Navy Coach George Welsh said he had visions of a repeat of last season's last-minute upset loss to the Air Force Academy as he watched his Midshipmen start to self-destruct today after building a 17-0 lead.
With a record crowd of 31,191 watching in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Air Force scored a touchdown to pull within 20-13 with 7:12 to play. But Brian Cianella blocked the extra-point kick and the Midshipmen scored on their next two possessions for a 30-13 victory.
It was Welsh's 51st victory at Navy, an academy record. He had been tied with Eddie Erdelatz, who coached here when Welsh was quarterback.
Welsh had been trying for No. 51 for three weeks, ever since star tailback Eddie Meyers suffered a bruised right thigh and swollen knee. Today Meyers returned, making his way to the No. 2 spot on the all-time Navy rushing list with 179 yards on 38 carries. He also scored Navy's first touchdown, on a five-yard run.
To welcome Meyers back, Welsh also put in a two tight-end offense and a couple of special plays for quarterback Marco Pagnanelli. It helped Meyers move past Joe Gattuso Jr. into second place in career rushing with 1,964 yards. He trails Cleveland Cooper, who had 2,582.
With his effort, Pagnanelli established himself as the No. 1 quarterback. He rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown in 16 carries and completed seven of 10 passes for 88 yards and another touchdown.
Steve Fehr became Navy's third-leading all-time scorer (151 points) as he kicked field goals of 32, 22 and 34 yards and three extra points.
Fehr's last field goal, with 3:49 remaining, gave the Midshipmen a 23-13 lead. Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, cornerback Elliott Reagans intercepted a pass by Ed Antoine at the Air Force 35 and returned it 22 yards. That led to Pagnanelli's one-yard touchdown run with 1:46 to play.
Despite holding a sizable statistical edge (434-189 in total yardage), Navy's position was tenuous until Cianella, whose earlier misplay of an Air Force punt led to the Falcons' first touchdown, blocked the extra point following George James' one-yard touchdown run that made the score 20-13.
"That blocked conversion really picked us up," Welsh said.
"I don't know how I got in, I just did," said Cianella, who rushed in on Air Force kicker Sean Pavlich from the left side.
Navy is 3-2, Air Force 1-4.
After the game, the Midshipmen learned that starting offensive tackle Cliff Hagan suffered a broken right ankle in the third period and will be lost for the remainder of the season.
"We physically got beat off the ball and that was the winning edge," said Air Force Coach Ken Hatfield, whose team came from behind to defeat Navy, 21-20, lastseason. "They (Navy's backs) broke a lot of tackles and made some very nice moves, but again that can be attributed to the physical advantage. . . Physically we were not in the game with them."
With the two tight ends and Meyers reasonably healthy, the Midshipmen quickly exploited that edge.
"I had a lot of incentive today," said Meyers. "We had just come off two losses and I felt it was my job to get the offense going. After a felt I could run, I just kept going as hard as I could."
On Navy's first three downs, Meyers carried and gained 17 yards.
Navy's first touchdown was set up by Fehr's 40-yard punt that Hamp Oberle downed at the two. Three plays later, Air Force punted from its 11, with Jeff Shoemake returning it 18 yards to the Falcons' 33. It took Navy six plays to score, with Meyers carrying the last three times, gaining three, eight and the final five yards on a sweep around right end.
Navy made it 14-0 on its next possession. This time Pagnanelli led the Midshipmen on a 76-yard drive, the score coming on a 13-yard pass to Troy Mitchell.
The Midshipmen increased the lead to 17-0 on Fehr's 32-yard field goal with 9:18 left in the half. It was the 31st in Fehr's career, a Navy record.
Navy let Air Force back in the game when it fumbled a punt away late in the half. Deep man Shoemake was coming in on Jeff Kubiak's punt and Cianella was going back on it. The two collided just as Cianella was making the catch and the ball bounced off his chest.
Chris Funk recovered for Air Force at the Navy 49, and the Falcons scored on a one-yard run by Charlie Heath with 2:07 left in the half.
After Napoleon McCallum returned the Air Force kickoff 20 yards to the 30, the Midshipmen worked their two-minute efficiently, but failed to score when an offensive penalty in the Air Force end zone cost them a loss of possession.
After moving to the Falcon 10 with 42 seconds left, Pagnanelli wanted to stop the clock without calling a timeout on first down, so he lined the Midshipmen up quickly and threw the ball out of bounds toward Mitchell. But reserve flanker Jay Kennedy was called for offensive interference in the end zone, which under NCAA rules resulted in a loss of possession.
Fehr kicked his second field goal midway through the third period to increase Navy's lead to 20-7. That score was set up by Shoemake's interception of a pass by Antoine.
Air Force used 5 minutes 55 seconds of the fourth period with a 59-yard, 14-play drive to cut Navy's lead to 20-13. The Falcons converted on three fourth-down plays on the drive, including the one-yard touchdown run by James. Then Cianella blocked the conversion.