SOUTH BEND, Ind. - -This time, there was no wild celebration when the final seconds ran off the clock in a Navy victory over Notre Dame. The Midshipmen, to be sure, were happy with their 23-21 win that silenced the announced 80,795 inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon, but they just raised their arms and exchanged hugs.
"I wanted to jump up and down and run on the field, but I was kind of tired," said senior linebacker Ram Vela, who had nine tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception. "We've done it before. We went into this game not really placing much emphasis, too much importance on it. We treated it like another game. I think that's why, in the end, you kind of got the celebration like it was just another game."
This was the Midshipmen's first visit to Notre Dame Stadium since Nov. 3, 2007, when they edged the Fighting Irish, 46-44, in triple overtime. That victory might have been more significant because it ended a 43-year losing streak to Notre Dame, but this one was perhaps more impressive. As junior cornerback Kevin Edwards put it, "The first year we broke the streak, but this year we actually beat a real good team."
Notre Dame was 6-2, ranked 19th in the nation, and had hopes of winning its final three games to sneak into a BCS bowl. This Notre Dame had a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and one of the best pairs of wide receivers in the country.
The Midshipmen countered with a confident offense and a defense that Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis called "by far the best Navy defense that they've had in my time here." Ten of Navy's 11 defensive starters played in the 2007 victory, and that experience helped buoy a unit that gave up 512 yards of total offense and did not force a single punt by the Fighting Irish, yet made countless big plays in the red zone.
"Coach always said that if we believe, we can make things happen," junior safety Wyatt Middleton said. "You can't really stop athletes like that."
Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen set career highs for passes (51), completions (37) and passing yards (452, the fourth-highest single-game total in Notre Dame history). Wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate each had more than 100 receiving yards.
But the Fighting Irish committed three costly turnovers (two inside Navy's 15-yard line), missed two field-goal tries, and got stopped once on downs inside the 5-yard line. Clausen was also sacked twice in the final 70 seconds, and the latter one by senior linebacker Craig Schaefer resulted in a safety.
Navy set the tone of the game early on both sides of the ball. On Notre Dame's third play from scrimmage, senior cornerback Blake Carter leveled wide receiver Robby Parris after a 4-yard catch, and popped the ball loose. Vela recovered. The Midshipmen immediately marched 51 yards in 12 plays to score. Junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who did not start the previous two games because of a cracked right kneecap, twice converted on fourth-and-short yardage, including on his 1-yard touchdown run. Navy took a lead that it would never relinquish.
"We were [playing] for the win," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said of going for it on fourth down. "I knew that they're very good offensively, and I didn't want to settle" for field goals.
The Midshipmen, who gained 404 yards on offense, felt confident that they could move the ball against the Fighting Irish, after struggling to do so in a 27-21 loss last season. Junior fullback Vince Murray rushed for 158 yards on 14 carries. He scored Navy's second touchdown on a 25-yard burst up the middle. Junior wide receiver Greg Jones caught a 52-yard touchdown pass on a deception play that the team had practiced throughout the week.
But it was Navy's defense that made the biggest plays. Late in the third quarter, with the Midshipmen holding a 21-7 lead, Clausen scrambled 8 yards toward the left corner of the end zone. Edwards, whose injured right shoulder prevents him from raising the arm above his head, met him at the 1-yard line, hitting him so hard that Clausen fumbled and then lay on the ground for several minutes.
Clausen returned to the game and drove the Fighting Irish to the Navy 12-yard line. He then threw a pass that hit Floyd in the back and bounced directly to Vela. Clausen threw two touchdown passes in the final five minutes, but the Fighting Irish ran out of time.
"Every time the ball was in the air, all of us on our side held our breath," said Niumatalolo, whose team booked its spot in the Texas Bowl with the victory.
Over the years, many Navy players have completed their college careers having never beaten Notre Dame. This group of Navy juniors and seniors has experienced two victories over the Fighting Irish and has never lost in Notre Dame's storied stadium.
"Fortunately for me, I never will. Because next time we play them is in [the Meadowlands]," Middleton said with a grin. "That's great. I'm very excited. I love playing in South Bend."
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