SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame barely escaped a miraculous last-second finish by the Navy football team yesterday and extended its NCAA-record winning streak over the Midshipmen to 34 games, but this 21-17 victory before a stunned crowd of 80,225 deserved several asterisks.
A Hail Mary pass with three seconds remaining by Navy quarterback Chris McCoy bounced off the fingertips of safety Deke Cooper near the Irish 25. Slotback Pat McGrew scooped the ball out of the air before it hit the ground and made a mad dash for the end zone.
Said McGrew: "I just did exactly what I'm supposed to do on that play -- get behind everybody and look for a tip. After I caught it, I tried to dive the last 2 yards into the end zone and thought I knocked down the pylon."
But television relays showed that McGrew juggled the ball out of bounds on the 1-yard line after being nudged by cornerback Allen Rossum.
"I thought it was still Halloween because that's the strangest play I've ever seen," said Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, whose Irish (4-5) kept their faint bowl hopes alive.
The near-miss on the 69-yard completion only added to the frustration of the Mids (3-4), who outplayed heavily favored Notre Dame for almost the entire game, save for a time-consuming 17-play, 93-yard scoring march in the fourth quarter that provided the margin of victory.
Co-captain Gervy Alota, who led an inspired Navy defense with 10 tackles and also picked up a first down on a fake punt, summed up his team's bitter emotions.
"This is the worst feeling I've ever had," said the senior safety. "We not only lost our chance to end the Notre Dame streak, but this also ended our bowl hopes. It's heartbreaking because we ** dominated the statistics, but the scoreboard says we lost."
McCoy, who had been hyped as a Heisman Trophy candidate before the season, was impressive running the ball, gaining 147 yards on 23 carries and accounting for both Navy touchdowns on 9- and 2-yard dashes.
But the senior co-captain was guilty of throwing three interceptions, and the Irish ultimately converted two of the thefts into touchdowns.
The first pick by linebacker Kory Minor on the Navy 29 set up a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ron Powlus to flanker Bobby Brown, tying the game 7-7 after Navy had staged a flawless 61-yard scoring drive on the game's first offensive series.
The lead then seesawed with Navy taking a 10-7 halftime advantage on Tom Vanderhorst's 22-yard field goal. Vanderhorst failed to convert from 33 yards out just before the half, a miss that would prove costly.
The Irish rebounded to take a 14-10 lead in the opening minutes of the second half. Junior tailback Autrey Denson (19 carries for 125 yards) circled left end, shook off a tackle by cornerback Gerald Wilson and raced 48 yards to score.
But an interception by safety Rashad Smith, who also had a fumble recovery, led to a 48-yard touchdown drive to put the Mids back on top, 17-14, late in the third quarter.
They appeared in excellent position to finish the job after a short punt gave them the ball on their own 42. Runs by McCoy and Tim Cannada advanced the ball to the Irish 18. On second down, McCoy barely missed Marty Metcalf with an end-zone pass. And then came the fateful interception.
With considerable time to throw, McCoy threw into a crowd and strong safety Benny Guilbeaux stepped in front of wide receiver LeBron Butts to steal the pass in the end zone and return it to the 7.
"I saw Butts break open, but I didn't see their linebacker and safety breaking on the ball," said McCoy.
"That play changed everything," said Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie. "If we kick a field goal on that drive, even if they come back and score, they'd only be up by a point. Instead, we needed a touchdown to win it late in the game."
But Smith, Navy's senior safety, believes it was more than missed opportunities that caused this devastating loss.
"The way the referees called the game, that wasn't right," said Smith, noting the Big Ten officials whistled Notre Dame for a single 5-yard penalty compared to five for Navy.
"That wasn't as big as the fumble recovery they didn't give us," said Smith.
On the first play of Notre Dame's long winning drive, Denson seemed to lose the ball and safety Kevin Lewis pounced on it on the Irish 7. But the officials ruled Denson was down.
After the near-stunning comeback by Navy left the fans in semi-shock, the Mids were berated by Irish supporters for walking through the Notre Dame band.
Said Weatherbie: "We sing the 'Navy Blue and Gold' and say a prayer at midfield after every game. This is the first time we've been booed for praying."
Next for Navy
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis
When: Saturday, noon
1% Yesterday: Defeated Rutgers, 49-7
Since Navy's last win over Notre Dame in 1963, most Irish
victories over the Mids have been blowouts. Yesterday's loss was the second-closest the Mids have come during Notre Dame's 34-game winning streak: Yr. . .. ..Score .. .. .. .. .. ..Diff.
1984 .. ...ND 18, Navy 17 .. .. .. ...1
1997 .. ...ND 21, Navy 17 .. .. .. ...4
1976 .. ...ND 27, Navy 21 .. .. .. ...6
1974 .. ...ND 14, Navy 6 .. .. .. . ..8
1979 .. ...ND 14, Navy 0 .. .. .. ...14
Pub Date: 11/02/97