SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This one slashed to the very core of the Navy football team.
On the brink of exorcising the ghosts of many losses past, the Midshipmen again fell victim to their haunting misfortunes of 1999 yesterday and dropped their 36th consecutive game to Notre Dame, 28-24, before 80,012 sun-splashed fans at Notre Dame Stadium.
Navy (2-6) has been accustomed to narrow defeats this season -- this was its fifth by six or fewer points -- but the latest was especially heartbreaking because of the opposition and because of a controversial measurement with 1: 20 remaining that could have iced the Irish for good.
Instead, Notre Dame (5-3) marched on to score the winning touchdown with 36 seconds left.
The outcome assured that Notre Dame would extend the mastery of the Midshipmen that has existed since Roger Staubach and mates dominated here, 35-14, in 1963. The streak is the longest winning streak by one team over another in NCAA history. Navy led, 24-21, on a 33-yard Tim Shubzda field goal with 5: 56 left in the game when the Irish launched their final possession. At the Navy 37, the Irish faced a fourth-and-10 play and Jarious Jackson passed to Bobby Brown, who twisted and turned while in the grasp of two Midshipmen, trying to squirm for precious bits of yardage.
The measurement was close, but the Irish were awarded a first down by mere inches, prolonging the drive. Six plays later, Jackson scrambled and lofted a pass to Jay Johnson near the left sideline. Johnson eluded the tackle attempt of Davede Alexander at the 5 and lunged into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown with 36 seconds remaining.
Had the sticks fallen in Navy's favor, the ball would have turned over to the Midshipmen, and Notre Dame had expended all its timeouts.
"It breaks your heart," said Navy safety Chris Lepore. "You could call this a devastating loss. A 36-year streak and we came within one centimeter of ending it. It was that close on the fourth down.
"It was the closest measurement I've ever seen in my life. Call it the luck of the Irish, but it makes this all the tougher to swallow."
Several weeks ago, Navy co-captains Terrence Anderson and Jamie Doffermyre sent letters to members of the 1963 team, asking for replies. They received numerous answers, many of them inspirational.
"Some of them were unbelievable," Doffermyre said. "I can't remember the guy's name, but he played in that ['63] game with a fractured rib, a broken nose and the nerve of a tooth hanging out and still played."
Said Anderson: "It was something we did in high school. Roger Staubach's letter was amazing. There was a proven winner, a guy you could look up to."
And Navy played with vigor and purpose with a first-time starter (sophomore Brian Madden) at quarterback and Lepore and Doffermyre rambling all over the field to lead a defensive unit that played a rollicking style.
While replacing the injured Brian Broadwater, Madden received mixed reviews from coach Charlie Weatherbie after rushing for 168 yards, high in the game, and passing for 86 on 7-for-17 accuracy.
"He did a good job of leading this football team and played very well for his first start," said Weatherbie. "But you can't afford to turn the football over, no matter how experienced you are."
Madden fumbled away the ball twice and threw one interception before suffering a gash near his left elbow in the third quarter that later required eight stitches.
"You just can't do things like that [turnovers] and expect to beat Notre Dame," he said. "This is really heartbreaking for these seniors because two of the last three years, Navy should have won this game but didn't."
The Midshipmen lost, 21-17, in 1997 when Pat McGrew was knocked out of bounds at the Notre Dame 1 after catching a pass on the game's final play.
Alexander intercepted Jackson and returned it 20 yards to the end zone to push Navy in front, 21-14, at the 5: 01 mark of the third quarter, but Jackson answered that less than a minute later with a 57-yard scramble that retied the game.
Navy's Bas Williams blocked an Irish field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter to mark the second big play by the special teams. Lepore blocked a punt late in the second quarter and Chris Oliver fell on it in the end zone to give the Midshipmen a 14-14 tie at halftime.
Lepore made another huge play to set up Shubzda's go-ahead field goal, sacking Jackson to cause a fumble, then recovering the ball at the Irish 37.
Then came the unhappy ending, a scenario that Navy has experienced often.
Alexander said it was "kind of typical of what's been going on all year. We play teams hard, then can't make it happen in the fourth quarter."
He added that a number of people were "right there" in position to make a stop on Notre Dame's final touchdown. "We just didn't get it done. It was devastating."
The Irish overcame 130 yards worth of penalties with a 146-yard rushing game by Julius Jones and a resourceful -- if unartistic -- performance by Jackson.
Third nationally in passing efficiency, Jackson was 15-of-33 for 200 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"This was a disappointing loss, the kind that hits you deep inside," said Weatherbie. "You know you played your hearts out. The effort was there. I'm very proud of the way these kids fight."
The beat went on in the lopsided series and for the season. Both have produced an armada of broken hearts.
Rare close call
Yesterday marked Navy's 36th straight loss to Notre Dame, but it was only the fifth time during the streak that the Midshipmen lost by fewer than 10 points:
Year Score Site
1974 14-6 Philadelphia
1976 27-21 Cleveland
1984 18-17 E. Rutherford, N.J.
1997 21-17 South Bend, Ind.
1999 28-24 South Bend, Ind.
Next for Navy
Site: Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
When: Saturday, noon
Yesterday: Lost to Temple, 56-28