Kicked in the head early and almost scared out of its wits late, unbeaten Navy rode the defensive heroics of Charlie Meyers to a 13-12 victory over Illinois today.
Meyers blocked the conversion kick after Illinois' first touchdown and, with Illinois trying for two points and victory after its second, Meyers came through again with a pass interception.
Navy's offensive team, helped to its only touchdown by a face mask penalty in the first 56 minutes, redeemed itself by grinding out 56 yards to consume the final 3 minutes 51 seconds.
"It was really crucial keeping the ball at the end," said Navy Coach George Welsh. "The defense did their part most of the day and then the offense came back and moved the ball."
The game started with a big headache for the Mids.Illinois punted on its first possession and the ball struck blocker Chuck Zingler in the head at the Navy 15. Illinois' Pete Mulchrone recovered at the Navy three and on first down tailback Mike Holmes completed an option pass to tight end Mike Sherrod in the end zone.
"I was the up back and I'm supposed to give the deep back (Jon Ross) an eight-yard cushion," Zingler said of the punt, in which an Illinois speedster knocked him back into Ross.
"I misjudged the punt and got too close to him. The Illinois guy was coming down 40 yards and I took the blow and got knocked back. They say the ball hit me, but I really didn't feel it. You have to let mistakes like that roll off. I'm thankful everybody pulled together and we held on."
Meyers shot straight up the middle to take Kirk Bostrom's conversion kick on his chest and limit the liability to 6-0.
"Meyers has a knack for it," Welsh said. "He's done it before and we try to free him in certain situations."
"(Middle guard Terry) Huxel freed me up," Meyers said. "He took the center to the right and I went straight over where the center was."
Navy moved ahead on a 64-yard drive climaxed by a nine-yard pass from quarterback Bob Powers to wide receiver Dave Dent, who cut from the right sideline into the middle.
The key play, however, came at the Illinois 18, where tailback Mike Sherlock was stopped on third down, three yards short of a first down. Illinois' John Gillen grabbed his face mask and, instead of a field-goal try, Navy was able to produce a touchdown.
That was about it for Navy's offense. But Steve Fehr, whose conversion put the Mids ahead to stay at 7-6, added field goals of 30 and 36 yards.
The 30-yarder was a line drive that followed a fumbled punt by Illinois' Kenny Shaw. Chris Klein recovered for Navy at the Illinois 16.
An eight-play drive on the ground, with Steve Callahan following Larry Klawinski's blocks for 34 yards of it, brought the Mids from their 37 to the Illinois 18 late in the third quarter.
On fourth and two, Fehr booted his 36-yarder to make it 13-6.
"At first we thought we only needed half a yard and we were going for it," Welsh said. "But two is too big a chance there. With the three points and another quarter to go, I was thinking that another field goal would wrap it up."
Navy, going against the wind in the fourth quarter, never got close enough to try another. But Illinois, held without a first down for the first 28 minutes, began to move on the scrambling passes of quarterback Lawrence McCullough.
With 10:56 left in the game, Illinois faced a fourth and five at the Navy 20. While many in the crowd of 53,825 chanted "Go," Coach Gary Moeller sent in Bostrom, who was wide to the left on a 37-yard field goal kick.
Regaining possession, the Illini marched 69 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown. McCullough twice unloaded the ball for completions while being tackled, then threw over the middle to tight end Lee Bocke for the score. The beaten defender was Meyers.
"I had the tight end man to man, but I was too deep," Meyers said. "I guess I was picked off by their other receiver. I wanted to crawl under the turf, but then I decided I was going to block another extra point and make up for it."
The kick did not come, because Illinois wins too infrequently to even consider going for a tie. But Meyers was a hero anyway. McCullough pitched to Holmes, then sprinted for the left sideline while the flow of the play went right. Meyers went with him and cradled the ball when the quarterback became the cross-field target.
"During the game when the quarterback rolled out he didn't look back," Meyers said. "He looked back this time, so I stayed home. It was a good guess on my part."
With 3:51 left and Navy's offense struggling, it seemed that Illinois might get another chance for a winning field goal. Instead, the Mids clung to the ball to the end.
On third and nine from the 21, Powers hit Dent at the left sideline for a first down. Then, on third and four from the 39, Powers circled right end for seven and more time.
Callahan, who rembled 119 yards in 25 carries while Mike Sherlock saw reduced action with a bruised back, picked up 24 yards in the closing spurt.
This was Navy's first success against a Big Ten team since it conquered Michigan in 1967, and it was costly. Injuries forced out Huxel and defensive tackle John Merrill (ankles), defensive tackle Steve Chambers (knee) and tight end Carl Hendershot (shoulder).
"It wasn't too pretty, but it was a win," Meyers said. "They made us scratch and fight for it."
"That quarterback (McCullough) is fantastic," Welsh said."We went after him, but he was tough to get to. That's a Big Ten team and they play good football. They defensed us very well. I'll settle for a one-point win."