Irish extend streak over Navy to 41, beat Middies 27-9
Pat Leonard | Tuesday, October 26, 2004
The 78th meeting between Notre Dame and Navy was a game of firsts.
Irish linebacker Mitchell Thomas made his first tackle. Tight end John Carlson caught his first pass. Running back Marcus Wilson, in his senior season, scored his first touchdown. And Notre Dame beat Navy, 27-9, for an NCAA record 41st consecutive time Oct. 16 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Midshipmen entered the game 5-0 and poised to beat the Irish for the first time since 1963, when Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach led Navy to a 35-14 victory.
But Notre Dame scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the game and its first possession of the second half to keep Navy out of striking distance.
“It’s critically important that when you play a team that’s as skilled as they are at running the option … you try to get ahead of them,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said.
Wilson scored on a 33-yard touchdown run to open the scoring in a two-minute, six-second scoring drive, and Ryan Grant ran it in from one-yard out six minutes later to make the score 14-0 early.
Grant (Don Bosco Prep), Wilson (Poly Prep) and linebacker Brandon Hoyte (16 tackles, Sayreville War Memorial) – all performed at the top of their games in front of their personal home crowd.
“I feel great to be able to play with Ryan and Marcus and everyone else on the team,” Hoyte said. “It really felt like a homecoming game.”
Grant ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, passing five former Notre Dame running backs on the all-time rushing list with 1,961 total yards. Grant’s second touchdown – a one-yard run – came on the first Irish second half drive. The senior back, not fully recovered from a preseason hamstring injury, ran nine times and caught one pass in the 12-play drive.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that, and I felt pretty good,” Grant said. “I was glad I was able to help the team.”
Grant gained 100 yards for the first time since he rushed for 107 yards in 2002 against Boston College. The senior combined with a slew of Irish backs to average 4.6 yards per carry behind what tackle Ryan Harris called a determined offensive line.
“I just had it in my mind that I was going to physically dominate anybody I’d go against today,” Harris said.
Notre Dame’s defense meanwhile held Navy’s flexbone triple option offense to 216 net yards rushing, 51 yards below the Midshipmen average, and Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco finished with only 19 yards on 24 carries.
“That’s the way we’re supposed to play defense,” Hoyte said. “That’s the tempo and tone that we plan on setting for the rest of the year.”
Notre Dame dominated the first half, adding a D.J. Fitzpatrick 47-yard field goal to its two touchdowns with 53 seconds remaining. The Irish went into the locker room up 17-0. But Navy opened the second half with a field goal to narrow the gap at 17-3.
Grant’s touchdown on the following possession reestablished Notre Dame’s dominance and extended the lead to 24-3.
“You come out in the second half [and] the thing you want to do is take charge of the football game,” Willingham said. “Because you know if you don’t do that, the game can very quickly get away from you.”
Nose tackle Derek Landri recovered a fumbled pitch on the ensuing possession by Midshipmen receiver Lloyd Regas. D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked his second field goal of the game, a 20-yard chip shot, and the Irish were done scoring for the afternoon.
Navy added a late Frank Divis 5-yard touchdown run with 4:19 remaining in the game but failed to convert the two-point try.
“I was real disappointed in that last touchdown because I thought we didn’t play real well at the end,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “But … our kids did an unbelievable job preparing for [Navy]. The fortunate part about it is those guys have played against that offense before a couple times.”
The Notre Dame running game finished the afternoon having trumped Navy’s clock-eating rushing attack. The Irish controlled 29:59 of the total 60 minutes and prevented Navy from doing what it does best – dictate tempo.
“In this game … you have two teams that were running the football and having success at it,” Willingham said. “Their entire offense is about running the football. So that quickly shrinks that clock.”
Navy fullback Kyle Eckel had his second 100-yard game of the season with 102 yards on 22 carries. But Notre Dame’s early lead altered Navy’s approach.
“In [getting ahead early], it changes what they have to do on some of their plays and their play selection,” Willingham said.
The Midshipmen do not throw often, as Navy did not complete a pass until Amir Jenkins caught a Polanco pass for nine yards with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter. Navy finished with 44 yards passing, less than half of its 112.6 yard average.
But when Notre Dame had the ball, offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick found himself with an uncommon amount of options.
“[Having three backs] is a good luxury because it allows you an opportunity,” Diedrick said. “If one of the guys is really hot, you can kind of stay with him a little bit longer … If you’ve got an option between one of two calls you can call the strength of whatever back is in there.”
u Linebacker Derek Curry and defensive end Justin Tuck both were shaken up on the final play of the first quarter, but both players returned. Tuck returned to the lineup immediately and Curry returned for the following drive after sophomore Mitchell Thomas filled his spot, making his first career tackle.
u Running back Travis Thomas saw almost no practice repetitions during the week preceding the Stanford game. But Thomas got seven carries in the fourth quarter against Navy and performed to Diedrick’s liking.
“I was very happy to see Travis Thomas playing well,” Diedrick said. “Even though it was at the end of the game, he was running hard and was able to protect the football.”
Thomas started the Brigham Young game at tailback but fumbled four times in his first 16 carries over the course of the early season.