Irish add kick to Navy jinx

Partially blocked field goal knuckles through at 0:00 to lift Notre Dame, 27-24

Streak over Navy hits 40 games

Eckel's 2nd TD gives Mids lead in 4th

Jones-led rally leaves Navy in `disbelief'

November 09, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Navy junior safety Josh Smith had spent three hours confronting Notre Dame weapons, especially senior running back Julius Jones. Then, Smith had perhaps the most painful view of another brutal loss to the Fighting Irish.

While lying on the ground after leaping and partially blocking the game-winning, 40-yard field-goal attempt by Notre Dame kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick, Smith watched the ball float strangely through the uprights as time expired last night. With that, pandemonium broke out in the stands and on the field, as Notre Dame celebrated a come-from-behind, 27-24 victory.

The 80,795 witnesses who packed Notre Dame Stadium did not just see the Irish extend their NCAA-record winning streak over Navy to 40 games. They saw a vulnerable Irish team (3-6) salvage a piece of its season by surviving an entertaining, see-saw battle that left the Midshipmen numb.

And at the end of a day in which Navy traded punches admirably with Notre Dame and its vaunted tradition and bigger, faster players, a day in which the Irish didn't punt or kick particularly well, the Mids (6-4) had to swallow defeat at the hands of a walk-on specialist who made two fourth-quarter field goals to erase a 24-21 Navy lead.

Fitzpatrick, who replaced injured kicker Nicholas Setta a month ago and also punts for the Irish, beat Navy by booting what amounted to a knuckleball that split the goal posts. During a series in which the Mids have dropped four of their past seven by a touchdown or less to Notre Dame, including last year's 30-23 defeat in which Navy blew an eight-point lead in Baltimore with four minutes to go, could it get any more torturous than this?

"I got three fingers on [the kick]," Smith said. "I just didn't get enough of it, I guess. Hats off to [Fitzpatrick]. He made a pressure kick. I'm in disbelief."

"I saw ... that [the kick] was on line," Navy coach Paul Johnson said. "I knew if it went far enough, it was going to go through, because it was right in the middle of the goal posts. They don't get any style points for being pretty. It went through."

With that, a classic chapter of the nation's longest running intersectional rivalry, a 77-game series that Notre Dame now leads, 67-9-1, was done.

The game featured six lead changes, and showcased the talent of Jones, who was curiously absent in the Irish game plan at times but never stopped putting pressure on Navy. Behind an offensive line that opened some gaping holes, Jones bedeviled the Mids with his gear changes, cutback moves and ability to slip tackles.

Jones finished with a game-high 221 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns. He reversed field after breaking a tackle in the backfield, then sprinted untouched for a 48-yard score that put Notre Dame on top 7-0 in the first quarter. He faked out two defenders with a stutter move, then stiff-armed Smith during a 12-yard scoring run that put the Irish in front 21-17 with 2:35 left in the third quarter.

And Jones was there to throw the hammer down on Navy, after the Mids had answered with a 39-yard drive and fullback Kyle Eckel's second TD run of the contest put Navy back in front 24-21 with 9:53 to play. From that point on, Jones gained 73 yards, leading Notre Dame's two, decisive scoring drives.

Jones almost single-handedly gave Fitzpatrick a chance to atone for an otherwise shaky day. Fitzpatrick missed field-goal attempts from 50 and 42 yards, twice sent kickoffs out of bounds and twice punted ineffectively from deep in Irish territory, giving Navy short fields on which to work. But the kicker got the last word by tying the game at 24 with a 30-yard field goal, then hitting the game-winner.

"You don't like to play golf in the cold and you don't like to kick in the cold, either," Fitzpatrick said. "I hit a couple of bad ones today, but finally came back and made the one that counted."

Navy, which could have guaranteed a winning season and become bowl-eligible by ending the streak, nearly squeezed just enough out of its limited resources, even though its defense failed to force a turnover for the first time in 17 games.

The Mids had trouble matching up with Notre Dame's defense and could not sustain any long drives. Yet Navy got a 65-yard touchdown run from Tony Lane to tie the game at 7 with 4:54 left in the first quarter, then strung together 17 points by finishing three drives that began at the Irish 39, 40 and 41.

Take away Lane's one outburst, and Navy, after entering the game as the nation's top rushing team (309 yards per game), averaged just 3.3 yards on 52 carries. Still, the Mids took leads of 10-7 on a 35-yard field goal by Eric Rolfs, retook the lead at 17-14 on Eckel's 5-yard burst off a great block by guard Josh Goodin with 5:50 left in the third quarter, then took its final lead at 24-21 on Eckel's second score from 1 yard out.

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