- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — By a margin perhaps as thin as a finger, Navy’s football team missed a chance yesterday to end the nation’s longest losing streak for one team against another.

D.J. Fitzpatrick booted a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give Notre Dame a 27-24 victory over the crestfallen Midshipmen, extending the Irish’s victory string in the 77-year series to 40.

The last time Navy defeated Notre Dame (1963), Roger Staubach was the Mids’ quarterback on his way to the Heisman Trophy and John F. Kennedy — a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II — was president.

But this time Navy came so close, achingly close, in a series Notre Dame now leads 67-9-1

Navy called time out twice to try to freeze Fitzpatrick, but he made good on his dramatic kick although Navy safety Josh Smith got a hand on the ball.

“I got three fingers on it,” Smith said. “I thought I had it when I tipped it. I didn’t get all of it.”

Fitzpatrick said he didn’t see Smith deflect the ball but added, “I was confused because I hit it well but the ball was fluttering.”

So, undoubtedly, were the hearts of Navy fans around the world.

Beating Army always has been and always will be the Mids’ first football priority, but a victory over even a losing (3-6) Notre Dame team would have provided further proof of how miraculously second-year coach Paul Johnson has revived Navy’s long dormant football fortunes. The Mids are 6-4 as they await a game against Central Michigan in two weeks before closing against Army on Dec.6 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Johnson defended his decision to punt the ball on fourth-and-5 from the Notre Dame 47 with just more than two minutes left, giving the Fighting Irish a chance to march for the game-winner.

“I felt like if we pinned them down deep — we had held them a couple of times down there — if you hold them back, we have the wind,” Johnson said. “Who knows? We may get the ball on the right side of the field and you just need to make a first down or two to be kicking a field goal. We go for it there and don’t make it, they just need a few first downs.”

The ending left Notre Dame as joyous as if the Irish had won their 12th national championship, and no wonder. The nation’s most renowned football program had lost three straight and six of seven, the most recent a 37-0 thrashing by Florida State a week earlier.

“I hope the celebration is just getting going,” coach Tyrone Willingham said after Fitzpatrick delivered. “We’ve been needing to get back into the winner’s circle to get that feeling again, and now we can build on that into the next weekend.”

The victory kept alive Notre Dame’s hopes for finishing the season at .500 and ended a three-game home losing streak — just the fifth in school history.

Kyle Eckel scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards in the second half to give Navy a chance at the upset, but the Mids came up short just as they had in close losses to the Irish in 1997 (21-17), 1999 (28-24) and 2002 (30-23).

“We felt like we had it won the whole game,” Navy linebacker Eddie Carthan said. “We should have had it won. Every time they scored, we scored right back.”

Notre Dame running back Julius Jones had his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game against Navy. His best run of the day came on a 48-yard run around the right end in the first quarter to open the scoring. He also scored on a 12-yard run late in the third quarter to give the Irish a 21-17 lead.

“He’s a good running back, but we had a lot of stops in the backfield,” Carthan said. “We did not wrap up. He did not kill us — we killed ourselves.”

Jones became just the fourth Irish back to run for 200 yards twice in one season.

“We had a hard time stopping them when they ran the football,” Navy’s Johnson said. “They are so much bigger and more physical than we are. We had a lot of guys up there, but at times we just couldn’t get them stopped.”

Tony Lane, who had a 65-yard touchdown run, led Navy with 92 yards on 18 carries. Freshman quarterback Brady Quinn was 14-for-27 passing for 137 yards for the Irish, who had 417 yards of total offense to just 284 for Navy.

“At some point Navy will play better than Notre Dame and win the football game, but you just tell your team it doesn’t have to be this year,” Willingham said.

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