Notre Dame 30, Navy 23
Navy's first lead against No. 10 Notre Dame today seemed irrelevant. The second time, it seemed a little less so. Soon after the third time, Notre Dame had to turn over the game to its playmakers.
Those players helped the Fighting Irish score two touchdowns in the final five minutes in a 30-23 victory before 70,260 at Ravens Stadium.
The Midshipmen (1-8) lost to Notre Dame for an NCAA-record 39th consecutive season. But their offense gained 340 yards, a total that only No. 17 Florida State exceeded against the Fighting Irish this year.
Navy's largest lead was 23-15 following a 36-yard field goal by junior Eric Rolfs with 1 minute 36 seconds left in the third quarter. However, the Midshipmen gained two first downs on their five possessions after that. Navy's slotbacks, who used option pitches to gain 148 yards on 12 carries today, had only one carry -- for 16 yards -- in those drives.
Navy Coach Paul Johnson said Notre Dame (9-1) adjusted its defense to take away the pitches.
"We couldn't pitch it unless their end takes the quarterback," he said. "If that doesn't happen, there's no one to pitch to. . . . That's a great defensive team. Ask anyone who's played them. You're not going to move the ball on them the whole game. No one does."
Still, Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham seemed relieved that the slotbacks did not have many carries.
"I'm not sure why they went away from it," he said.
Notre Dame tied the score at 23 following a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore Rashon Powers-Neal and a two-point conversion pass from junior Carlyle Holiday to senior Arnaz Battle with 4:28 to play.
The Fighting Irish scored the winning touchdown on a 63-yard pass from Holiday to junior Omar Jenkins with 2:08 remaining.
The Midshipmen had not led Notre Dame since the final minutes of a 28-24 loss in 1999, and it seemed unlikely they would do so today when starting quarterback Craig Candeto sprained his left ankle on the fourth play of the game and did not return.
But Candeto's replacement, sophomore Aaron Polanco, led a 12-play, 95-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard touchdown run by Polanco for a 7-2 lead with 4:30 left in the first quarter.
Polanco and the defense kept the team close the rest of the game.
"I was no more nervous going in than I am before any game," Polanco said. "Everybody had a great feeling the whole game. The defense was pumped, the offense was pumped. We didn't lose that feeling the whole game."
Notre Dame gained just 68 yards on 41 carries, though Holiday completed 13 of 21 passes for 272 yards. Midshipmen sophomore linebacker Lane Jackson had 11 tackles and junior linebacker Eddie Carthan added six, including two for loss.
"We went out and almost did what nobody thought we could do," Carthan said. "This game hurts because we had a chance to make history. Everyone would have looked at us differently."
Navy had not come this close to defeating a Notre Dame team ranked in the top 10 since 1974. That year, the Midshipmen used a strong game by punter John Stufflebeem and a conservative game plan and led 6-0 late in the fourth quarter. However, the Fighting Irish scored two touchdowns in the final six minutes to win, 14-6.
The mood of this year's Navy team clearly has changed in the past month -- and even during the team's bye week last week.
"To be honest, before this game, I think we were questioning whether we could beat anybody," Navy starting defensive tackle Andy Zetts said. "We took a whole week off and we convinced ourselves we were a better football team. We knew we had better believe it, or we wouldn't have a chance."
Navy has lost 34 straight games to ranked opponents and has not beaten a top 10 team since a 38-21 victory over then-No. 2 South Carolina in 1984. Johnson refused to classify today's loss as a moral victory -- he said he told the team afterward there was no such thing -- but he did look toward the future.
"We can take this game and use it as a foundation and turn our program around," he said. "When you play with emotion and that kind of intensity and that kind of effort, we are a much better football team. . . . I saw guys sitting in our locker room who were crushed, they were sobbing. I hadn't seen that before. It makes me think we can turn this around."