George Welsh didn't go out a winner, but he did go in style.

Welsh, coaching his last game for Navy tonight in the Liberty Bowl, opened up his usually conservative offense with fake punts, double reverses and varied passing to scare heavily favored Ohio State before losing, 31-28.

The Midshipmen were 15-point underdogs and not given much of a chance, but they treated the crowd of 43,216 -- the first nonsellout here in 11 years -- to an entertaining game that either team could have won.

Navy quarterback Marco Pagnanelli threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Greg Papajohn with eight seconds left and then threw a two-point conversion to Papajohn for the game's final points. The Midshipmen tried an onside kick, but Ohio State's Gary Alders covered it at the Navy 46.

"I really wanted to win this game," said Welsh, who will become the coach at Virginia Friday. "I thought we could pull off the upset, but we just weren't good enough. I knew we were going to have a tough time stopping them, so I went to the type of offense I did. I'm disappointed, but we played as well as we can."

Eddie Meyers, Navy's all-time leading rusher, gained 117 yards on 30 carries and was voted the game's most valuable player. This "was probably the best game we ever played," he said. "Not many people gave us much of a chance to stay on the field with Ohio State and on paper they may have been right, but you can't measure desire or heart on paper. We were underdogs and criticized, but we showed we can play. We proved that to everybody."

The kicking game did the Midshipmen in more than anything else as Steve Fehr had one punt blocked, leading to Ohio State's first touchdown, and had the snap sail over his head for a 25-yard loss on another attempt. Even when Fehr got the punts off they weren't very good; he averaged 28 yards on five kicks, which gave the Buckeyes good field position most of the game.

Besides the blocked punt, Navy lost two fumbles and had a pass intercepted. All three turnovers led to Ohio State touchdowns.

"The mistakes are what hurt us," said Meyers.

Nevertheless, the Midshipmen held a 20-17 lead in the second half before Jimmy Gayle scored on the second of his two touchdown runs and quarterback Art Schlichter passed for his 50th college touchdown on his second touchdown pass of the game.

Pagnanelli threw 27 times, completing 14 for 201 yards. All three figures were season highs.

The defeat dropped Navy to 7-4-1 while Ohio State (9-3), making its 10th straight bowl appearance, won a postseason game for the first time since it beat Colorado in the 1977 Orange Bowl.

Navy's first mistake came on its first possession when Ohio State rushed 10 men at Fehr as he tried to punt. Four Buckeyes swarmed over him, blocking the kick with Mark Eberts recovering at the Navy 24.

The Buckeyes got a 35-yard field goal from Bob Atha out of that.

On Navy's next possession it tried a double reverse, but middle guard Jerome Miller hit Meyers as he was handing the ball to Chris Yelder, knocking it loose and recovering it at midfield.

On the next play, Schlichter threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Gary Williams. Atha's conversion gave the Buckeyes a 10-0 lead six minutes into the game and it looked like it was going to be the laugher so many had predicted.

But that's when the Midshipmen served notice that this was going to be a game. They tied the score.

The rally started ominously. Fehr had his next punt blocked, too, but the Midshipmen got a reprieve when Ohio State was caught offside.

Six plays later, from its 45, Navy appeared set to punt again and Ohio State again rushed 10 men. But this time, the Midshipmen were ready and Fehr passed to Brian Cianella, who gained 39 yards to set up Navy's first touchdown, a one-yard pass from Pagnanelli to Papajohn.

The Midshipmen held Ohio State, then got a 41-yard field goal from Fehr to tie at 10.

Pagananelli lost a fumble at his 28 after being sacked midway through the second period. Six plays later, Gayle scored on a one-yard run.

Navy got another field goal from Fehr late in the half and trailed, 17-13, at intermission.

The Midshipmen went ahead for the first and only time four minutes into the second half when George Herlong burst through the line and knocked Karl Edwards's punt high into the air. Ken Olson picked the ball up after it bounced once and ran 11 yards to the end zone. Fehr's conversion gave the Midshipmen a 20-17 lead.

Ohio State responded, however, with two straight touchdowns. The first, on Gayle's two-yard run, was set up by a 24-yard Fehr punt that gave the Buckeyes possession at the Navy 37; the second, on a nine-yard pass from Schlichter to flanker Cedric Anderson, was set up by Kevin Bell's interception and 17-yard return to the Navy 26.

Atha made both extra points and the Buckets held the 31-20 lead until Navy scored with eight seconds left.