- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

During the chaotic final minutes of Notre Dame’s survival sequence against Navy, athletic director Jack Swarbrick stood in the rain, probably wondering whether he had another decision to make.

Had the Midshipmen pulled off another outrageous comeback, Swarbrick likely would have been forced to fire Irish coach Charlie Weis within the next month. There are still many Irish faithful who aren’t pleased with the trajectory of college football’s most storied program, which clawed its way to bowl eligibility at 6-4 with a 27-21 victory against the Mids at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Few could have forgiven a second consecutive loss to the Mids, particularly given Notre Dame’s 27-7 lead with less than two minutes left in a game that looked like a mismatch throughout the second half.

Looking back, it’s difficult to blame Weis for what almost happened in Baltimore. When Weis sent in his second-team offense with 9:07 left, the Irish had a 20-point lead. Since halftime, the Mids had 40 yards and one first down.

“In that situation, you want to give guys an opportunity to come in and help close out the game,” said Weis, who saw third-string tailback Jonas Gray fumble away that opportunity on second-and-goal from the 4. “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.”

What came after the fumble was bizarre. The dormant Navy offense marched 57 yards to cut its deficit to 27-14 with 1:39 remaining. The Mids then recovered an onside kick and completed their third-longest pass of the year - 40 yards - before quarterback Ricky Dobbs pushed into the end zone from a yard out to make it 27-21 with 1:21 left.

Navy then recovered yet another onside kick - a near-statistical impossibility - and earned a first down before finally running out of downs at the Notre Dame 34 after a sack and two incompletions. An Irish loss would have been a fluke, but it almost happened.

And make no mistake: It would have cost Weis his job.

“A win is a win, whether you beat a team 60-0 or 3-0,” quarterback Jimmy Clausen said.

Not exactly. Style points count in South Bend, and Weis’ team hasn’t been doing much strutting or muscle flexing of late.

After he began his Notre Dame career 19-6 with back-to-back BCS bowl berths, the media dubbed Weis an offensive genius, and the administration signed him to a 10-year contract reportedly worth $3.5 million to $4.2 million annually. The past two seasons of Weis’ tenure have yielded a 9-13 record littered with damning marks.

Last season’s team was the first nine-loss squad in the history of a program that boasts 11 national titles and dates to 1887. The Irish have lost seven in a row against ranked teams. And Saturday’s victory was just the fourth in their past 17 games against teams with winning records.

Such futility against strong competition is reason enough to jettison Weis at season’s end for many Irish fans. But last week, Swarbrick pointed to the team’s offensive improvement and Weis’ continued recruiting success, giving his coach a vote of confidence.

One thing is certain: Weis is a changed man. Two seasons of stress in South Bend have done far more to dull his ego than his near-death experience following botched gastric bypass surgery in 2002.

Game balls and gassers - Plaudits go to Florida and Maryland for authoring the most impressive performances of the week. Anybody who thinks the Gators aren’t the nation’s best team simply hasn’t been watching. Florida strapped a 56-6 beating on South Carolina, making a mockery of a defense that entered the game ranked third in the nation.

Ralph Friedgen’s Terrapins continue to mystify against top competition, dropping the Tar Heels 17-15 to improve to 4-0 this season against ranked teams.

This week’s gasser goes to Florida State safety Darius McClure, who blew out his ACL celebrating his fourth-quarter interception in a loss to Boston College. Bill Gramatica and Gus Frerotte would be proud.

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