SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Playing at a significant disadvantage in size, speed and depth, the Navy football team went toe to toe with Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon, moving into position for a potential go-ahead touchdown on its final possession.
But on fourth and four from the Notre Dame 31, wide receiver Shawn Lynch’s carry on a reverse went for no gain, and the Midshipmen came up short, 38-34, in front of 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Navy (4-4) lost its third consecutive game to Notre Dame despite rushing for 331 yards and amassing 28 first downs, the most for the Midshipmen in the history of the series. Fullback Chris Swain led the way with 85 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, and quarterback Keenan Reynolds accounted for four touchdowns, running 22 times for 53 yards with 88 passing yards.
“It’s the scenario you want on the road against Notre Dame, driving to win the game,” Reynolds said of the last possession that began at midfield following Marcus Thomas’s 49-yard kickoff return. “It doesn’t get better than that. I mean it’s a dream come true. Unfortunately we didn’t make enough plays to finish the drive.”
Reynolds blamed himself for a poor pitch during the series that lost nine yards. The sophomore was trying to get the ball to DeBrandon Sanders, but the pitch was off target, and the sophomore slotback could only fall on it to maintain possession.
Navy got 10 yards back on the next play to set up the fourth-down run that appeared open momentarily for Lynch around the left side. But tackle Bradyn Heap missed a block on Jaylon Smith, and the linebacker shot through to make the tackle that sealed the game.
Moments earlier, the Fighting Irish had gone ahead for good when tailback Tarean Folston scored on a one-yard run with 3 minutes 47 seconds left in regulation. Folston finished with a game-high 140 rushing yards on 18 carries, and wide receiver T.J. Jones added 111 receiving yards on four catches.
“I was definitely impressed by how our team played, but just for us it doesn’t amount to much without a win,” junior safety Parrish Gaines said.
Both teams scored twice in the fourth quarter, with Navy taking a 27-24 lead with 14:56 to go on Reynolds’s four-yard touchdown run. Cam McDaniel answered for Notre Dame on a four-yard run, and the Midshipmen took their last lead at 34-31 when Reynolds completed a pass to wide receiver Matt Aiken for a 34-yard touchdown at 8:55.
The teams combined for 925 yards in the Midshipmen’s closest result against Notre Dame since winning in 2010, 35-17. In its previous two games against the Fighting Irish, Navy was outscored, 106-24.
Notre Dame wasted no time in rolling to the opening touchdown. Starting at their 33-yard line, the Fighting Irish (7-2) needed seven plays to reach the end zone, with tailback George Atkinson III capping the possession with a 41-yard run up the middle.
Navy countered by moving briskly down the field on a 56-yard drive in nine plays. The Midshipmen benefited from a Notre Dame penalty for illegal hands to the face following a four-yard run that put them on the Fighting Irish 26.
Six plays later, Reynolds scored on a two-yard run with 7:32 left in the first quarter. Notre Dame then reclaimed the lead, 10-7, on place kicker Kyle Brindza’s 26-yard field goal on its next possession.
Navy collected its first of two turnovers early in the second quarter, when Gaines intercepted Tommy Rees. The pass was intended for DaVaris Daniels, but the wide receiver slipped, and Gaines secured the easy catch and returned it 12 yards to the Navy 23.
Junior fullback Quinton Singleton picked up 20 yards on first down, setting the tone for a textbook Navy drive that ended when Swain rumbled 11 yards for a touchdown to put the Midshipmen ahead 14-10 with 8:04 remaining in the first half.
Notre Dame and Navy each scored another touchdown before halftime, and the Midshipmen went into the locker room ahead 20-17 thanks to Reynolds’s three-yard run. Place kicker Nick Sloan missed his second extra point of the year, though, one week after kicking a field goal as time expired to beat Pittsburgh, 24-21.
“Everybody gets up for Notre Dame,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Everybody who plays Notre Dame, it’s the Super Bowl for them. For us to come to the mecca of college football, our kids are excited about it. We played really, really well, but what we can’t do is let this loss turn into two losses. We can’t let Notre Dame beat us twice.”