30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: The 1997 Navy save and the triple-overtime debacle a decade later
Editor’s Note: The original intention of the “30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC” series was to set the stage for the 30th year of the partnership. But then 2020 intervened with a fury, and the season did not grant the time to publish the last half dozen entries. As 2020’s reach lengthens 2021’s winter doldrums, there is no reason not to walk down those memory lanes now.
Unfairly but understandably, the loss is remembered more than the 43 straight wins that preceded it. When Notre Dame finally fell to Navy in triple overtime in 2007, it ended the longest such winning streak against a single opponent in NCAA history. In headline terms, man had finally bitten dog.
But the loss stood out only due to its rarity. A man never bites a dog; the Midshipmen seemingly were never going to beat the Irish. Even when they came close, Notre Dame always found a way.
And Navy never came closer than it did in 1997. (Arguably, John Carney’s 44-yard game-winner in 1984 qualifies as closer, an 18-17 Irish victory.) If the loss a decade later is described as “after 43 wins and three overtimes …,” then the 1997 miracle deserves the acknowledgement of “even a Hail Mary twice deflected and bouncing off two golden helmets could not get the Midshipmen a victory.”
That was how close Bob Davie’s first challenge against Navy was.
Trailing 21-17 with three seconds left and 71 yards to cover, the Midshipmen had no choice but to heave and hope. Rather than spike the desperate attempt to the ground near the 20-yard line, Notre Dame safety Deke Cooper tried to intercept it, as did cornerback Deveron Harper. Bobbled by them, the ball then glanced off two Irish helmets and into Navy receiver Pat McGrew’s hands.
There was no one left in the 20 yards between McGrew and the end zone, a genuine chance to snap 33 years of losing to Notre Dame.
“I just did exactly what I’m supposed to do on that play — get behind everybody and look for a tip,” McGrew said.
Then Irish cornerback Allen Rossum came streaking across the red zone to shove McGrew out of bounds only a yard short of the goal line. For all his punt, kick and interception returns into the end zone, that tackle short of paydirt may have been Rossum’s greatest play at Notre Dame.
Simply put, it prolonged the streak. As Davie’s tenure unraveled, he at least held off the Midshipmen, winning 30-0, 28-24, 45-14 and 34-16 in the next four years. A cynic could have argued the best thing Davie could do for the program would have been to lose to Navy and shoulder that dishonor.
Instead, that duty would fall to Charlie Weis in the worst Notre Dame season in nearly 50 years. Even then, it took a second two-point conversion attempt for the Midshipmen to be certain they had knocked off the Irish in 1997, handing Weis & Co. a program-record fifth consecutive home defeat.
The 43 years of relief, or humiliation, weighed differently on the two teams after they were concluded.
“I’m happy I don’t have to answer anything else about the streak every time we play,” Navy head coach Paul Johnson said.
Charlie Weis insisted he hardly considered the streak.
“They’re worried about here and now,” he said. “These kids are 17. You think they’re worrying about 43 years?”
Weis had a point. Notre Dame running back Robert Hughes had lost his older brother, Tony, to a gunshot earlier that week. Teammates had attended the Friday funeral. When Hughes opened the Irish scoring with a 3-yard touchdown run minutes into the game, his only carry of the day, Weis found him for a cathartic hug.
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That in itself was a moment worthy of remembering in these 30 years of “ND on NBC,” albeit one overshadowed by the nearly-unprecedented upset at the end of that afternoon.
The Midshipmen are scheduled to return to South Bend on Nov. 6 in 2021, reviving the series after its first year off since 1927. For now, let’s welcome that idea of normalcy and shelve triple-option debates and arguments over obligations to the military branch that kept Notre Dame solvent through World War II.
Even if Navy snaps the current three-game Irish winning streak in the series, the two playing each other again would be a welcome sign college football has returned to a season not riddled with Saturday morning cancellations.
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Lou Holtz’s farewell
Syracuse and snowballs, a 2008 comedy with a long-term payoff
Kelly’s 100 Notre Dame wins, marked by 2012 Stanford & 2020 Clemson
100 wins later, Brian Kelly’s debut following Charlie Weis’ end
The Bush Push
Offensive high against Pittsburgh brings ironic end to Willingham’s tenure
Darius Walker’s 2004 debut powers upset of No. 8 MichiganThe Game of the Century: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24Irish timeout gifts Michigan a last-second field goal in 1994
Irish wave goodbye to Michigan, 31-0, in 2014
Lightning strikes twice in South Florida’s first visit
Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 MichiganNight games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish returnTommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991Honorable Mentions