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Something to smile about

Andrew Soukup | Monday, November 10, 2003

College students need alcohol about as much as Notre Dame needed a win.

That’s why you’ll excuse the Notre Dame sideline for erupting onto the field when D.J. Fitzpatrick’s kick floated its way through the uprights in the north end zone, giving 3-6 Notre Dame a 27-24 victory against Navy.

The way the Irish celebrated, you would have thought it was 1993 and the Irish had just beat top-ranked Florida State. But “pandemonium on the field” doesn’t have the same ring when Notre Dame got its third win of the season in November against lowly Navy – and it needed a field goal with time running out to do so.

Still, in a season so devoid of memorable moments, please excuse the players and coaches for grabbing hold of one when it finally occurs.

There stood Tyrone Willingham, his scowl for post-game NBC interviews of the past three home games replaced by a broad grin. There jumped the players, prancing around the field in levels of excitement normally reserved for visiting teams who tear chunks of turf out of Notre Dame Stadium. There roared the fans, who would have missed a thrilling ending had they left this game early.

Someone listening to the roars outside the stadium might have thought the Irish were playing for a BCS bowl instead of a BS bowl.

But if an ecstatic celebration after beating a team for the 40th straight time helps the Irish get back on track, then so be it.

“We had to issue a statement,” Willingham said, “that we are here to stay, that we aren’t going away and we aren’t going to fade.”

That declaration was provided by senior running back Julius Jones, who, for the second time this season, broke the 200-yard barrier in a game. In fact, without Jones – who carried the Irish through wins against Washington State, Pittsburgh and now Navy – Notre Dame could easily be 0-9.

The proclamation was also made by a defense whose failure to shut down the option in the second half nearly sent the 2003 Notre Dame team into the land of infamous teams. But with the game on the line and Navy driving, the defense discovered its cajones and forced the Midshipmen to punt.

It still took a walk-on kicker to provide the exclamation point.

Sure, D.J. Fitzpatrick had jogged onto the field once before with the game on the line and a handful of ticks left on the clock. But he was a freshman kicker at Marian High School in Mishawaka, kicking for the win in a homecoming game against Washington. “I’ve been there before, just not at this magnitude,” he said.

In high school, Fitzpatrick buried the kick. But how would he do with a 39-year-old streak hanging in the balance? “Get ready, No. 19, they’re gonna need you!” an inebriated fan screamed as Notre Dame started driving down the field to set up Fitzpatrick.

Twice, Navy called timeout to ice a kicker who had already missed two field goals and sent kickoffs out of bounds. But each time, Fitzpatrick jogged over to the Notre Dame side of the field, stayed by himself and tried to maintain his focus.

When he ran onto the field for the third time, he lined up behind high school teammate Matt Krueger, got a perfect snap, a perfect hold – and watched the ball wobble 40 yards toward the uprights.

Navy’s Josh Smith would say later that he got the tips of three fingers on the ball and if he got four, Notre Dame probably would have slid back into the pot and found itself in hot water.

“I hit it great, but the rotation off the ball told me it had to be blocked,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t know if it was going in or not. Those were probably the longest two to three seconds in my life.”

Fitzpatrick waited. And waited. And waited. And as flashbulbs popped across the Stadium, he vaguely saw two officials extend their arms vertically – something Fitzpatrick didn’t have time to do because his teammates mobbed him.

“It went in,” he grinned. “I don’t know by how much, but it went in.”

So Fitzpatrick celebrated, his teammates celebrated, his fans celebrated, his coach celebrated. And when the celebration died down, Saturday’s win showed there may be hope for salvaging this season – a season that began with Notre Dame running through a buzz saw of ranked teams and a season that ends against teams Notre Dame should be able to beat.

“Hey guys,” NBC sideline reporter Lewis Johnson told Jones and Fitzpatrick as they waited for a post-game interview, “you can smile now.”

Finally.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu