On Saturday, Charlie Weis accomplished a historic feat that very few coaches in the 122 year history of football at the University of Notre Dame have attained. Even the "three stooges," Gerry Faust, Bob Davie, and Tyrone Willingham, in all their glorious ineptitude, never once lost to the Midshipmen of Navy, going 13-0 in the annual series.
From 1962 to 2007 the Irish never lost a single game to Navy, stringing together the longest wining streak by one team against a single opponent in college football history. In the long lineage of the rivalry, only Elmer Layden, Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich, and now Charlie Weis have ever lost to Navy twice in their careers. And it may be worth noting, no coach has lost to Navy thrice.
Elmer Layden — a former member of Knute Rockne's vaunted Four-Horseman — succeeded his mentor after a plane crash prematurely ended Rockne's career and his life. Layden has long been considered the greatest Irish coach never to win a national championship, going 47-13-3 as head coach/athletic director, and furthering Notre Dame's growth in the national mindset of the sport. Layden dropped games to one very good (8-1) and one solid (6-3) Navy team in 1934 and 1936 respectively.
Terry Brennan (32-18), still the youngest coach in the history of the school, was also hired to succeed his own mentor, Frank Leahy, at only 25 years of age. His two losses to Navy occurred back to back, in 1956 and 1957. Although Brennan's Irish team was horrible in 56 and only mediocre in 57, both Navy teams that he lost to were one loss squads.
Joe Kuharich (17-23) may be the closest comparison to Weis of the bunch. After a time as a head coach of the Chicago Cardinals (1952) and Washington Redskins (1954-1958, 1955 Coach of the Year), Kuharich took the post at Notre Dame and immediately attempted to implement a complicated, pro-style system that the team was never able to fully execute. Statistically the worst coach in Notre Dame history — possessing the only losing all time record — his losses to Navy ( in 1960 and 1961) also came against solid squads, with the 1960 team going to the Orange Bowl (losing to Missouri). In retrospect, the biggest knock against Kuharirch was his inability to adjust to the simplicity of the college game. Many feel that was the main culprit behind his creation off and oversight over the darkest period in Fighting Irish football history.
But then things changed in football and the country as a whole. Vietnam got going in earnest, the AFL merged with the NFL giving pro football greater prominence and exposure on a year by year growth basis, and the dyamic of power in college football shifted. For a talented athlete, there was increasingly less motivation to play ball at a school where after getting their education they would have to fight in a murderous, deadly, and ethically questionable war before they could receive their NFL paychecks.
Epitomized by Army's fall from the college football elite, post-Staubach the service academies simply failed to bring in talent at a competitive level with the major public, non-military affiliated schools. In the much the same way Notre Dame's rigid academic recruitment standards now put the program at a notable disadvantage in comparison to schools like Miami or USC, the prospect of military service and war pushed the military academies into second class status as it pertains to football. And after 1963 and a loss to a 9-2 Navy team manned by the Hall of Famer Staubach, Navy never again beat the Irish for 43 straight seasons.
Then came Charlie Weis and the infamous 2007 game. The Midshipmen stormed into South Bend and took down the lowly Irish in a shootout 46-44, dropping Notre Dame to 1-8 in a season in which they would finish an abysmal 3-9. It was the lowest point of the post-Holtz decline, and Irish fans never dreamed it could get any worse.
But in the modern day college football landscape where Michigan, Nebraska and Florida State are all mediocre programs, the depths to which this team can sink should never be surprising. Featuring an "improved" offensive attack, with the return of previously injured wide receiver Michael Floyd, Weis somehow found a way to lose to Navy once again in South Bend, 23-21.
It was one thing when a horrid Irish team lost a slugfest that became, inevitably, just another kick in the gut during a historically futile season. But coming into the contest against Navy ranked 22nd in the nation and with BCS hopes still alive (if on life support) the Irish have now completely ruined another season as they will undoubtedly fall from the rankings, this time probably for the remainder of 09. It was the first time a ranked Irish team has lost to an unranked Navy team since 1936, and it was arguably the most embarrassing loss of Weis' tenure, which speaks volumes in and of itself.
Notre Dame threw the ball successfully, as most projected they would. Clausen continued to post Heisman-like numbers, bombing the ball to his dynamic duo of receivers (among others) for 452 yards and two touchdowns to one interception. Golden Tate was phenomenal again, bringing in nine balls for 132 yards and a touchdown and Michael Floyd picked up right where he left off before a broken collarbone sidelined him in Week 3, posting 10 grabs for 141 yards and a touchdown.
But every time the Irish got into the red zone they would inevitably screw it up. From turnovers to poor execution to poor play calling, the Irish outgained Navy by 108 yards but failed to execute when it counted. Whether it is Weis' play calling, the complication level of the system the team runs, or Jimmy Clausen's inability to properly execute his reads and checks, something is fatally wrong with this team, and the casualty is now the 2009 season.
Despite their offensive "success," the Irish defense was once again awful. While Charlie Weis continues to try to prove his genius on every play with his complex, pro-ready schemes, Navy simply ran the option right up Notre Dame's ass, controlling the line of scrimmage and punishing the Irish D. While Notre Dame was only able to muster a pathetic 60 yards rushing total, Navy dominated the ground game, posting 348 total rushing yards.
Their leading rusher, fullback Vince Murray, rumbled through the defensive line — mostly off the first read on the triple option — gaining 158 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Ricky Dobbs added 102 yards rushing and a touchdown of his own.
Ironically, though, it was on one of the three pass plays Dobbs attempted (2-for-3 for 56 yards) that Navy asserted its control over the game. The pass went for a 52-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jones and put Navy up 21-7 in what was a brilliant display of the Irish's futility on this incomprehensibly forlorn afternoon.
Football is the hardest sport in which to cast blame, especially as a mere observer. When a quarterback throws a pick sometimes it is his fault and sometime the receiver makes a mistake (maybe breaking off a route on a poor read) and the ball is intercepted. But unaware of the play design and assignments, the casual observer would easily blame the quarterback because the interception shows up in his stat column and he loses the points on their fantasy teams when it occurs.
The same is true for coaches. Charlie Weis can call the perfect play in a situation if run to optimal efficiency. But if Clausen doesn't make his reads correctly or doesn't check down to the proper players based on the coverages (as we've seen Tom Brady do so often), exploiting the weaknesses of the opposing defenses and running the system properly, than the play calling is meaningless. For Weis' offense — and essentially any offensive system — to truly work their must be a dualistic presence of conception and execution. When there is a lack of success, many times it is hard to figure out which end of this relationship is facing the deficiency.
But when a quarterback posts the most completions and the fourth best yardage totals in a school whose quarterbacking history includes Joe Theisman and Joe Montana, it is hard to understand how the result isn't a victory over an unranked Navy squad. Is it possible that Clausen is stellar all the way down the field and than chokes in the red zone? Possible I guess, but seemingly improbable. But after so many issues — even in victory — one has to use logic to determine where the cancer that must be eliminated resides All the logical and tangible evidence seems to point in one main direction. And this most recent loss to Navy will do nothing to silence those who feel that Weis should have been gone before Notre Dame even played this game.