Notre Dame kicker Jim Sanson heard the groans from the crowd as he stepped onto the field for the potential game-winning 48-yard field goal.
He also knew the Irish faithful had good reason to doubt him -- like the three field goals he missed last year in a 20-17 loss to Southern Cal or the two misses earlier in the game that could have avoided these last-minute heroics.
Even so, he said there was never a doubt that his low, wobbly kick would cross the uprights with 1:06 left to give No. 18 Notre Dame a 20-17 win over Army on Saturday.
"I've always thought I'm a mentally tough person," Sanson said. "My dad taught me when I was really young when your back's up against the wall, a true man comes out fighting."
Notre Dame coach Bob Davie said despite Sanson's spotty past and an earlier miss on a 48-yard attempt into the wind, he made up his mind on the third down before the kick to send in Sanson for what would turn out to be his career best field goal.
"You have to give Jim Sanson a lot of credit," Davie said. "He's come a long way, and so has this team. A year ago, we were 2-5 and he had just missed three field goals.
"I think it has to be mental toughness for him to survive what he had to go through."
Army (2-5), who had attempted just one pass before Sanson's winning kick, then had to abandon its running game on their next possession, and Johnny Sanders intercepted a pass from Johny Goff at the Irish 37 with eight seconds left to preserve the win for Notre Dame (5-1).
Before the winning kick, Sanson had been just 1-of-3 for his career on attempts from outside of 45 yards, and his 39-yard field goal in the first half was his longest of the season.
Notre Dame needed Sanson's heroics after Army's 74-yard, 12-play drive in the fourth quarter, capped by Craig Stucker's 19-yard TD run, that tied the game at 17-17 with 10:00 left.
Army and Notre Dame then traded punts, and the Irish got the ball back at their own 24-yard line with 4:56 left. Jackson then marched the Irish downfield to just outside the Army 30-yard-line. But on third-and-3 from just outside the Army 30-yard-line, fullback Jamie Spencer dropped Jarious Jackson's pass in the right flat, forcing Davie to call on Sanson.
"I knew that there were probably a lot of people in that stadium doubting me, but I did not let it bother me," Sanson said. "I was not worried about what I had done earlier in the game. I was focused on what I had to do for this team to win the ball game. I knew that my team believed in me, and I believed in myself that I could do it."
Save for Sanson's game-winning field goal, the Irish kicking game was a comedy of errors that helped Army stay close despite a career-best, 270-yard passing performance by Jackson.
On their opening drive of the second half, the Irish drove down to the Cadet 5-yard line. But on third-and-2, Jackson was hit from behind as he released the ball. Then the Irish muffed the snap on a 22-yard field goal attempt, and holder Hunter Smith had to dump the ball off to Sanson for a five-yard loss.
The Cadets also partially blocked a punt by Smith in the first quarter, giving them the ball at the Irish 25. Army could only pick up 1 yard on three plays, but Eric Olsen kicked a 40-yard field goal to put the Cadets up 3-0 and give them their only lead of the game.
The Irish, who had been averaging 230 yards rushing per game, were held to 36 yards on the ground in the first half and 123 for the game. That forced the Irish to rely on Jackson, who's previous best passing performance was 199 yards earlier this season.
"Notre Dame is a proven running team, and we felt we had to slow the running game," Army coach Bob Sutton said. "You like to get a team like Notre Dame, or any running team, into third and long."
But Jackson connected on 6-of-13 third-down passes for 102 yards, spoiling the Army scheme. Jackson finished the day 17-of-31 with one interception. He also hit Bobby Brown for a 38-yard pass in the third quarter that resulted in a touchdown after Brown fumbled the ball at the 2-yard line and receiver Malcolm Johnson recovered it in the end zone for the score and a 17-10 lead.
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