SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There was no talk about the end of Navy’s two-game winning streak over Notre Dame, or of the recent stretch of dominance by the Midshipmen that included three victories in four years over the Fighting Irish after decades of football famine.
One-sided defeats such as the kind Navy suffered Saturday at Notre Dame tend to obliterate such happy memories, in the same way that the Fighting Irish ran roughshod over the reeling Midshipmen in a 56-14 blowout before a sellout crowd of 80,795 and a national television audience.
In fact, with his team trailing 35-7 at halftime, fourth-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said in a halftime network interview that he thought his team had “backed down” to the Fighting Irish and later, after Navy’s worst defeat since a 48-7 trouncing against Air Force in 2002, Niumatalolo thought his players seemed “a little bit in awe” of their opponent and the surroundings.
Asked if the absence of senior quarterback Kriss Proctor because of a dislocated left elbow affected his team’s performance, Niumatalolo said with a bit of a chuckle, “They whipped our butts today. Not to make any excuses. That’s my 14th time playing Notre Dame [as a head coach or an assistant] and that’s the most thorough butt-whipping we’ve gotten. It starts with me.”
The loss was the sixth straight for Navy (2-6), giving the Midshipmen their most losses in a season since they went 2-10 in 2002. And it forces the Midshipmen to win their remaining four games just to become bowl-eligible. Navy plays its last home game of the season Saturday against Troy.
“I think we made it very difficult on ourselves,” Navy fullback and senior co-captain Alexander Teich said. “No more putting it to the side, we have to win. It’s playoff time now, and every game is going to be a big game. Every game is going to be a bowl game for us.”
Teich, who rushed for a career-high 210 yards in last year’s 35-17 win over Notre Dame in East Rutherford, N.J. led the Midshipmen with 62 yards Saturday. Sophomore Trey Miller, the first Navy quarterback to make his first collegiate start here since Brian Madden in 1999, didn’t come close to replicating his two-touchdown performance last week against East Carolina.
“I wasn’t really nervous, I kind of blocked that out,” said Miller, who rushed 19 times for 55 yards and completed just five of 13 passes for 33 yards . “I made some reads, missed some reads. I just got to go back to practice and get better.”
Said Teich: “It’s almost night day between the defense they played last year and the defense they played today. Those guys got after it.”
Notre Dame’s defense — led by linebacker Manti Te’o, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles — wasn’t the only thing transformed from last year for the Fighting Irish. Wide receiver Michael Floyd, who didn’t play against Navy a year ago because of an injury, dominated the Midshipmen Saturday.
Floyd finished with six catches for 121 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, and he added a 10-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Floyd outgained Navy’s offense in the first half — 119 yards to 100 — and was given so much attention by the Navy defense that some of his other teammates found themselves uncovered at times.
“When we doubled or rolled down on him, they gashed us in the run,” Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. “They just manhandled us. They could do whatever they wanted in the running game.”
It didn’t matter that Navy came out in a 4-3 defensive scheme rather than the usual 3-4 in an attempt to put more pressure on sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees and plug some of the holes to stop Notre Dame’s tailbacks. Rees completed 16 of 22 passes for 237 yards, and tailbacks Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for 135 yards and five touchdowns on 23 carries.
“We didn’t get close to [Rees], and they knocked us off the ball so bad,” Green said.
Navy missed out on a chance to take an early lead when senior Jon Teague sculled a 47-yard field goal attempt low and left. It was the ninth time this season the Midshipmen blew either a field goal or extra point.
After that, the Midshipmen quickly fell behind 14-0 before a botched Notre Dame lateral helped cut the deficit in half when Miller threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to slotback Gee Gee Greene.
But, in an instant, whatever hope Navy had of making it a game disappeared with the long touchdown pass to Floyd. On what turned out to be Notre Dame’s longest pass completion of the season, Green had called for senior safety Kwesi Mitchell to give support to freshman cornerback Parrish Gaines, who was making his first start. But Mitchell bit on a fake and Gaines was helpless.
“I had a hunch they were going to throw it,” Green said. “I rarely call Cover 2. I was right, but we blew it.”
Sophomore Marcus Thomas — who returned the second half kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown last week against East Carolina and nearly fumbled the opening kickoff Saturday — had the ball bounce off his facesmask on the kickoff following Floyd’s long score. When Notre Dame recovered and scored, the rout was on.
“It kind of snowballed on us,” Niumatalolo said.
The victory took some heat off Notre Dame (5-3), in particular second-year coach Brian Kelly. After his team lost at home to Southern Cal last week, ending any chance of a BCS bid, Kelly made some disparaging remarks about the players he inherited from former coach Charlie Weis, a group that includes both Floyd and Te’o.
“We communicated with each other as a team and as a family, and you saw it today,” said Kelly, who according to the Chicago Tribune apologized to his players Friday. “You saw a team that played together.”
Navy saw one that continued to fall apart.
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