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Football: Stomping ground

Bill Brink | Monday, November 17, 2008

BALTIMORE – Just in case the combination of the pouring rain and the dull offensive schemes of both Notre Dame and Navy caused fans to lose interest, the teams spiced it up at the end.

A couple onside kick recoveries, a long pass and some touchdowns, and everyone watched with rapt attention.

Navy almost mustered its second comeback in two years, but couldn’t finish the job, and Notre Dame hung on to win 27-21 in Baltimore Saturday. With memories of last year’s triple-overtime defeat that ended a 43-year Irish winning streak still fresh, the last few minutes got tense, but the Irish stuck it out.

Navy recovered two consecutive onside kicks in the final two minutes and had a shot at the win until the Irish defense forced a turnover on downs with 22 seconds left.

“I’m looking to see if anyone wants to be on my hands team next week,” Irish coach Charlie Weis joked during his post-game press conference. “Any volunteers?”

Navy got the ball with 2:30 left in the game after a Notre Dame three-and-out and slot back Shun White broke a 24-yard touchdown run to make the score 27-13. On the ensuing onside kick, Notre Dame wide receiver Robby Parris knocked the ball out of bounds, but the referees called an illegal batting penalty and ordered a re-kick. On the second kick, Navy’s Corey Johnson came down with it.

On Navy’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who replaced starter Jarod Bryant midway through the game, completed a 40-yard pass to receiver Tyree Barnes, setting up first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Two plays later, he leaped over a pile into the end zone to bring the Midshipmen within six.

Another onside kick, another recovery by Johnson.

“Usually you don’t spend a whole bunch of times on hands team,” Weis said. “You practice it a couple times a week. But obviously we’ll give it a lot more time this week.”

The Midshipmen moved the ball to the Irish 31-yard line, but nose tackle Pat Kuntz’ sack forced a third-and-13 for Navy, and two incomplete passes later, Notre Dame became bowl-eligible. Weis said he didn’t mention the eligibility that came with Notre Dame’s (6-4) sixth win, but quarterback Jimmy Clausen said the team talked about it.

The game defied expectations – the Irish held Navy, who ranked second in the nation with 308 yards per game rushing, to 178 yards on the ground. Notre Dame, by contrast, rushed for 230 yards.

Receiver Michael Floyd left the game during the first possession because of a knee injury, and linebacker Brian Smith left when a Navy lineman chop-blocked him, injuring his knee as well. Cornerback Terrail Lambert missed the game as well because he rolled his ankle in practice Thursday, Weis said.

When one Smith left, another took his place in a seamless transition – Toryan Smith led the defense with 10 tackles.

Clausen completed 15 of his 19 passes for 110 yards with two interceptions and a fumble, passing efficiently but failing to drive the offense.

The offense struggled early, but the Irish scored first when special teams player Mike Anello blocked a Navy punt. The ball ricocheted upwards and fell into the hands of Toryan Smith, who returned it 14 yards for a touchdown.

Navy didn’t get an offensive first down until midway through the second quarter, and for the most part, stalled against Notre Dame’s defense. Starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada missed the game because of a hamstring injury, and Bryant had trouble running the triple-option offense. Navy punted nine times in the game and converted one third down in 13 attempts.

“We had to play fast, we had to beat them up because we oversize them,” Toryan Smith said. “Those guys are tough. They took it down to the end, but it was a good win.”

Navy eventually evened the score on a 22-yard touchdown run from slot back Cory Finnerty with 2:39 left in the half.

Near the end of the second quarter, Notre Dame adopted a run-first offensive philosophy.

Weis said part of his decision was based on the look of Navy’s defense, a soft Cover-2 zone where the safeties played far off the line of scrimmage and the defense only rushed three men at times.

“We went to dink and dunk and ran the ball,” said Weis, who resumed play-calling duties this week. “That was a little bit dictated by the soft cover two that they were playing with.”

Notre Dame dominated the third quarter. The defense forced three punts and the offense put together two touchdown drives and started another that led to a field goal. The rushing game caught fire in the quarter, and Armando Allen ran for 31 yards on the first drive, including an 11-yard touchdown that gave the Irish a 17-7 lead.

On Notre Dame’s next drive, Robert Hughes rushed six times for 48 yards and scored on a seven-yard touchdown run with 4:03 left in the quarter.

Then it was James Aldridge’s turn, who moved the ball to the Navy 21-yard line, but a pass to Aldridge resulted in a loss of seven yards. Clausen completed a pass over the middle to receiver Robby Parris to set up a 36-yard field goal from Walker, and the Irish led 27-7 with 5:02 remaining in the game. Aldridge rushed for 30 yards on the drive.

After a turnover on downs, freshman running back Jonas Gray got a chance to run the ball. He helped the Irish get a first-and-goal on the Midshipmen two-yard line, but fumbled, and Navy recovered. The Irish forced a Navy punt, but turned the ball over on downs themselves, leading to Navy’s near-comeback.

“For [Gray’s] sake I wish that’s not the way it turned out,” Weis said. “It made the game a lot more exciting than it needed to be.”