Heartbreak Hotel

So close, so close, so close. <P> The United States Naval Academy football team was oh-so-close to an earth-shaking upset of a rejuvenated and newly-ascendant Notre Dame team on Saturday in Baltimore. The Middies were so close you could just taste it. <P> What's more, this group of military men was about to do in Notre Dame the way great men win great battles—with heroism, courage and resourcefulness of the highest order.

There was Aaron Polanco, pressed into immediate military service after starting quarterback Craig Candeto was injured on just the fourth play of the game. With some of Navy's offensive package downscaled due to Candeto's absence, and with the passing game being out of the equation for the most part, Polanco was nothing less than outstanding in his execution of an option attack that flummoxed Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer and the rest of Notre Dame's hard-hitting defense, which had bottled up the option in a commanding win over another academy team, Air Force, in mid-October.  

There was running back Tony Lane, who came up with an awesome, bruising, tackle-busting run in the first quarter and lit a spark under Navy's running game along with Eric Roberts. Both Lane and Roberts got to the edges on the option to run past Irish defenders and make plays with considerable consistency. 

There was punter John Skaggs, who put his Annapolis education to good use by alertly taking a safety and, moreover, taking a safety smartly by not pitching or letting go of the ball and instead falling on the ground in the end zone. Whereas a pitch or throw out of the back of the end zone could have presented the possibility of a crushing and humiliating strip of the ball—and a subsequent Notre Dame touchdown—Skaggs took a safe safety, showing his smarts in the heat of battle. 

There was defensive back Josh Smith, who did what all good Navy men do—not give up the ship!—when he chased down a Notre Dame receiver in the first quarter and stripped the ball away, turning a 40-yard Notre Dame gain into a momentum-changing turnover that significantly altered the course of the first half and, along with it, the whole game. 

And then there was the heroic performance of Navy's undersized front seven, which stared down Notre Dame's hulking offensive line, the Irish's power running game, and ND running back Ryan Grant, and simply punched the Fighting Irish in the mouth. The front seven stuck people with authority all afternoon, limiting Grant and the Notre Dame ground game just 85 yards. It was something to behold for a team that had such a bare set of credentials—and a track record of spotty defensive performances heading into the contest. 

Navy's performance was a classic one Saturday, as good and heroic and inspiring as anything you'll ever see on a football field. 

The only shame of it was that the game didn't have that classic ending Navy partisans were hoping for. Indeed, Navy suffered the late-game collapse, playing the final six minutes the way many expected them to… and in a way completely opposite the first 54. 

Yes, in the final six minutes, Notre Dame lobbed some long balls past Navy's secondary, getting big plays that, unlike the first quarter, didn't end with strips and fumble recoveries for the Brigade. 

Yes, Notre Dame receivers Omar Jenkins and Arnaz Battle got open when they needed to get open, on two-point plays and on downfield passes. 

Yes, the magic carpet ride ended for Polanco and the rest of his gallant sailors, who just couldn't present the full range of options Candeto brought to the battle. 

Yes, a 23-15 Midshipmen lead with those six precious minutes remaining turned into a 30-23 Irish win. Yes, the clock struck midnight at about 3:20 p.m. Baltimore time. 

But it wasn't for lack of effort or guts. 

Navy got its national TV showcase on CBS, and by golly, the Middies played like they belonged on the same field as Notre Dame. And even though, it should be said, Navy head coach Paul Johnson tightened up with his play calling in the final 20 minutes of the contest, he displayed a team and program that, after a performance like this one against college football's biggest big-name school, are ready to take some major steps forward. Heck, if Candeto doesn't get injured, one can only imagine what might have happened on Saturday in Baltimore. 

Yeah, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory for the Navy football team on Saturday. But considering how well they played, and how gallantly they fought, the real bottom line to take away from this game for Navy is something any military man can appreciate: Navy might have lost the battle on Saturday, but the Midshipmen are now better positioned to win the war, the war for respect and legitimate success in the college football community.

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