44 points was not nearly enough to keep Notre Dame from losing to the Naval Academy for the first time in 44 years, as the Midshipmen torpedoed the Fighting Irish 46-44 in three overtimes Saturday in South Bend.
The day started out full of hope and promise for the Irish, as after a moment of silence for fallen Notre Dame friends Earl "Tony" Hughes and Ryan Shay, the Golden Domers responded by scoring for the first time on an opening drive this season, going 69 yards in 9 plays. And more importantly, Coach Charlie Weis inserted Robert Hughes into the back field near the goal line, and the freshman runner, who had just lost his brother, responded with a 3-yard touchdown on his first and only carry.
But the Irish offense made one of only two critical mistakes on an otherwise nice day on its next drive, when despite starting on the Navy 30 because of a Midshipmen fumble, a negative 5-yard screen play, an Evan Sharpley overthrow, and a dropped pass prevented the Irish from going up by two scores, a crucial detail when attempting to defeat the methodical Midshipmen.
For in between that possession and the Irish's other fatal lapse (a sack of Sharpley which led to a 16-yard fumble return for the Navy's Chris Kuhar-Pitters), the Irish defense could not stop the smaller but more disciplined Cadets as Navy scored on 11, 15, and 19 play drives which used 5, 8, and 8-1/2 minutes of the 60 minute clock. And although the ND defense did cause one fumble and held Navy to a field goal on its second overtime possession, it rarely made a stop when it was needed, with Navy's 5'7" Reggie Campbell's third overtime 25-yard touchdown catch and subsequent two-point conversion grab between three Irish defenders on the very next play perhaps the low point of this very low season.
As stated, the Irish offense finally showed some promise, with Evan Sharpley going 17-27 for 140 yards with half of his incompletions being drops. Sharpley helped his mates convert on 6 of 8 4th-down plays (including an incredible Sharpley throw and a 15-yard catch by tight end John Carlson on 4th and 13) the only two failures coming when Weis was forced to go for it on 4th and long because Notre Dame does not have a field goal kicker capable of a 40-yard plus boot. James Aldridge had his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season gaining 125 yards on 32 carries while freshman Armando Allen came close adding 91 on 15 attempts. Besides Carlson, freshman Duval Kamara was really the only receiver to emerge grabbing five balls for 44 yards and two tough touchdown catches. Senior Travis Thomas made the most of his three carries, scoring touchdowns on each of them, but on the whole Notre Dame's lack of big playmakers had the Irish playing Navy's ball control game, and Navy (5-4) proved just a little better at it, stuffing Thomas' attempt for his fourth short score on Notre Dame's third overtime two-point try, to beat the Irish for the first time since 1963.
The 1-8 Irish hope to win their first home game of 2007 next Saturday when they not only host the Air Force but Fighting Irish Thomas. Both myself and John "Wayward Son" O'Toole are making our first 2007 pilgrimage to Notre Dame, and while we will be taking in the game, even if the stadium continues to only offer sorrow, we still look forward to the opportunity to visit Mary at the grotto. But a win for Weis would be nice, and there is little I enjoy more than my eldest son's smile and "Fight Song" recitation after a hard-fought Notre Dame victory. But the prospect of grabbing a little glory in a season fraught with suffering strikes me more and more as being out of the reach of Charlie and in the hands of Notre Dame's #1 fan, Our Lady, herself.