"Now I guess we will really find out what George Welsh meant to Navy football," Athletic Director J.O. (Bo) Coppedge said today. "I sure hope some of what he was stays with us, even though he's gone."

As Welsh, after nine years coaching Navy teams, heads for his new job as football coach at the University of Virginia, he leaves behind some talented players, such as quarterback Marco Pagnanelli and running back Napoleon McCallum. But whoever replaces Welsh might as well be replacing Bear Bryant at Alabama or Joe Paterno at Penn State. The pressure will be that great, and just how much Welsh meant to the Navy football program may never be known.

As his teams did so often while Welsh was at the academy, the Midshipmen played smart, hard and inspired football against Ohio State in the Liberty Bowl Wednesday night in Welsh's last game, a 31-28 defeat. They lost because they were overmatched. That's usually the reason Navy loses.

"Yes, overmatched may be the right word," said Welsh. "We made mistakes, but we lost because we aren't as good as they are. There's no shame in that. We never quit."

Navy was 7-4-1 this season. "That's not a great record, but I think for this club it's a great accomplishment," Welsh said.

A blocked punt and a fumble led to 10 points for Ohio State in the first four minutes of the game. The Midshipmen led, 20-17, early in the third quarter, but then lost a fumble and threw an interception to set up Ohio State's last two touchdowns.

Pagnanelli rallied Navy with a 97- yard drive, throwing a one-yard touchdown pass to Greg Papajohn with eight seconds left, then a conversion pass to Papajohn to account for the final points.

"They've got a bunch of proud men on the Navy team," said Ohio State halfback Jimmy Gayle, who scored twice. "We could never get in a comfortable position about the game. They made it close all the way and I'm just glad the clock ran out and we won. Winning is the most important thing and that's what everybody will remember in a few weeks or a few years. They won't remember that it was close, but that Ohio State won."

"We never underestimated them," said middle guard Nick Miller. "Maybe some other people thought Navy wasn't a good football team, but we sure didn't think that. Our coaches drilled it into our heads."

Navy's Eddie Meyers, voted the game's most valuable player after he gained 117 yards on 30 carries, called it the "best game we've ever played." It was Meyers' last game, too. Meyers, the school's all-time leading rusher, leaves for a five-year military commitment.

"I could play football forever," Meyers said, "so naturally I'm a little sad right now, although I'm proud of the way we played."

Welsh had difficulty restraining his emotions, having coached his last game for Navy.

"I'll miss it and miss it a lot," he said. "I'm leaving some good players and a lot of good people behind. I've had as much pleasure working with this group as any I've ever had. They're special."

Papajohn, who caught two one-yard touchdown passes, called the Liberty Bowl "fun. Every game was fun playing for Welsh."

In at least one respect, the new coach will be lucky because Welsh has left a solid program.

"We've established ourselves, now, especially by the way we played against Ohio State," said senior middle guard Tim Jordan. "People respect us now. They've got to."