies. TCU and Delaware did it by shutting down the vaunted Navy running game, holding it to fewer than 185 yards on both occasions. On the other hand, Rutgers allowed 373 Midshipmen yards on the ground, but benefited from three fumbles.
In its victories, Navy is averaging over 35 points and 350 rushing yards per game. In fact, the Middies have scored fewer than 27 points just twice this season – a scoring total the Irish have reached just once, in overtime. Navy has had 294 yards or more on the ground in each of its victories.
The Irish will be trying to get back on track at home. The four previous visitors to Notre Dame Stadium this season were all ranked among the top 10 in last week’s Bowl Championship Series standings.
The lone home victory for the Irish came in dramatic fashion – a 29-26 come-from-behind, season-opening, overtime triumph against Washington State, currently ranked 13th. In that game, Notre Dame rallied from a 19-0 deficit, scoring 20 points in a nine-minute span in the fourth quarter to take a 26-19 lead before the Cougars found the end zone in the final minute to send the contest to overtime. After Washington State missed a field goal, Irish senior Nicholas Setta nailed a 40-yard field goal – his fifth of the contest – to deliver a victory for the Irish.
Notre Dame’s other triumph this season was a 20-14 road victory versus then-#15 Pittsburgh on Oct. 11. Julius Jones broke out in that game for a school-record 262 yards rushing, averaging 10.9 yards per carry. More of that kind of running could be in store this week for Jones, if his previous performances against the Midshipmen are any indication. In three contests vs. Navy, he has had 105 or more yards on the ground in each, averaging more than 122 per game to go along with a pair of touchdowns.
Five of the six Irish losses have come against teams currently ranked among the top 15. Second-ranked USC, #3 Florida State and #8 Michigan all cruised to easy wins, while 14th-ranked Purdue and 15th-ranked Michigan State also were able to gain victories.
Quarterback Brady Quinn and the Irish will play the Midshipmen for the 77th time on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s first eight opponents have combined for a 55-16 (.775) record this season, making the Irish schedule easily the toughest in the nation. Iowa State is second with opponents boasting a 45-16 (.738) mark, while none of Notre Dame’s initial eight foes rank among the top 60 (out of 117 Division I-A teams) in strength of schedule to date.
Navy’s ground game features a variety of weapons, with four different players having amassed 380 or more yards this season; the Irish have just one. Junior fullback Kyle Eckel and senior quarterback Craig Candeto, a pair of second-year starters, both rank among the nation’s top 45 rushers, each averaging over 85 yards per game. Both Eckel and Candeto already have more yards than any Navy rusher did a season ago, when the Middies were the third-best rushing team in Division I-A.
Eckel is the team leader with 806 yards. A year ago, he had 510 yards all season, trailing only Candeto. The quarterback, who missed most of the game after being injured on the first drive against Notre Dame last year, has 767 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in ’03 after registering 775 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He ran to the end zone six times against Army a season ago, establishing a new Navy record.
Among the other top Midshipmen rushers are slot backs Eric Roberts and Tony Lane. Roberts has 415 yards this season, averaging 9.9 per attempt, while Lane is getting 12.3 yards per carry for a total of 380. Both started last season, and Lane was the leading rusher in the game when Notre Dame and Navy met in ’02.
The Notre Dame defense that will challenge the Mids’ ground game has had some success in stopping the run this season, surrendering 121 yards per game after ranking 10th nationally in ’02, giving up just over 95 yards a tilt.
The linebacking corps has been a strong point thus far this season. Senior Courtney Watson, a first-team All-American in 2002, is among the top 25 nationally in tackles, having compiled 80 already this season – an average of 11.4 per game – despite missing the opener. Eight of those stops have been behind the line of scrimmage, and he also has a forced fumble to his credit.
After being mostly a key reserve last season, junior Brandon Hoyte has stepped into a starting role and produced this year. He is second to Watson in tackles, with 51, and also a fumble recovery and six tackles for loss to his credit. He picked up the slack for Watson in the season opener, registering a career-high 11 stops.
Senior Derek Curry returned as a starter this season, racking up 46 tackles and three sacks, while making an interception and causing a pair of fumbles. His top game was against Boston College, when he turned in a career-high 11 tackles, with all of them of the solo variety.
Notre Dame’s front line has been led by junior left end Justin Tuck, who is the team’s leader in sacks with seven, ranking him among the nation’s leaders in the category. He has 43 tackles – more than twice as many as any other Irish lineman – and has caused a pair of fumbles. His 3.5 sacks against Pittsburgh were a major factor in the Irish controlling the line of scrimmage en route to victory.
Six other Irish players have made at least one start this season on the defensive line. Right end Kyle Budinscak and tackle Darrell Campbell, a pair of seniors, have both started every game, combining for 36 tackles, five sacks and a fumble recovery. The nose guard position has seen contributions from seniors Cedric Hilliard and Greg Pauly, as well as sophomore Derek Landri. The trio has combined to give Notre Dame 41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries from the position.
A major reason the Mids have had more success this season is the improved play of their defense. After surrendering over 422 yards and nearly 40 points per game a year ago, this year’s unit is holding opponents to 322 yards and 20 points per contest.
Junior safety Josh Smith leads Navy in tackles with 73, despite missing two games. Meanwhile, senior linebacker Eddie Carthan has been a big-play threat, with four interceptions, three sacks and a fumble recovery.