xml:space="preserve">

“Total euphoria!”

That was the term Ram Vela used to describe the celebration after Navy finally beat Notre Dame to end its epic losing streak in the series.

Advertisement

For 43 consecutive years the Fighting Irish had always found some way to beat the Midshipmen — many times by blowout, often by the skin of their teeth and occasionally by sheer miracle.

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 3, 2007, as the skies surrounding fabled Notre Dame Stadium grew dark, the horrible hex the Irish held for so long over the Mids was suddenly over.

Navy 46, Notre Dame 44 in triple overtime.

“I will never forget my reaction because I literally threw my helmet in the air out of pure joy,” said Vela, one of the stars of that monumental victory.

“Everyone rushed the field and was jumping up and down. There was so much excitement I almost blacked out. You almost didn’t know what to do with yourself,” Vela added. “There was a ton of running, high-fiving and hugging. It was definitely a state of euphoria.”

Vela, who now lives in Houston and works in finance and information technology for the Vortex Companies, made one of the most memorable plays in that 2007 game. With the game tied at 28 and Notre Dame facing fourth-and-8 from the Navy 24-yard line with 41 seconds left in regulation, defensive coordinator Buddy Green directed the outside linebacker to blitz off the edge.

It was crazy to contemplate because Vela was recruited to Navy as a slotback and had been switched to the secondary during the spring of his freshman year. During a 46-43 loss to Duke earlier in the 2007 season, Green had made the abrupt decision to move the 5-foot-9, 197-pounder to the outside linebacker position known as striker.

“Our outside linebackers couldn’t cover Duke’s slot receivers so at halftime Coach Green said ‘I’m going to throw you in at striker.’ He explained that I only needed to worry about doing three play assignments,” Vela said. “I was flying around like crazy in the second half of that game, probably because I was just so pumped about being on the field for the first time. Coach Green thought he had found something, and I never played in the secondary again.”

Pass coverage was Vela’s strong suit, but rushing the quarterback was a gradual learning experience. On several previous blitz calls during the 2007 Notre Dame game, Vela never got near the backfield.

With Notre Dame determined to convert a first down in order to continue its march to the winning touchdown, a defensive assistant asked Vela: “Are you going to finally make a play?” A sudden recollection of a tendency picked up during film study proved crucial to Vela, who noticed that Notre Dame tailback Travis Thomas went low whenever assigned to pass block.

“I had picked up that the back always went for the cut block the majority of time someone blitzed off the edge,” Vela said. “I made the decision before the snap that I was jumping.”

Vela’s flying leap, going almost horizontal, was one of the lasting images and most watched highlights of Navy’s victory. It forever etched Vela’s name into Navy folklore, even though he did not get credit for sacking quarterback Evan Sharpley.

While Vela grabbed the quarterback around the shoulders, it was actually defensive end Chris Kuhar-Pitters who officially made the tackle by taking out both legs.

The Fighting Irish and Midshipmen traded touchdowns in the first overtime then matched field goals in the second extra session. Slotback Reggie Campbell scored off a 25-yard pass from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada on the first play of the third overtime and those two hooked up again for a critical two-point conversion.

Advertisement

Thomas scored on a 5-yard run to give Notre Dame a chance to force a fourth overtime, but it was Navy that made the biggest play of the game. The Fighting Irish turned to Thomas again for the required two-point conversion, but he was swarmed under by linebacker Irv Spencer, defensive end Michael Walsh and a host of Midshipmen.

To this day, none of the Navy players on that team will forget the pregame speech delivered by former linebacker Bobby McClarin, a 2005 graduate. McClarin told the Midshipmen that “Notre Dame’s locker room may be filled with five-star recruits, but the brothers in this locker room possess five-star hearts.”

McClarin would wind up founding a company he called the Five Star Heart Project that conducts football camps and clinics with the purpose of influencing and impacting youngsters.

Beating Notre Dame was pretty much the pinnacle of the Paul Johnson era at Navy. Hired as head coach in December 2001, Johnson completely transformed the program and directed five straight winning seasons capped by bowl berths.

Navy’s historic defeat of Notre Dame was nationwide news and help propel Johnson into the head coaching position at Georgia Tech. He was quickly replaced in Annapolis by his top assistant Ken Niumatalolo, who is now in his 12th year at the helm.

“I remember the celebration spilled over into the locker room and that was the most memorable Anchors Aweigh I’ve ever sung,” Vela said. “Paul Johnson was really animated when he talked to us in the locker room. That was probably the most excited you would ever see him get. It was awesome to see just how elated Coach Johnson was about that win.”

Nov. 7, 2009: Navy 23, Notre Dame 21

A large contingent of seniors on the 2009 squad had been part of the previous victory over Notre Dame as sophomores.

That was especially the case on defense as Walsh and fellow defensive end Matt Nechak, linebackers Craig Schaefer, Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer and Vela as well as defensive backs Kevin Edwards; Blake Carter and Wyatt Middleton all made appearances in that 2007 contest.

“There were a ton of guys from the 2007 team still around in 2009 and we went into Notre Dame Stadium feeling confident because we had won the last time we were there,” Vela said.

It turns out Notre Dame was in its final season under Charlie Weis, who posted a 35-27 record from 2005 through 2009. The Fighting Irish finished that 2007 season with a 3-9 mark and went 6-6 in 2009.

Notre Dame did have some serious talent as always with quarterback Jimmy Clausen, wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, tight end Kyle Rudolph and offensive tackle Sam Young among many future NFL standouts on the roster.

“I’d say that 2009 Notre Dame team was a lot better than the one in 2007,” Vela conceded. “Also, from an execution standpoint, we played a 100 percent better overall football game in 2009.”

Fullback Vince Murray rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Ricky Dobbs contributed 102 yards and a score as Navy moved the ball quite effectively on the ground. The Midshipmen amassed 348 rushing yards with most of the damage coming between the tackles.

Dobbs, a lieutenant currently stationed at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, recalls two particular plays that proved Navy’s preparedness. Dobbs, who ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in several offensive categories, called them “game-defining moments.”

“I remember they gave us a look we had worked on in practice and I checked the play to a mid-line option and Vince Murray popped it open for a touchdown,” said Dobbs, referring to the fullback’s 25-yard scoring scamper early in the second quarter.

Advertisement

“We also ran a play we called ‘over’ in which we lined up two wide receivers on one side. Notre Dame assumed Greg Jones was covered, but he wasn’t because the outside wide receiver was off the line of scrimmage,” Dobbs said. “We ran an option pass and Greg got wide-open on the back side and I hit him for a touchdown.”

That 52-yard scoring strike from Dobbs to Jones gave Navy a 21-7 lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter.

Notre Dame marked the first game for Dobbs since suffering a broken kneecap against SMU on Oct. 17. He played in pain versus the Irish and still performed at a high level.

Clausen completed 37 of 51 passes for 452 yards, but the Irish could not finish in the red zone. Navy forced three turnovers with Vela recovering a fumble and making an interception. Schaefer, an outside linebacker, provided the winning points by sacking Clausen in the end zone for a safety late in the fourth quarter.

“We executed the defensive game-plan exactly as Coach Green designed it,” Vela said.

Notre Dame recovered an onside kick following the safety and scored a touchdown with 24 seconds to go. The Fighting Irish remarkably recovered another onside kick, but time ran out and the Mids held on.

“The final score doesn’t show the way we dominated that game for four quarters,” Dobbs said.

It marked the first time an unranked Navy team defeated a ranked Notre Dame squad since 1936. It was also the first victory over the Fighting Irish since Niumatalolo became head coach and it clearly meant a lot to him.

“Coach Niumat was absolutely ecstatic. We could all tell that was a real big win for him as a head coach,” Dobbs said.

Carter, Vela and Schaefer all recorded nine tackles to lead the Navy defense, which repeatedly stopped the Fighting Irish in scoring territory. Losing to Navy for the second time in the span of three years was a big reason why Weis was fired following the 2009 campaign.

“Doing something for the first time is always more memorable. Even still, the second time around was great as well,” Vela said. “We couldn’t believe we had beaten Notre Dame on its home field again. I thought that second win was a little more rewarding because that was a much better Notre Dame team.”

Oct. 23, 2010: Navy 35, Notre Dame 17

Those narrow upsets in 2007 and 2009 definitely did not foretell what would happen in 2010.

Navy dominated Notre Dame in all three phases in posting one of its most convincing victories in series history. The Midshipmen defeated the Fighting Irish 32-13 in 1944, 33-7 in 1956 and 35-14 in 1963.

What happened before 75,614 fans at the New Meadowlands Stadium in 2010 ranks fourth on the list of lopsided wins by the Midshipmen.

Fullback Alexander Teich rushed for a career-high 210 yards on 26 carries, while Dobbs ran for 90 yards and three touchdowns as Navy made history on numerous fronts.

It was the first time Navy had beaten Notre Dame in consecutive years since 1960 and ’61. It was the first neutral site victory for the Midshipmen since 1960. It gave Navy’s senior class three wins in four years against Notre Dame, a feat matched only by the football graduating classes of 1937 and 1964.

“I think there was a quiet confidence going into that Notre Dame game,” Teich said. “We knew we could play with them because we had done it before. We darn sure weren’t intimidated. We felt like we belonged on the same field with them.”

Teich, who now works in business development for a hydro excavation company out of Houston, Texas, said the defense made a strong statement early by stopping Notre Dame on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the game’s opening possession.

“I remember the offensive players on the sideline looked at each other and thought: ‘This game is over!’ We knew we were going 99 yards and scoring a touchdown, which is exactly what we did,” Teich said.

It only took Navy six plays to drive the length of the field with Teich bursting through a gaping hole up the middle for a 54-yard run then moments later turning a short catch into a 31-yard touchdown romp.

“We had one of the top offenses in the country that year and we all believed we could move the ball on any team we played,” said Teich, noting Navy piled up 367 rushing yards in the romp.

A tiny wrinkle seemed to unsettle the Notre Dame defense and the coaching staff never figured out exactly what Navy was doing. Niumatalolo had the offensive linemen slightly widen their splits and that succeeded in creating huge gaps in the front seven.

Brian Kelly, who was in his first season as head coach at Notre Dame, would say afterward that Navy surprised his defensive staff by running the veer.

“What really happened is that we just flat-out executed. We were getting to the second and third tier of their defense blocking-wise,” Teich said. “We put a lot of defenders on the ground that day; We really had them on their heels the whole game.”

Teich said the offensive line of center Brady DeMell, guards John Dowd and Matt Molloy along with tackles Jeff Battipaglia and Ryan Basford deserved immense credit.

“I felt we were physically beating them up. Some of their big defensive linemen who were superstars were tapping out toward the end,” Teich said.

Dobbs admits even he was surprised by how badly the Mids gouged an Irish defense that was led by All-American linebacker Manti Te’o.

“I remember the big nose guard got hurt on the first drive and that was huge loss for them on the interior. That may have been why we had so much success running the fullback,” Dobbs said. “We just had their number that day. Everything we were calling was working and Teich was just tearing them apart.”

A large contingent of Navy football players went into New York City to celebrate with Teich joking that he does not remember too much about the night other than seeing Times Square at some point.

“It’s always a big deal to beat Notre Dame. I don’t think there will ever be a time when that isn’t a really big deal for Navy,” he said.

Nov. 5, 2016: Navy 28, Notre Dame 27

Kelly has restored some order to the rivalry since suffering that embarrassing loss in his first season at the helm, going 7-1 against Navy from 2011 through 2018.

The Irish have administered some real whippings to the Mids during that time, winning 56-14 in 2011, 50-10 in 2012, 41-24 in 2015 and 44-22 in 2018.

Navy’s lone win in that stretch came in 2016 when the players executed the game-plan almost to perfection at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

Advertisement

Quarterback Will Worth rushed for 175 yards and two touchdowns as Navy held the ball for almost 34 minutes and limited Notre Dame to just six possessions. The Midshipmen were successful on 12 of 18 third or fourth down conversions and never punted.

Notre Dame scored on five of its six possessions with three touchdowns and two field goals. Kelly would regret not going for it on fourth-and-four at the Navy 14-yard line, settling for a 31-yard field goal by Justin Yoon.

The Fighting Irish would not get the defensive stop Kelly had anticipated and the Mids escaped with the one-point win.

“We played about as perfect as you can play, and still only beat them by a point,” Niumatalolo said earlier this week.

Worth, now a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, was the hero in a contest he’d circled on the calendar years beforehand. Worth lived in Jacksonville while his father was a helicopter pilot in the Navy and grew up rooting for Notre Dame.

“I was a Jaguars fan and a Notre Dame fan so that game was something special for me,” Worth told The Capital this week. “I thought the whole environment in an NFL stadium like that was incredible.”

Navy was 5-2 and coming off a disappointing loss at South Florida. Earlier in the season, the Midshipmen had upset Houston when it was ranked sixth nationally.

“We definitely saw an opportunity to beat Notre Dame. We all looked at each other in the locker room and knew we could get it done,” Worth said. “I remember the night before the game, Coach Niumat showed videos of Navy teams celebrating in the locker room after beating Notre Dame. That was very motivational and inspiring.”

Notre Dame jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but Navy answered with a 73-yard touchdown march capped by slotback Darryl Bonner scoring on a 16-yard scamper.

“Our offense drove right down the field on the first possession and we realized we could play with these guys,” Worth said. “It was clearly a pro-Navy crowd and that support seemed to grow louder as the game went along and it looked more and more like we could win.”

Navy opened the second half with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 21-17 lead and the senior quarterback could see some doubt creep into the eyes of the Notre Dame defenders.

“I think they expected their defensive adjustments to make an impact and when they didn’t you could sense some frustration,” Worth said. “

Worth converted two critical fourth down situations on the final drive – one on a dive play near midfield and the other on a short pass to wide receiver Jamir Tillman that essentially ended the game. He took a knee in victory formation and that set off a raucous celebration.

“I remember singing Blue and Gold in front of all the mids and looking out at all our families,” Worth said. “It was just a dream come true and everyone was on Cloud Nine. To this day, that is one of the best days I’ve ever had playing football.”

No. 23 NAVY@No. 16 NOTRE DAME

Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 Radio: 1090 AM

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement