SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With Notre Dame entering the game averaging about 11 pass completions a game, Navy coach George Chaump decided to play a hunch: cut off the dominating Irish running game and hope not to get beaten through the air.
Navy did a pretty good job of holding Notre Dame's rushing offense to 180 yards, 115 yards below the Irish's average. But Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer made the Midshipmen pay big as -- despite winds gusting at more than 30 mph -- he threw for a career-high 303 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-0 Irish rout before a sellout crowd of 59,075 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Mirer's three touchdown passes gave him 17 for the season, establishing a Notre Dame record (three others threw for 16, the latest Joe Theismann in 1970). It helped Notre Dame (8-1) to its
seventh straight win and its first shutout since 1989 -- when the Irish beat Navy here, 41-0.
"It feels good to have the record, because so many greats have played here in the past," said Mirer, who completed a career-high 17 passes in 23 attempts. "When the weather's bad like this [light snow and a wind chill index of minus-4 degrees at kickoff], it's to the offense's advantage."
Mirer took advantage early, as he completed 13 of 19 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in the first half in helping his team to a 17-0 lead. It continued his dominance over the Midshipmen -- his previous high in passing yards was 265 in Notre Dame's 52-31 win over Navy last season.
The uncharacteristic passing accuracy of the Irish resulted from Chaump's decision to go with an eight-man defensive front to stop Notre Dame, whose 295.4 yards rushing per game had ranked fifth in the nation.
"We wanted to stop the run, because they weren't throwing much this year," Chaump said. "We contained their running except for one big play [a 65-yard -- late in the game by reserve tailback Reggie Brooks that set up Notre Dame's final touchdown]. It was just the passing that did it to us. I admire [Mirer] a lot, because he overcame the elements and did it when he had to."
Navy's offensive plan was to keep the ball on the ground, which was why Chaump went with Jason Van Matre at quarterback instead of Jim Kubiak. Using a clock-consuming running game, Navy was able to take one first-half drive to the Notre Dame 13-yard line. But Navy then stayed with the run near the goal line, and that series ended on downs.
"We felt the one chance we had was to control the ball, and we went with some wishbone similarities," Chaump said. "We were not planning to pass."
Despite the slow Navy offensive start, the Midshipmen were still in the game late in the second quarter, when they trailed, 10-0. But after Navy punted on its last first-half drive with 1:47 left in the half, Mirer responded by leading a 62-yard drive -- all through the air -- that ended with a 9-yard scoring pass to fullback Jerome Bettis with 12 seconds left to give Notre Dame a 17-0 lead.
"That touchdown before the half was really demoralizing," Chaump said. "If it was 10-0 at the half, who knows what could have happened?"
What happened in the second half was Mirer's having things pretty much his way, as he completed a touchdown pass of 13 yards to Tony Smith and Bettis ran in from the 1 on the team's first two drives to increase the lead to 31-0. The final score came midway through the fourth quarter, when Brooks scored from 3 yards out one play after his 65-yard run (Notre Dame's longest from scrimmage this season).
Navy moved the ball better in the second half, getting inside the Notre Dame 35 on all four drives. But the Midshipmen were turned away each time, including a drive to the Notre Dame 11 that ended when fourth-string quarterback Joe Spencer threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-eight.
"I know they wanted to score at the end, but we wanted the shutout as well," Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said. "Navy did a good job running the ball inside, and they controlled the football a lot more than we would have liked."
With the toughest game of the season now behind Navy (the Midshipmen have lost 28 straight times to Notre Dame in the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in college football), the team now can look toward a more realistic shot at winning next week in a game at Tulane.
"Our kids played hard," Chaump said. "And they played a better ballgame than 38-0."