JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Navy’s final fourth-down play worked to perfection. Just don’t bother asking coach Ken Niumatalolo how it played out.
“I had my eyes closed. I was praying,” Niumatalolo said. “It obviously worked out great.”
It helped Navy get a rare win against Notre Dame.
Will Worth ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns, his eighth consecutive game with a rushing score, and the Midshipmen beat the Fighting Irish 28-27 Saturday in the nation’s longest-running intersectional rivalry.
Navy (6-2) won its fourth game against Notre Dame since 1963. The Irish (3-6) had won five in a row in the series.
“We’re kind of in euphoria, Cloud 9 right now having beaten Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been here a long time. We’ve had some crushing defeats to these guys. To be able to finally come out on top, it feels so good.”
Irish coach Brian Kelly deserved some of the blame for this one. Trailing 28-24 with a little more than 7 minutes to go, Kelly opted for a 31-yard field goal instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-4 play at the 14. He made the call even though his defense hadn’t forced a punt all afternoon.
“Well, certainly thought about going for it,” Kelly said. “Now in hindsight, it’s something that we didn’t get the ball back. But 28-27 made sense to me at the time. Even if they score a touchdown, we still have the opportunity to score and get the two-point conversion. … But those are the decisions you got to make.
“Again, I don’t question the decision to go for the field goal other than the fact that we couldn’t get the ball back.”
Navy got the ball and ran out the clock with its triple-option offense. Worth converted two huge fourth-down plays on the final drive, one on a dive play near midfield and another with a pass to Jamir Tillman that essentially ended it.
Worth took a knee after that, setting off a raucous celebration that surely will continue through the weekend.
“There are no words for that (win),” Tillman said. “Every year we get so close. But close only matters in horseshoes. So it feels crazy to bet them my senior year and to go out just how we did.”
Tillman finished with four receptions for 41 yards. Worth notched with his fourth straight 100-yard rushing performance and fifth of the season.
“The kid’s playing phenomenal,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re where we’re at right now because of Will Worth. He’s given our team belief the way he plays, tough, hard-nosed and he’s created an edge on our football team. We’re a scrappy team that’s not going to back down from anybody. A lot of that edge comes from the way he plays.”
Navy finished with 368 yards, including 320 on the ground.
The Midshipmen actually punted once, but it was wiped out after a replay because Notre Dame had 12 men on the field. Instead, the Midshipmen kept the drive alive, converted a fourth-and-1 play and Worth later scored his second rushing TD and his 15th of the season.
“Listen, Navy won the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not here to cry over that call. We had chances to get off the field and we couldn’t get off the field.”
Notre Dame: The Irish now need to win out against Army, Virginia Tech and USC to become bowl eligible. It was the Irish’s fifth loss in seven games, continuing Kelly’s worst season in seven years. The Irish have a young team and should be better in 2017, but making a bowl seems like a long shot.
Navy: The Middies are bowl eligible again, improving to 23-5 in their last 28 games. Three of those losses came against ranked teams.
Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer completed 19 of 27 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He added 52 yards rushing and didn’t have a turnover. But he was standing on the sideline, unable to do anything, in the final 7-plus minutes.
Notre Dame: Plays Army in San Antonio, Texas, next Saturday. The Irish have won 14 in a row in the series.
Navy: Hosts Tulsa in the team’s home finale. Navy is 2-1 against the Golden Hurricanes.