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Football: History rewritten

Pat O'Brien | Monday, November 5, 2007

Irish senior running back Travis Thomas took the handoff from junior quarterback Evan Sharpley, bounced to the right, and was swarmed by Navy defenders at the 1-yard line. In an instant, college football’s longest winning streak against a single opponent ended at 43, and the struggles of the 2007 Notre Dame football team persisted.

“In the end, we just made one more play than they did,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said.

The streak of wins that Notre Dame (1-8) held over Navy from 1964-2006 struck more of a cord with the fans and media than it did with the players and coaches.

“Our senior class was 0-3 against Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “I’m just happy that I don’t have to answer anything else about a streak every time we play. This team has not lost all those years.”

Weis agreed.

“The streak doesn’t mean anything to me,” Weis said. “We lost to Navy. That’s who we lost to. Next year, we’ll play Navy again. [The streak] is really not in the player’s eyes. You know what streak they are worried about? How many games they’ve lost in a row at home. How many games we’ve played since UCLA when last we won. They are worrying about the here and now. They’d like to beat Air Force – I think that’s the streak that they’d like to be on.”

After Notre Dame forced a Navy punt with 2:23 remaining in the fourth and the game knotted at 28-28, Irish safety Tom Zbikowski returned the kick 32 yards to the Navy 38-yard line.

Facing fourth-and-8 from the opponent’s 24-yard line with less than 50 seconds remaining, Weis chose to send the offense on the field, rather than having freshman Brandon Walker attempt a 41-yard field goal into a light breeze.

“[The kick] was going against the wind, and in practice [Walker] couldn’t make it from there,” Weis said. “That’s why we didn’t kick it. [We needed to go] about four more yards.”

On the fourth-down play, Navy safety Ram Vela leaped over running back Armando Allen and sacked Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley, ending the Notre Dame scoring effort.

Notre Dame and Navy traded touchdowns in the first overtime and field goals in the second.

In the final overtime period, Navy struck on a play-action pass from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada to slot back Reggie Campbell for a 25-yard touchdown.

Kaheaku-Enhada found Campbell again for the two-point conversion.

Notre Dame moved the ball methodically in overtime but faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Navy 5-yard line. Fifth-year senior Travis Thomas broke a tackle in the backfield and forced his way into the end zone.

On the conversion attempt, Sharpley threw to sophomore receiver Robby Parris, who dropped the ball, seemingly ending the game. But the officials called pass interference on Navy defensive back Blake Carter, giving the Irish new life from the 1 1/2-yard line. Weis gave the ball to Thomas one more time, but the Navy was defense was ready, stopping Thomas and ending the game.

“[We told our players that Notre Dame] was going to run the ball,” Johnson said. “We are selling out. We are bringing all 11, and we just crashed. It’s never in there until it’s in there.”

For Navy, the end of the streak is now here.

Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when freshman tailback Robert Hughes, whose brother was shot and killed a week ago in Chicago, scampered three years for the Irish score.

“The first time that we get down to the goal line, I want to get the ball to Robert, and I said that I would give it to him every play whether we scored or not,” Weis said. “Fortunately, he got it in on the first one, and I think that it was a pretty emotional time.”

After a few exchanges of the ball that included a fumble recovery by senior safety Tom Zbikowski and a fake field goal by the Irish, Navy put the keys in the ignition.

The Midshipmen ran the option to near perfection against the Irish.

Its first scoring drive lasted 19 plays and gobbled up more than eight minutes of clock in the first half with Singleton punching it in from the one.

“Truth be told, we are not going to line up toe-to-toe and block Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “They are a lot bigger than we are. What we were able to do was not have to block them all. You have to give [Kaheaku-Enhada] some credit for that. He’d read his way out, so there were two guys that we didn’t have to block.”

With the score even at 14-14, Notre Dame appeared to move the ball with ease as well. Allen jump-started the Irish offense by returning the Midshipmen kickoff to the Navy 46-yard line. From there, Aldridge pounded the ball down the field, and Thomas capped the drive off with the first of his three touchdowns on the day.

The Irish went into the half with a 21-14 after Sharpley found freshman Duval Kamara for a 21-yard touchdown pass. Sharpley finished the game with two touchdowns and no interceptions on 17-of-27 passing for 140 yards.

Navy started the second half on offense the same way they finished the first. It ate up eight minutes of clock with a 15-play drive. But senior kicker Joey Bullen missed the point-after attempt, and Notre Dame clung to a 21-20 lead.

After the teams swapped missed field goal attempts, Navy defensive end Chris Kuhar-Pitters recovered a Sharpley fumble and returned it for a touchdown. Kaheaku-Enhada ran in the two-point conversion to make it 28-21 Navy.

It took a near-miracle for Notre Dame to even up the score and force overtime. Sharpley evaded a blitz found tight end John Carlson for a 16-yard gain on fourth-and-14 to keep the final Irish scoring drive alive.

“Evan [Sharpley] has a progression, and honestly I’m not sure what his progression [was] on that play, but he gave me a ball that I could catch,” Carlson said.

The drive sustained while Allen ran six consecutive times for the Irish. Thomas scored from three yards out to tie it at 28-28 with 3:25 left in regulation.

An Irish win, however, was not to be.