EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Yesterday's game against Navy was expected to be a mere break in Notre Dame's schedule, but the No. 2 Fighting Irish might have left Giants Stadium wondering whether they were really among the country's best teams.
Notre Dame (7-1) scored often in yesterday's 52-31 win over Navy (3-5). And it looked impressive in erupting for 42 second-half points. But the Fighting Irish, possibly the new No. 1 after top-ranked Virginia's loss yesterday, had to survive a day when their defense was thoroughly confused by an offense that last week could muster just seven points in a loss to Division I-AA James Madison.
"This is one of my lowest spots in my career," said Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, after watching his team win its fourth straight game. "You can't have a great football team without playing great defense."
Credit part of Notre Dame's poor defensive showing to a variation in Navy's offense. The Midshipmen ran their multi-pro set out of a wishbone formation, which bewildered Notre Dame most of the day.
"We surprised Notre Dame with the offensive set," Navy coach George Chaump said. "We caught them off-guard with something that they just weren't ready for."
The result was a running game that out-rushed Notre Dame, 221-212, with quarterback Alton Grizzard leading the way (93 yards on 18 rushes). And a mix with a conservative passing game (9-for-14, 161 yards) allowed Grizzard to lead scoring drives of 80 and 90 yards in the fourth quarter -- both against Notre Dame's first-team defense.
"It was encouraging that we showed we can play as a team and execute and get things done," said Grizzard. "But it's discouraging that it's another loss. I'm tired of losing."
The Midshipmen more than held their own in playing to a 10-10 tie at the half, as they rushed for 146 yards and held a 190-164 advantage in total offense.
Notre Dame scored on a 1-yard run by fullback Jerome Bettis to take a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Navy, out of the wishbone-look set, responded with a 66-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run by Jason Pace to tie the game early in the second quarter. After Notre Dame's Craig Hentrich kicked a 31-yard field goal to put the Irish up, 10-7, Navy's Frank Schenk responded with a 27-yard field goal with 14 seconds left in the half.
Navy had averaged 33 passes a game but threw just three in the first half.
"George Chaump has thrown the ball his whole career, but we knew they would play a short game," Holtz said. "We didn't expect the wishbone. In the first half, they did a good job chop-blocking our linebackers."
The Irish made some adjustments at halftime and opened the second half by stopping Navy's first three drives. Meanwhile, Notre Dame scored on its first three possessions on runs by Rodney Culver (7 yards), Ricky Watters (2 yards) and quarterback Rick Mirer (30 yards) that gave it a commanding 31-10 lead late in the third quarter.
"We had a few breakdowns, and when you play a team of Notre Dame's caliber, you can't afford that," Navy middle guard Andy Kirkland said.
But Navy got within 31-17 when -- after the Middies recovered a fumble by Culver -- Grizzard scored on a 6-yard run late in the third period. Tony Brooks scored on a 3-yard run to put Notre Dame up, 38-17, with 9:09 left in the game.
Then came a wild finish that produced four touchdowns in the final four minutes.
Grizzard led an 80-yard drive that ended in a 19-yard scoring pass to David Berghult, cutting the lead to 38-24 with 3 minutes, 46 seconds left. Three plays later, Mirer responded with a 54-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Raghib "Rocket" Ismail to make it 45-24.
A 90-yard Navy drive ended with Grizzard passing 7 yards to B.J. Mason to make it 45-31 with 16 seconds left. But, on the onside kick attempt, Notre Dame's Todd Lyght grabbed the ball near the sideline and raced 53 yards untouched for the final touchdown.
"I thought offensively we played well," Holtz said. "I had a lot of respect for Navy's defense going in, and I didn't expect us to play that well offensively.
"But I'm disappointed in scoring 52 points and not being able to play my second unit," he added. "I've worried about the defense all year."
Despite his displeasure, Holtz may be coaching the country's top-ranked team against Tennessee next week. It's a high perch for a squad whose coach said before yesterday wasn't worthy of being in the top 15.
"We're just in a state of disarray at times," Holtz said.
The Midshipmen lost their second straight game but hope that the positives from yesterday will carry over to the three remaining games, as the team seeks its first winning season since 1982.
"We really want to turn things around and get some momentum," Berghult said. "We want the three wins, so we can go out with a winning season."