By Christian Swezey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006
Navy began the key drive in last night's 28-23 victory over East Carolina with the ball at its 7-yard line and less than a minute left in the third quarter. On the first play, starting guard Antron Harper left the game with a minor injury.
Three plays later, starting center James Rossi also left with what appeared to be a minor injury. It didn't matter. Two reserve linemen entered the game, and the Midshipmen continued to run the ball. They went 93 yards on 16 plays to score the clinching touchdown, on a three-yard run by junior Reggie Campbell for a 28-17 lead with eight minutes to play in both teams' season opener before 33,809 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
All 93 yards were gained on the ground.
"It wasn't pretty," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "But like I told the guys in the locker room [after the game], 28 is more than 23."
East Carolina, however, mounted a late threat. Senior quarterback James Pinkney led an 83-yard drive that finished with his 10-yard touchdown pass to junior Phillip Henry that cut its deficit to 28-23 with 4 minutes 57 seconds to play.
The Pirates appeared to make the score 28-25 after Pinkney completed a two-point conversion pass to junior Steven Rogers. The referees initially ruled the pass complete and called a personal foul on linebacker Tyler Tidwell. Navy's defense, however, did not leave the field -- for good reason.
As the referees called the penalty on Tidwell, they added that the conversion did not count because Rogers had committed a violation -- he stepped out of bounds before coming back inbounds to make the catch.
The offsetting penalties meant the Pirates had to try the conversion again. This time, a pass to Aundrae Allison was defended well by Keenan Little and fell incomplete.
The controversy, however, was not over. Senior Byron McCoy recovered East Carolina's onside kickoff for the Midshipmen around their 35. But the referees ruled that an inadvertent whistle nullified the play, and the Pirates were allowed to try another onside kick.
McCoy recovered the second kick as well -- amid a huge pileup that initially had the East Carolina players and coaches jumping on the sideline, believing they had recovered. Senior quarterback Brian Hampton then carried the ball nine consecutive times to run out the clock.
The Midshipmen finished with 406 yards rushing. It was a good thing, because they had six yards passing; it was the fewest passing yards East Carolina had given up since 1968.
Hampton was making his first start, and he took much of the blame for the passing woes. Navy called a long pass off a play-action fake early in the third quarter. Hampton saw senior Jason Tomlinson wide open down the field. He overthrew the pass by about two yards.
On the next drive, Navy called the same play to the opposite side. This time, Hampton overthrew junior O.J. Washington.
"The first one . . . I saw him so wide open I got some jitterbugs," Hampton said. "The second one I thought was going to be on the money."
Said Johnson: "We just need him to relax. . . . We'll get better throwing it. We'll have to."
With Navy struggling to complete passes -- Hampton went 2 for 6 -- it made the game a battle among the linemen.
Navy ran the ball on its final 35 plays. The Pirates weren't fooled -- Navy's longest run was 26 yards, by junior Adam Ballard -- but Hampton finished with 149 yards on 34 carries. Ballard added 97 yards on 13 carries.
"I have to give our offensive line a lot of credit," Johnson said. "The game was played in a phone booth."
Pinkney completed 24 of 35 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns.
There is much excitement around the Navy program this year. It set a school record with more than 20,000 season tickets sold.
The tunnel of midshipmen that takes the field to greet the team before the game extended well past the 50-yard line; after trying to get the midshipmen to move for the pregame coin toss, the referees gave up and held the toss at the 20-yard line.
The Midshipmen took the field led by senior running back Eddie Martin, who had lymphoma diagnosed on Aug. 9. The team is wearing stickers on their helmets with his jersey number, 32, on them.
There was more to cheer soon after. The Midshipmen scored a touchdown on their opening drive, culminated by a three-yard scoring run by sophomore Shun White.