There were, unfortunately for Navy, no rewards today for moral victories, else the Mids would have claimed one.
Thirteenth-ranked Notre Dame, anxious to impress the pollsters and the few bowl representatives present, exhausted its playbook and its players before squeezing out a 14-0 triumph over the tenacious Mids before 59,075 at Notre Dame Stadium. ztThe Fighting Irish got 155 yards and one touchdown from their meal ticket and Heisman Trophy candidate, Vagas Ferguson, but could do little else against a revamped Navy defense.
With five regulars sidelined by injuries, including cornerback Chuck Zingler, who was left home in Annapolis when it was discovered he had been playing with a broken bone in his foot, the Mids stunted and blitzed enough to keep the Irish off balance most of the afternoon.
"We sure didn't take them lightly," said Tyrone Barber, a former All-Met at St. John's in Washington, D.C., and a Notre Dame starter today at fullback. "Their defense moved around a lot and always seemed to be in the right place when we tried something."
The only time the Navy defense was caught napping was on Notre Dame's first possession of the game. Irish quarterback Rusty Lisch directed a masterful 73-yard, 16-play drive for the only points the Irish (6-2) would need.
Ferguson slashed and slithered his way through the Mid defense for 42 of those yards. His ninth run, (he carried 34 times today) of the drive brought up fourth and inches at the Navy one.
Lisch gained an estimated four inches on a dive but it was enough to give Notre Dame a first down. Lisch pushed his way over for the touchdown on the next play, with 6:43 left in the period.
Four plays later, Bob Crable burst through and blocked Mid Lex Lauletta's punt. Notre Dame recovered at the Navy 35 and Lisch and Co. were in businesss again. The expected rout -- the Irish being a 19-point favorite -- appeared to be brewing.
Notre Dame drove to the Navy two before Lisch's third-down run lost four yards and forced a field-goal attempt. Chuck Male's kick was wide.
Except for one drive that resulted in a missed field goal in the third period, Navy did not come close to scoring. The Mids, getting an excellent performance from fourth-string tailback Ed Meyers (99 yards on 17 carries), finished with 198 yards. Quarterback Bob Powers, under heavy pressure, completed only five of 12 passes for 65 yards. Often, he had to shrug off several Irish defenders to get his throws off.
Navy Coach George Welsh tried reserve quarterback Mark Fitzgerald for one series, "just to give some other people a chance to play.
"We already have people hurt and we didn't want to leave our season here," said Welsh. "We played a lot of people and that's why we weren't tired in the fourth quarter.
"Notre Dame did nothing that surprised us. They're better defensively than I thought. I can't understand how USC came in here and had over 500 yards and scored 42 points. We are just having problems scoring right now."
One reason Southern California was so successful is its smaller version of Ferguson, Charles White. Another reason is that USC is USC.
Lisch looked extensively to tight end Dean Masztak, who responded with three catches for 51 yards. But Navy defensive end Charlie Thornton (nine tackles and two sacks) and linebackers Mike Kronzer and Tom Paulk led an assault on Lisch that prevented him from getting his passing game going.
"We stunted more than usual," said Thornton. "They didn't pick up what we were doing. We had more of a chance to win here than we did last week in Pittsburgh (Navy lost, 24-7). We just couldn't score.
"You know what Notre Dame is going to do," Thornton said. "They almost tell you, here comes Ferguson. And he comes. A lot."
Although Notre Dame wasn't scoring, it kept the ball enough to keep Navy's offense on the sideline and protected a 7-0 lead. Ferguson's run moved the Irish to the Navy 38, 26 18, 32 and 18 but each time the Navy defense would make big plays to stymie the Irish.
"Navy's defense was quick, and those 155 yards were tough; every one of them," said Ferguson, who has a bruised shoulder and was not expected play much. "You got to say to yourself, 'It hurts, and got out and do your job. It's going to hurt but so what?"
Irish Coach Dan Devine said he continued to play Ferguson, who topped 1,000 yards for the season and became the schools all-time leader in 100-yard games with 11, because "we had made some mistakes and were struggling. And Ferguson gets better as the game progresses."
Navy's only chance to get on the board came at the beginning of the third quarter.
Meyers, who came in after Duane Flowers was knocked woozy in the first period, barreled his way for 41 yards on six carries as the Mids (6-2) moved from their 35 to a first down at the Notre Dame 13. But three plays netted only three yards before Steve Guin missed a 26-yard field goal with 8:09 left in the period.
"I think that took something out of them," said Irish linebacker Crable. "The way they went downfield, I did not think we'd be able to keep them from scoring. We led only 7-0 and it was getting sticky."
It was Crable's jarring hit on Meyers midway in the final quarter that led to Notre Dame's insurance touchdown.
After Male missed a 49-yard field goal, Meyers was smashed on a sweep by Crable and fumbled at Navy's 30. Safety Tom Gibbons, a former All-Met from Fort Hunt in Alexandria, fell on the loose ball. (Gibbons also intercepted a Powers pass on the final play of the game.)
Notre Dame's strategy was simple -- give the ball to Ferguson. Six sprints later, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound senior scored from three yards out.
"Two guys held hem (Meyers) up and I stuck him," said Crable, who was in on 19 tackles. "If he's fourth string, I would hate to see the first three. He was hard to bring down. I'm glad we got that touchdown. It gave us some room to breathe."
In recording its 16th straight win over Navy, Notre Dame ran off 19 more plays than the Mids, chalked up 341 yards and had 24 first downs to Navy's 12.
Navy also may have lost Paulk, who injured an ankle in the third quarter. His status for Saturday's game against Syracuse will be determined early next week. Flowers, who said he "had his bell rung" on a vicious tackle, returned to the game in the waning minutes.