Throughout the course of this football season, Navy Coach Charlie Weatherbie has praised his team, insisting it was better than its well-below-.500 record. Today, the Midshipmen proved him correct before a crowd of 80,012 at Notre Dame Stadium and a national television audience. However, they also held to form, leading the Fighting Irish with less than a minute to play, then suffering a heartbreaking 28-24 loss.
With Navy leading, 24-21, with 1 minute 20 seconds to play, Notre Dame converted on fourth and 10 from Navy's 37-yard line, barely getting the first down on a pass from quarterback Jarious Jackson to split end Bobby Brown--and a spot of the ball by the officials that Weatherbie disputed after the game. The Irish then took the lead on Jackson's 16-yard lob to seldom-used split end Jay Johnson, who beat Davede Alexander at the 5-yard line and ran into the end zone with 36 seconds to play.
"It's devastating," Alexander said. "There's no other way you can look at it. We were right there."
It was the Midshipmen's 36th consecutive loss to the Irish (5-3), the longest winning streak by one major-college football opponent over another. It also was Navy's fifth loss by six points or less this season.
The fourth-down conversion prior to Notre Dame's winning score probably was the most difficult play for the Midshipmen to accept. Navy's coaches were so confident that Brown had been stopped short of the first-down marker that they were in the midst of huddling with the offense to call a kneel-down play, with the intent of running out the clock. But then the marker was brought onto the field, a measurement was taken, and Notre Dame had the first down by about an inch.
"It looked about six inches away from the sticks where he stopped," Weatherbie said.
Said safety Chris Lepore: "It was the closest measurement I've ever seen in my life. It breaks your heart--a 36-year streak and we came one centimeter from ending it."
Navy rallied from a 14-0 first-half deficit behind sophomore quarterback Brian Madden (34 carries for 168 yards, 7 of 17 pass completions for 86 yards), who replaced injured starter Brian Broadwater after Broadwater suffered a broken collarbone last week against Akron. The Midshipmen also were aided by 13 penalties against Notre Dame for 130 yards--the most infractions in a game by the Irish since 1978 and their greatest single-game penalty-yardage total since 1961.
With the score tied at 21 with just over eight minutes left, Lepore sacked Jackson from the blind-side, forcing a fumble that Lepore recovered at the Notre Dame 37. Six plays later, Tim Shubzda's 33-yard field goal gave Navy a 24-21 lead with 5:56 left.
On the ensuing kickoff, Navy tried a squib kick, but Terrance Howard picked up the ball at the 18 and returned it to the 41. Notre Dame then put together a harrowing, 16-play drive for the winning score. It converted a third and eight from its 43 with a 10-yard pass from Jackson to Jabari Holloway. Then, on a third and one from Navy's 28, Jackson was sacked for a nine-yard loss by linebacker Daryl Hill, setting up the fourth and 10.
Navy had one last chance to win the game, but after completing two passes for 18 yards, Madden was sacked by Grant Irons at Navy's 30, essentially ending any hope for a miracle finish.
"I thought it was a tremendous comeback to win that game," Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie said. "I knew what kind of game it would be if we didn't play as well as we're capable. I feel very fortunate to win."
Led by 146 yards rushing from freshman tailback Julius Jones, the brother of Virginia's star running back Thomas Jones, Notre Dame outgained Navy, 524 yards to 317, but after falling behind 14-0, Navy got an 11-yard touchdown run by Madden and a blocked punt for a touchdown during the final six minutes of the first half.
The Midshipmen took their first lead early in the third quarter on Alexander's 23-yard interception return, but Notre Dame re-tied the game 57 seconds later on a career-long 57-yard touchdown run by Jackson.
The Midshipmen had a chance to take the lead with time winding down in the third quarter, but Shubzda's 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
"I felt like we played well enough to win the game. We just ran out of time at the end," Weatherbie said. "This is one that hurts deep inside you because you know you played your hearts out."
Close Calls, but No Victories
Many of Navy's 36 consecutive losses to Notre Dame have been blowouts, but Navy nearly has ended the streak several times.
Notre Dame held on when Navy's desperation pass just failed as time expired. Chris McCoy completed a 69-yard pass to Pat McGrew, but McGrew was pushed out of bounds at the 1-yard line by Notre Dame's Alan Rossum.
John Carney's 44-yard field goal with 14 seconds left completed an 11-point comeback by the Irish. Navy led 17-7 with 4:02 to play, but Notre Dame took 1:45 to cut the lead to 17-15 on Allen Pinkett's touchdown run and a two-point conversion. The Irish then forced Navy to punt and began the game-winning drive with one minute left.
Navy's upset hopes failed when Dave Waymer tipped away Bob Leszczynski's pass in the end zone on fourth down with 4:47 to play.
The Midshipmen led 6-0 in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame took the lead on a touchdown catch by Pete Demmerle and added to it when Randy Harrison returned an interception for a touchdown.