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Not this year

Joe Hettler | Monday, November 10, 2003

Seconds after D.J. Fitzpatrick’s game-winning field goal knuckleballed through the uprights, Notre Dame players and fans celebrated as if the Irish had just beaten a top-10 team.

They hadn’t, but getting a win at home against Navy seemed just as important in this tough season for the Irish.

Julius Jones had 221 yards rushing and two touchdowns and backup kicker Fitzpatrick hit the deciding field goal with no time on the clock to lift Notre Dame to a 27-24 victory over Navy, its 40th straight. The win also snapped a three-game home losing streak for the Irish.

“We needed to get back into the winner’s circle and have that winning feeling again after a game,” Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said. “It is not a feeling of relief, but it feels very good to get a victory.”

Fitzpatrick’s heroics were set up by the Irish defense which played well despite facing an option attack for the first time this season. The unit contained Navy quarterback Craig Candeto to only 47 pass yards and 46 rushing yards. Candeto entered the contest averaging 185 yards of offense a game. Navy gained only 238 rushing yards, nearly 70 less then its average this season.

After Fitzpatrick hit a 30-yard field goal with 5:10 remaining, Navy got the ball and moved it to its own 47 yard-line, but was forced to punt on fourth-and-5. Defensive back Vontez Duff returned the punt to Notre Dame’s 15 with 1:54 and three timeouts.

Jones dominated the drive for the Irish, breaking off runs of nine, 11 and seven yards and catching two passes for 10 more yards.

But the key play of the drive came with 42 seconds left. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn found receiver Rhema McKnight on a slant pattern that picked up 18 yards and put the Irish on Navy’s 30. Four plays later, Fitzpatrick drilled the winning kick. Navy safety Josh Smith said he got three fingers on the ball, but that didn’t alter the kick enough to have it miss.

“I hit it great off my foot, but I heard a thud so I thought it was blocked, I just thanked God it went over,” Fitzpatrick said. “With everyone running up and the noise of the crowd, it was unbelievable.”

Willingham said he had total confidence that Fitzpatrick would make the field goal.

“We felt confident in his abilities and that he could make the kick,” Willingham said. “I did not tell him anything really before the kick. I just told him to not be anxious and stay patient.”

The Irish had 417 total yards and moved the ball effectively for much of the game. Jones led the running attack with 33 carries as the Irish gained 280 on the ground. Quinn finished the game 14-27 for 138 yards and a two-yard touchdown pass.

There were seven lead changes in the game, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any point. Notre Dame used a late first-half touchdown pass from Quinn to McKnight to lead 14-10 at intermission, only to see Navy charge ahead 17-14 on fullback Kyle Eckels’ five-yard touchdown run with 2:40 left in the third quarter.

Jones started the Irish scoring in the first quarter when he ran to the right of his lineman, broke a tackle and reversed direction to scamper 48 yards to the end zone and give Notre Dame a 7-0 lead. Tony Lane, who led the Midshipmen with 92 yards on eight carries, answered Jones rush with a 65-yard burst 12 seconds later to tie the game at 7-7.