BALTIMORE – Notre Dame spoke all week about how they knew that Navy would never quit. Still, the Irish let up and allowed the Midshipmen back in the game although Notre Dame escaped with a 27-21 victory.
Notre Dame took a 27-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and after the defense stopped Navy on fourth down on its next possession, the Irish inserted substitutions. It seemed innocuous at the time, especially after Jonas Gray carried the ball all of the way inside the Navy 5-yard line. But a Gray fumble prevented the score that would have truly put the game away, although it did not appear that way at the time.
Navy still trailed by 20 when it took over with 2:30 to play at its own 43, but cut the lead to 13 in just 51 seconds against the second-string Irish defense on a 24-yard touchdown run by Shun White. Navy recovered an onside kick and Notre Dame reinserted its starters, but Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs hooked up with Tyree Barnes for a 40-yard reception and Dobbs scored from one yard to make the score 27-21 with 1:21 left.
A roughing the kicker penalty on the extra point had the Midshipmen kicking an onside kick from their own 45-yard line, which they recovered at the Notre Dame 41. But this time the Irish defense was able to hold when Dobbs' fourth-down pass sailed incomplete.
Despite the close finish, Charlie Weis was not rethinking his decision to bring in the second-stringers after the game.
"It was 27-7, we have the ball on the two-yard line, 1st-and-goal. I think that we should expect to score," he said. "If you don't give guys the opportunity to carry the ball in more pressure situations, you really can't get a judgment on where you are with them.
"You want to give them an opportunity to help close out a game, but come out and make some plays."
Earlier in the week Weis said that if his team could match Navy's passion, pride and discipline than Notre Dame's bigger and faster athletes should be able to control the game. That turned out to be the case, but not until after halftime.
The Notre Dame offense did virtually nothing in the first half and was fortunate that its defense and special teams allowed the Irish to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room. But the Irish started to use their size and strength to pull away in the end.
Jimmy Clausen was just 13 of 16 for 107 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and lost a fumble. Michael Floyd left the game in the first series with a leg injury and Golden Tate was held without a reception for the first time this year.
But Notre Dame had no use for an aerial attack once its ground game got cranking in the second half. The Irish ran for 230 yards, including 147 in the second half.
Navy completed just three of its 14 pass attempts and was held to 178 rushing yards.
The Irish offense started slow as Clausen had his first pass of the game picked off by Ketric Buffin and fumbled on the second series, but the Notre Dame defense did not allow the Navy offense to do anything.
Notre Dame forced a three-and-out on Navy's opening drive, the first time this season that the Midshipmen did not score to start the game, and forced another punt on Navy's second possession.
That punt was blocked by Mike Anello and picked up by Toryan Smith who returned 14 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish a 7-0 lead with 6:03 left in the first quarter. Smith was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for diving unnecessarily into the endzone.
"I've got to get in the zone. I just saw the punt blocked and I just saw it up in the air, floating and it was just calling my name. So I got it and tried to get in and do a little something when I got in there. I got the team excited," Smith said. "They always say act like you've been there before but I acted like I ain't going back."
Anello, who said that the block was put in by Brian Polian and set up by Scott Smith, took advantage of Smith's penalty to express some added emotion.
"When I saw the flag go up in the air I was like, ‘Well, we can't really get in trouble for celebrating anymore, so I'm just going to have fun with this," he laughed.
Notre Dame gained just 74 yards in the opening quarter, but the defense limited Navy to just 21 yards and only one first-quarter first down. The Irish were not much better in the second quarter either, gaining just 82 yards.
The Navy offense finally got on the board with a 22-yard touchdown run by Cory Finnerty off a nice pitch from Bryant to tie the game 7-7 with 2:39 left before the half.
Clausen threw another interception on Notre Dame's next drive, but the Irish got the ball right back when Justin Brown recovered an Eric Kettani fumble near midfield. The Irish drove down to the Navy 10-yard line and Brandon Walker made a 28-yard field goal as time expired to give Notre Dame a 10-7 halftime lead.
Clausen finished the half 10 of 13 passing, but had just 73 yards and the two interceptions along with the fumble. Aldridge was the leading rusher with 50 yards on 10 carries while Allen was the top receiver with five catches for 39 yards.
Navy starting quarterback Jared Bryant was just one of five passing for Navy, but ran the ball eight times for 35 yards. Kettani had 10 carries for 40 yards in the first half.
The Notre Dame offense finally got rolling in the second half after the defense forced a Navy punt on its first possession. Allen started the drive with 13-yard reception before gains of seven, four, nine and finally an 11-yard scoring run to give the Irish a 17-7 lead with 9:31 to go in the third.
After a Navy three-and-out, the Irish rode Hughes to another touchdown. After a four-yard run and eight-yard catch by Allen, Hughes carried the ball six straight times for 49 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown run that gave Notre Dame a 24-7 lead with 3:29 to play in the third.
Navy inserted Dobbs at quarterback, but that did not change anything as another Navy three-and-out gave Notre Dame the ball back. The Irish again used the run to drive 46 yards for a 36-yard field goal by Walker to give them a 27-7 lead with 11:17 left in the game.
Shortly after the Irish put in their subs and the craziness started, but Clausen put it best after the game.
"A win is a win," he said. "Whether you beat a team 3-0 or you beat a team 60-0. A win is a win."