Sunday November 8th, 2009

Notre Dame is a program that prides itself on tradition. Under Charlie Weis, the Irish have developed a new one: Losing at home to Navy.

Two years ago, the Midshipmen came to South Bend and snapped an NCAA-record 43-game losing streak against their annual nemesis. The game marked the low point in an altogether miserable 3-9 season for Notre Dame.

This season, however, the Irish were purportedly a different team. With Heisman candidates at quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) and receiver (Golden Tate) and a 6-2 record, Weis' fifth team had its sights set on a BCS at-large berth. Yes, they'd survived an inordinate number of close calls already, and yes, it's still been three years since their last win over a ranked opponent, but that didn't dampen Domers' optimism for their final four games.

There goes that.

Navy (7-3) did everything it does best Saturday, playing crisp, disciplined, triple-option football. Led by QB Ricky Dobbs, the Middies gashed the Irish defense for 348 rushing yards in a 23-21 victory. Notre Dame, meanwhile, did everything it could possibly do wrong. Its first six trips into the red zone ended in one touchdown, two missed field goals, a fumble, an interception and a turnover on downs.

Clausen got his typically gaudy 453 yards, but that hardly told the story of his day. On consecutive late-game series, Clausen fumbled at the Navy 1-yard line on a hard hit by Navy's Kevin Edwards (he appeared at first to be seriously hurt but didn't miss a play), then threw an interception inside the Middies' 10-yard-line on a throw that bounced off intended receiver Michael Floyd's back.

Clausen was able to produce one touchdown drive to cut the score to 21-14 with 4:52 left, but upon getting the ball back with 1:48 remaining, Navy sacked him on both third and fourth downs, the latter for a game-sealing safety. His Heisman hopes were likely vanquished along with the outcome.

Two years ago in this game, Weis took an avalanche of criticism for a questionable late-game decision not to attempt a long field goal. He's been under constant scrutiny ever since, and following Saturday's disaster, he's likely one more loss away from losing his job.

Weis was squarely on the hot seat coming into the season. By his own admission, Notre Dame needed to at least contend for a BCS bowl berth for his fifth season to be considered a success. At No. 22 in last week's standings, it remained feasible for the Irish to climb the necessary eight spots to qualify for a BCS at-large berth. Those hopes are now shot.

Worst of all for Weis, Notre Dame still has its toughest games ahead. The Irish travel next week to 8-1 Pittsburgh. They finish their season at vastly improved Stanford. Barring dramatic improvement by their defense, the Irish will be hard-pressed to win both, and 8-4 or 7-5 -- on the heels of 3-9 and 7-6 -- is simply unacceptable for a $4 million coach whose roster is purportedly loaded with his own hand-picked blue-chippers.

Notre Dame has provided its fans with no shortage of on-the-field drama this season. Now comes the other type.

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