SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Out of contention for a conference championship and weathering ailments to multiple quarterbacks, the Navy football team took extra precautions facing No. 8 Notre Dame to ensure optimal health for the one game that always has mattered most to the Midshipmen.
So it was that quarterback Malcolm Perry remained on the sideline against the Fighting Irish as Garret Lewis and Zach Abey, also nursing discomfort, shared snaps in a 24-17 loss on a dreary Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
Perry sprained his ankle during his dazzling starting debut last week, and the Navy coaching staff was taking no chances with the annual showdown against Army looming Dec. 9.
Lewis made his first career start before Abey took over for good in the first quarter and kept Navy (6-4) competitive in what has been a historically lopsided series heavily favoring the Fighting Irish. The Midshipmen outlasted Notre Dame in last year's meeting, 28-27, in Jacksonville, Fla., but had won only three other times since 1963.
"First off, proud of our kids, and I thought they played hard to the end," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Had a couple mistakes, and we talked about this, against these guys you can't do that. I mean you almost have to play perfect. I thought we did a lot of good things, and we were close there at the end, but obviously not close enough."
The difference was wide receiver Kevin Stepherson's nine-yard touchdown reception to put the Fighting Irish (9-2) ahead by the final margin with 11:49 to play in the fourth quarter. Stepherson finished with a career-high 103 yards and two touchdowns on five catches.
Abey (20 carries, 87 yards) had the Midshipmen on the move on their next possession, but the junior overthrew slotback Jahmaal Daniel on first and 10 from the Notre Dame 36, and the ball landed in the arms of cornerback Tony Pride Jr. It was the only turnover of the game for Navy.
"That was completely my fault," Abey said of his seventh interception. "That's something we can't have, especially in a game like that."
The Midshipmen got to the Notre Dame 25 in the closing minutes, but on fourth and five, a gadget play failed when slotback Darryl Bonner threw an incomplete pass intended for wide receiver Tyler Carmona, allowing the Fighting Irish to run out the final 1:21.
Navy, which rushed for 277 yards, had taken a 17-10 lead on wide receiver Craig Scott's 12-yard touchdown reception with 7:01 to go in the third quarter. It was the first touchdown of the senior's career and his fifth catch overall, capping a 15-play, 72-yard drive lasting 7:59 — the Midshipmen's third-longest scoring possession of the season in terms of time.
Stepherson's 30-yard catch over the middle on Notre Dame's ensuing series tied the game with 5:53 left in the third quarter, but the Fighting Irish did not get the ball back until the final period. Navy marched to the Fighting Irish 20 on the last drive of the quarter, but place kicker Owen White missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in a game in which the Midshipmen possessed the ball for 42:42.
"That's something we knew coming into this game was we had to eat up possession time," Abey said. "Our guys, especially up front, they did a hell of a job of just grinding down the field because it's not easy going eight, nine minutes, but I think we did very well in that aspect."
Abey, the original starter this season, did not play last week while recovering from a sore left shoulder he hurt during the fourth quarter of a loss to Temple on Nov. 2 at Lincoln Financial Field, also the site of this year's Army-Navy game. He had rushed for 1,202 yards before Notre Dame and carried 233 times, among the heaviest workloads in major college football.
Perry, a sophomore, ran for 282 yards, the third most in a game in program history, in a 43-40 victory over Southern Methodist last Saturday but did not practice this past week.
Abey participated in individual work, but coaches held him out of live drills during practice.
"Zach had been out for a while. Garret had been playing well," Niumatalolo said. "Garret had been playing, and I felt like because he had been playing just to stick with him, but we knew Zach was going to play."
A late-arriving and early-departing crowd announced at 77,622 endured chilly temperatures and a steady — at times torrential — downpour to attend the final home game for Notre Dame's seniors.
The Fighting Irish, wearing throwback uniforms honoring legendary former player and coach Knute Rockne, were coming off a 41-8 loss to undefeated Miami that all but knocked them out of the College Football Playoff mix.
"I don't know what the numbers were, but it's eight, 10 teams a year that win 10 games," Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. The seniors "can be an elite class two out of the last three years winning 10 games or more. Ten's the number, but they can win 11, so there's a lot to play for for these guys. They've done an incredible job leading us back to where we should be."