44th time was a charm

Navy’s 43-year drought against the Fighting Irish ended with a triple overtime thriller in South Bend

Photos courtesy Phil Hoffman, Naval Academy Athletic Association 

Forty three years had passed since the Navy Midshipmen had defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Not since Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach guided the Midshipmen to victory in 1963 had Navy triumphed over Notre Dame.

While there were a few close calls, the Fighting Irish seldomly had trouble disposing of Navy when the two programs met. Midshipmen coach Paul Johnson’s teams came close in 2002 and 2003, but couldn’t break through. With the 2007 Fighting Irish in the midst of a 1-7 start, Johnson and his team had a great chance when the Midshipmen traveled to South Bend, Indiana, on Nov. 3, 2007.

Notre Dame wasted little time as tailbacks Armando Allen and James Aldridge powered an eight-play, 69-yard scoring march culminating with a 3-yard touchdown run by halfback Robert Hughes to put the Irish ahead 7-0. And when Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski recovered a fumble inside Navy territory, the rout seemed certain.

However, on fourth-and-15 from the Navy 20, the Irish bypassed a field goal and were stopped short of a first down.

The Midshipmen proceeded to methodically carve up the Irish defense when fullback Eric Kettani and tailbacks Reggie Campbell, Shun White and Zerbin Singleton took turns on a 19-play, 85-yard drive that ended with Singleton scoring from 2 yards out to make it 7-7.

Erik Kettani | Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Academy Athletics

On the ensuing possession, Notre Dame converted two fourth-and-short attempts to set up a 1-yard score by tailback Travis Thomas, putting the Irish ahead 14-7. White gave the Notre Dame defense headaches as he rushed for 41 yards on the next Midshipmen drive and scored from 8 yards out to knot the game at 14.

Notre Dame then drove 59 yards in 3 minutes, and Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley found Duval Kamara open for a 21-yard score that gave the Irish a 21-14 halftime advantage.

On its’ opening drive in the third quarter, Navy responded with another slow, punishing and meticulous drive on which Kettani battered the Notre Dame defense with seven carries on a 15-play drive, finally scoring on a 1-yard plunge to bring the Midshipmen to within one after a missed extra point.

Navy QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada | Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Academy Athletics

After missed field goals by both teams, Navy defensive lineman Chris Kuhar-Pitters recovered a Sharpley fumble and barreled 16 yards for the go-ahead score. Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada converted the two-point try, and the Midshipmen led 28-21 with 10:24 remaining in the fourth.

Now facing a fourth-and-13 from his own 32, Irish coach Charlie Weis elected to go for it and was rewarded when Sharpley avoided the rush and found tight end John Carlson for 16 yards near midfield. Following six consecutive rushes by Allen that left Notre Dame three yards from the end zone, Thomas’s 3-yard score made it 28 all.

In the waning seconds of the fourth, Navy stopped a potential game-winning drive by Notre Dame when linebacker Ram Vela leapt over a Irish blocker to sack Sharpley on fourth down, ensuring overtime.

In the first overtime, Kaheaku-Enhada found Kettani in the flat for 18 yards to the Irish 7, and the fullback finished the drive with a 1-yard plunge to give Navy a 35-28 advantage. Notre Dame answered the Midshipmen score when Sharpley patiently waited for Kamara to cross the end zone before hitting him for a 9-yard score.

After both teams exchanged field goals on the next two series, the game headed to a third overtime tied at 38. Navy regained the lead when Campbell ran a wheel route and caught a 25-yard pass from Kaheaku-Enhada, putting the Midshipmen up six. The duo connected once more for the two-point try and Navy led 46-38. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Navy 5, Thomas broke a pair of tackles, kept his balance and found the end zone.

Over four decades of frustration would come down to a two-point try.

Walsh had a big day | Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Academy Athletics

Thomas bounced to the right in hopes of breaking the plane, but defensive lineman Michael Walsh and linebacker Irv Spencer corralled him short of the end zone, and Navy’s years of futility ended in the 46-44 triple overtime victory.

Navy linebacker Matt Wimsatt summed up the historic win — “Honestly, this win hasn’t even hit me yet. I can’t wait to talk to everybody back home. This is definitely bigger than just one football game.”

Navy celebrates in South Bend | Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Academy Athletics

Navy rode the momentum of the once-in-a-lifetime win over Notre Dame to an 8-5 finish in 2007, narrowly losing to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Notre Dame’s misery continued with a loss to Air Force before the Irish closed the season with wins over Duke and Stanford to finish 3-9. H&A

Photos courtesy Phil Hoffmann, Naval Academy Athletic Association

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