Sunday, November 10, 2002

Irish escape Navy

By David Ginsburg
The Associated Press

BALTIMORE - Notre Dame was sleepwalking through another poor outing when Carlyle Holiday stirred up things with a rousing fourth-quarter performance.

Trailing by eight points against lightly regarded Navy late in Saturday's game, the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish rallied behind their sophomore quarterback, averting a second straight shocking upset.

Holiday set up the tying score with a 29-yard completion to Omar Jenkins, then hit a wide-open Jenkins for a 67-yard touchdown with 2:08 remaining to give Notre Dame a 30-23 victory Saturday.

One week after losing at home to Boston College 14-7, the Irish (9-1) kept their slim national title hopes going by beating the Midshipmen (1-8) for the 39th straight time.

"We didn't wake up until about four minutes were left in the game," said Irish coach Tyrone Willingham, who tied Terry Brennan (1954) and Ara Parseghian ('64) for most wins by a first-year Notre Dame coach.

The Irish, who lost three fumbles against Boston College, lost three more against the Midshipmen and fell behind 23-15 in the fourth quarter.

That's when Holiday took over.

"I believe I needed to step up," he said. "I just decided to take a leadership role and make some plays with the ball in my hands."

Holiday's 29-yarder to Jenkins led to a 1-yard TD run by Rashon Powers-Neal. Holiday then lobbed a pass to an open Arnaz Battle in the corner of the end zone for the 2-point conversion that tied it at 23 with 4:28 remaining.

After Notre Dame got the ball back at its 33 with 2:19 left, Jenkins slipped behind the Navy secondary, hauled in a long pass from Holiday and sprinted to the end zone.

Notre Dame managed only 68 yards rushing, but Holiday made up for it by throwing for 272 yards. Jenkins had four catches for a career-high 166 yards.

"We were not very successful moving the ball on the ground," Willingham said. "Our passing game really stepped forward."

So did Vontez Duff, who became the first player in Notre Dame history to return a kickoff, punt and interception return for a touchdown in the same season.

Duff put Notre Dame ahead 15-14 in the third quarter by bringing back a kickoff 92 yards for the score. He broke through a wave of defenders at the 20 before breaking to his left and into the clear.

"We needed a play. It comes from the blocking up front," Duff said. "We really pride ourselves on making big plays."

"Our defense and our special teams have been playing a different game than other people are playing," Willingham said. "The kickoff return was just a fantastic play."

Notre Dame leads the series 66-9-1, but few games in the lopsided series have been as unexpectedly close as this one. Navy came in as a 28-point underdog and seemingly had no chance, since it had allowed at least 42 points in six of its eight games.

An already daunting task become even more difficult for Navy when starting quarterback Craig Candeto sprained his left ankle on the game's fourth play. Candeto, the team's leading rusher and scorer, did not return.

Aaron Polanco performed capably in his place, scoring two touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions after Notre Dame wrested the lead away for the last time.

"It was our game to have," Polanco said. "We could have won. We should have won. You can't be proud after a loss."

Especially after playing so well for 56 of 60 minutes.

"I told the guys there are no moral victories," Navy coach Paul Johnson said. "But we can take this game and use it as a foundation and turn our program around."

Up 9-7 at halftime, the Irish fell behind early in the third quarter when Polanco scored from the 1 after a 45-yard punt return by Aaron Weedo.

After Duff went the distance, Navy responded with an 80-yard drive, using 12 straight running plays and moving back in front on a 10-yard run by Eric Roberts. The Midshipmen then converted a fumble by Ryan Grant into a field goal and a 23-15 lead late in the third quarter.

The lead didn't last, and after coming so close, Navy lost its 34th straight game to a ranked opponent.

The Irish led at halftime despite managing only 36 yards rushing and seven first downs - one fewer than Navy.

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