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Notre Dame holds off Navy in final minutes for tense victory

BALTIMORE -- A passing rain storm seemed to be the only thing putting a damper on Charlie Weis' day.

Notre Dame was a couple of minutes away from giving its coach a drama-free and much-needed victory. Then things got strange, and a tense week for college football's most storied program culminated with an uneasy ending against Navy.

A year after the Fighting Irish had their record 43-game winning streak against Navy snapped, Notre Dame had to withstand a frenetic rally by the Midshipmen in the final minute and a half to win 27-21 Saturday.

"We made the game a little too exciting at the end," Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "But we're happy to come out with the victory."

The Midshipmen (6-4) trailed 27-7 when Shun White broke loose for a 24-yard touchdown run that seemed as if it would provide little more than window dressing with 1:39 left.

Then Navy linebacker Corey Johnson recovered an onside kick at the Notre Dame 41 and the Irish sent their first-team defense back in.

It didn't help. Ricky Dobbs completed a 40-yard pass down the sideline to Tyree Barnes, then ran in from a yard out, and it was 27-21 with 1:21 left and another onside kick coming.

The second worked even better, as Johnson leaped to come up with a high bouncer.

"Once we got the second one I felt in my heart we were going to win," Johnson said.

Navy again took over at the 41. But this time, Dobbs couldn't get the ball downfield. Pat Kuntz's sack keyed the defensive stand, and when Dobbs' final pass sailed high, Notre Dame (6-4) could finally rest.

"Before we get going, anyone want to be on my hands team next week?" Weis asked reporters after the game. "Any volunteers?"

There would be no repeat of last year's stunner in South Bend, Ind., nor of Navy's 20-point, fourth-quarter comeback that helped beat Temple two weeks ago.

The Irish avoided a loss that no doubt would have sent Weis' critics, a seemingly growing group among Notre Dame fans in the coach's fourth season, over the edge.

"If I don't want the fans to go with the ebb and flow each week, in terms of their reactions, then I can't either. And I don't," said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who voiced his support for Weis earlier this week. "You try and evaluate things on the totality of what you're seeing and what we saw here today was as a good a 20 minutes as we've seen this year."

Weis led Notre Dame to the BCS in his first two seasons, but managed only three victories with an inexperienced team last year.

A 17-0 loss to Boston College last week, Notre Dame's third in four games, led to Weis fielding questions about his job security. Just another week in the soap opera that often is Notre Dame football.

"It's easy for us to block it out," said running back Armando Allen, who had 120 yards of offense.

Weis called plays for the first time this season, scanning an oversized white card as he limped up and down the sideline on his injured left knee.

He decided to mostly play it safe offensively. Meanwhile, his defense clamped down on the Middies' option attack and special teams produced a 14-yard blocked punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter from linebacker Toryan Smith.

In a game that started in windy, overcast conditions at M&T Bank Stadium -- the home of the Baltimore Ravens -- Notre Dame took control in the third quarter before the rain came and drove much of the crowd of 70,932 to the exits early.

Allen ran 11 yards for a touchdown with 9:31 left in the third and Robert Hughes had a 7-yard TD run six minutes later to make it 24-7.

Notre Dame is bowl eligible heading into another very winnable game against Syracuse, before finishing the season against Southern California.

Written on a grease board in the Navy locker room before the game were "BELIEVE!!" and "ACHIEVE!!"

And why not? For the first time in more than four decades, the Midshipmen could draw from a winning experience against Notre Dame. Navy celebrated wildly last year after beating the Irish 46-44 in triple overtime.

A two-game winning streak for Navy in the series that would have been its first since 1960-61 was too much to ask for.

"You can't dig a hole like that against a team like Notre Dame," coach Ken Niumatalolo said.

Notre Dame held the country's second-ranked rushing offense to a season-low 178 yards, and piled up 230 yards of its own on the ground. James Aldridge ran for 80 yards on 16 carries.

"I came in at halftime and told them we were now going to spread them out and we were just going to run the ball until I get sick of running it," Weis said.

Clausen rarely went downfield, completing 15 of 18 passes for 110 yards with two interceptions and a fumble.

Cory Finnerty's 22-yard touchdown run for Navy tied it at 7 with 2:39 left in the first half. But Notre Dame took advantage of Eric Kettani's fumble near midfield with 1:09 left to take a 10-7 lead on Brandon Walker's 28-yard field goal as time expired.

The Irish dominated most of the second half, but things just don't come easy for them these days.

Still, as Clausen said: "A win is a win."