11/19/10 10:00 AM EST
Notre Dame-Army rivalry renews in Cathedral
By Sunil Joshi / MLB.com
The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish will face the Army Black Knights at Yankee Stadium, renewing what was once a fiercely contested annual matchup. Both schools have tremendous histories in college football, much of which overlapped. Moreover, the original Yankee Stadium was, more often than not, the battleground, adding a spectacular backdrop to what was usually a high-stakes showdown.
This is a matchup of new generations. The teams haven't met since 2006, meaning that only one class per side was even eligible when the teams last met. That day, the Fighting Irish, then ranked fifth in the USA Today Coaches' Poll, steamrolled the Black Knights, 41-9, at Notre Dame Stadium.
This version of Notre Dame enters the game at 5-5, though the Fighting Irish beat No. 14 Utah last week for their first win over a ranked team since the '06 season. Things have been dismal in the intervening seasons for Army, but the Black Knights enter the game with a 6-4 record, putting them on pace for their first postseason bowl game since 1996.
It's also a new iteration of Yankee Stadium, of course, which opened in 2009 and has hosted a World Series, a prizefight and major concerts -- but never a football game. The previous Yankee Stadium was host to two NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl days, as well as several major college football games, boxing matches, soccer games and concerts.
The atmosphere may have changed, but the gravity remains the same. It's still Notre Dame facing Army at Yankee Stadium. There's still history to be made in the Bronx when the teams take the field at 7 p.m. ET.
"It's a pretty special thing to be a part of this," said Army defensive tackle Mike Gann. "I watched a few games in the old [Yankee Stadium], but I haven't even been to the new one. This will be my first visit. Being part of the first college football game there is really something special and something that my teammates and I can take with us forever."
Still, the teams say that they've kept perspective. Like the team that calls Yankee Stadium home during the summer months, these one-night tenants are focused, first and foremost, on winning.
"I think it's a matter of getting the tourist out of you," said Army head coach Rich Ellerson. "When we get there on Saturday, we're not being tourists. We're completely focused on playing a football game."
Ellerson said that it will be impossible not to pay attention to the scene around him.
"It's one of those iconic things -- Notre Dame football, Army football, Yankee Stadium -- that's American sport," he said. "All three of those things on the same day? Wow, what a neat opportunity. We'll try to get our arms around that this week, use that to the degree we can be as good as we can be in the practice environment, then we're going to step across that white line and play football."
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is similarly focused on the game. Kelly, a native of Everett, Mass., attended games at the old Yankee Stadium, but his most profound memories of baseball in New York stem from 1986, when he watched his beloved Red Sox fall to the Mets in Game 6 of the World Series at Shea Stadium -- the infamous Bill Buckner game.
That doesn't mean he doesn't grasp the history backing the 50th meeting between the schools on the gridiron. Notre Dame leads the series, 37-8-4.
"It's a great venue, exciting, on NBC, national television," Kelly said. "I think [it's] just a great atmosphere for college football, [and the] 50th meeting of Army versus Notre Dame, so there's a lot to the game. We're excited about that, certainly."
Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o said that while the venue will be exciting, his concern is helping his team get a sixth victory, making it bowl-eligible. The Fighting Irish, after all, play their games in one of the most storied stadiums in college football.
"Same size field, same size field goals, but, of course, it's going to be different playing in Yankee Stadium," Te'o said. "Similar to here, you can feel the tradition there. ... We've just got to stay focused on the task at hand and make sure we come out with a win."
Ellerson said that he would leverage the history of the event to motivate his team during pregame preparation.
"I'm going to use the fact that it is Yankee Stadium, that it is Notre Dame, that it is Army, and that's something -- unless you've been under a rock -- that sounds like America," he said. "These individuals that right now represent Army football have a chance to be the guys that represent us in that venue on that evening, and that implies some responsibility. It's a tremendous opportunity and honor, but a lot of responsibility that goes along with it."
Sunil Joshi is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.