PHILADELPHIA -- Only 30 minutes separated Notre Dame from another possible national championship bid, or losing to Navy in one of the greatest upsets in modern college football.
"We weren't panicky," said Aaron Taylor, Notre Dame's senior offensive tackle. "Let's just say we were concerned. A national championship has been dancing in our head, you know."
No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0) survived the scare with two touchdowns in the first two minutes of the third quarter, and the Fighting Irish went on to beat Navy, 58-27, yesterday at Veterans Stadium.
The pesky Midshipmen caught Notre Dame sleepwalking in the first half and led 24-17 at halftime.
The stage was set for a halftime tirade by Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, but Holtz remained calm. He left the rah-rah stuff for his seniors.
"There was no ranting and raving," Holtz said. "I didn't want us to come out in the third quarter, not score on the first possession, and then give up.
"It was awkward being in this position," said Holtz, whose team trailed for the first time since playing Penn State in 1991. "But whenever we're in a battle, I let our seniors take over, and they bring the team out when they're ready, even if it cost us a 15-yard penalty. It's their team. This was all about attitude."
And about No. 1 Florida State. After an idle week, the Irish play the Seminoles in South Bend, Ind., on Nov. 13. Oh, the game still would have been played, but the stakes wouldn't have been as high.
"We just reminded the guys of how hard we've worked, and what we're working for," said Taylor. "Seven points is not a big mountain to climb. We came out very lethargic and Navy hit us with some stuff we didn't expect.
"We just stepped it up in the second half. No great changes, no new wrinkles. We just executed better."
Actually, there were some new wrinkles. Notre Dame played a soft zone in the first half, and did not blitz as pass-happy Navy quarterback Jim Kubiak completed 12 of 19 passes for 193 yards.
In the second half, Notre Dame cornerbacks Greg Lane and Bobby Taylor started playing receivers Michael Jefferson and Damon Dixon tighter at the line of scrimmage, taking away the mid-range passes Navy had completed in the first half.
Then the Irish started to occasionally blitz linebackers Justin Goheen and Pete Bercich. Kubiak's first pass of the third quarter was batted down by left tackle Bryant Young. Kubiak's third pass was overthrown because he was hurried and buried by nose tackle Jim Flanigan. Kubiak's fourth pass was intended for Dixon, but strong safety John Covington almost intercepted it.
Navy's first three offensive series of the second half consisted of 12 plays, three punts, and no first downs. Notre Dame, though, scored on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Kevin McDougal to Lake Dawson and a 70-yard touchdown run by Randy Kinder on its first two possessions for a 31-24 lead with 11:20 left in the third quarter.
The outcome was never in doubt after Kinder's touchdown.
"Navy had a great offensive game plan, and our defense struggled the entire afternoon," said Holtz, whose team had 227 yards of total offense in the first half compared with 377 in the second. "I've been concerned with our pass defense all year, and we've still got some problems in that area.
"Any time you play anybody, you can't take anything for granted. I said Navy would be one of the most improved teams we play and everybody laughed. I said we would struggle and everybody laughed.
"[But] our offense was just too powerful for them. Our line and running backs controlled the game. We're 9-0 and I think we're a good football team, but not a great one yet.
But the Irish did show off their depth. When starting junior tailback Lee Becton (124 yards) was removed at halftime with a thigh contusion and a reaggravated hamstring injury, Holtz played freshmen Kinder and Robert Farmer. Kinder had 108 yards on 10 carries, Farmer 77 on six.
Becton, though, should return in time for Florida State.
"I don't know if we were looking too far ahead," said Taylor. "I do know that we came out in a fog. Then we got it together, playing with more intensity and a better attitude.
"We can't play like this against Florida State. We were lucky to be only seven points down at the half against Navy. Florida State may have jumped on us by 21.
"Hopefully, it won't happen again. I saw a possible national championship flash before my eyes."