Sean Pavlich's 18-yard field goal with one second left carried Air Force to a 24-21 victory today over a Navy team that found the Falcons' wishbone offense indigestible.
Air Force, fifth in the nation in rushing, gained 396 yards as it controlled the ball for 37 1/2 minutes. The Falcons scored on their first two possessions for a 14-0 lead and it was not until 3:37 remained that Navy caught up at 21-21, on an eight-yard pass from quarterback Marco Pagnanelli to tight end Chris Weiler.
After Steve Young converted, he used the 25 mph wind at his back to kick off beyond the Air Force end zone. Navy was hoping to stop the Falcons, gain good field position and set up a field goal.
That dream became a nightmare in one play. Air Force quarterback Marty Louthan broke free on a right-side keeper and went 45 yards, with guard Tony Rino blocking defender Kurt Dixon downfield.
Fullback John Kershner carried on the next nine plays as the Falcons got to the one before calling their final timeout with five seconds left.
"The only time I considered taking a timeout was just before he kicked, to let him stew a little," said Navy Coach Gary Tranquill. "I didn't go for two points after our touchdown, because there was plenty of time. We just had to stop them and with the wind I wasn't worried about them getting a long field goal, but that big play came out and changed everything."
Louthan gained 156 yards in 19 carries as Air Force evened its record at 3-3 and took a big step toward first-ever possession of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Navy (2-3) was limited to 115 yards in 36 rushing attempts.
Air Force scored on drives of 80 and 85 yards in its first two possessions. The first drive needed only five plays, with Louthan getting 36 on the game's first play from scrimmage. Halfback Mike Brown covered the final 25 on a quick burst through the right side.
The second drive was more methodical, occupying 17 plays and 7 1/2 minutes. Kershner went over from the three to finish it after some Air Force guile kept things moving.
Seemingly stopped on fourth and one at their 34, the Falcons sent their punting unit out at a quick march and when Jeff Kubiak kicked, the Midshipmen still had 13 men on the field.
A third-and-15 situation at the Navy 30 was overcome by Louthan's 15-yard run through right tackle, on which sloppy Navy tackling proved most helpful.
The Midshipmen pulled within 14-7 early in the second quarter as tailback Napoleon McCallum drove across from the two to complete a 70-yard march in 11 plays. En route, a 20-yard pass from Pagnanelli to split end Bill Cebak overcame a holding penalty.
Navy had an apparent touchdown, on a 27-yard pass from Pagnanelli to Weiler, wiped out because of an ineligible receiver downfield. A blocker lost contact with a defender and wandered a few yards too far to nullify a well-executed play Tranquill had borrowed from Boston College's repertoire.
So it was still 14-7 as Navy was given its choice of options at the start of the third period. Tranquill chose to defend the south goal and operate into the wind, so that Navy would have the wind at its back for the fourth quarter. Air Force, naturally, wanted the ball, and it took it and drove 79 yards in 11 plays for a 21-7 lead.
"I'd probably do it again," Tranquill said. "The only thing is they took the ball and went down and scored. I hadn't planned that."
Louthan carried three times for 46 yards in the drive, which ended with Derek Foster's two-yard dance around left end on a pitch from the quarterback.
An exchange of punts, with Air Force enjoying the wind, benefited the Falcons by 29 yards and gave them a first down at the Navy 37 with a chance to break things open. The next play turned the game around, though, as Brown mishandled a pitchout and Navy rover Brian Cianella recovered at the 35.
It was the third big play for Cianella. This time Navy took advantage, reducing the deficit to 21-14 with a 65-yard, seven-play advance that culminated in a two-yard dive by tailback Rich Clouse.
A 25-yard interference penalty against Air Force safety Greg Zolniger moved the ball to the Falcons' 38 and Pagnanelli got 19 more on a keeper to the left.
On third and three from the 12, Pagnanelli threw a 10-yard pass to Clouse in the left flat, and Clouse scored on the next play.
A 17-yard punt, shanked out of bounds by Kubiak, gave Navy possession at the 50 to set up the tying touchdown drive. The Falcons' offense had been stymied by a holding penalty and a fine third-down open-field stop on Foster by linebacker Andy Ponseigo, who was credited with 20 tackles.
Bryan Caraveo, a fourth-string fullback forced into action by injuries to Andy Skehan and Jim Scannell, got 22 yards in three carries and Pagnanelli completed all three passes, for 21 yards, including the one to Weiler that made it 21-21.
Navy's defense seemingly had solved the wishbone dilemma, stopping Air Force four straight times after Foster's touchdown made it 21-7.
With the game at stake, however, Louthan went 45 yards and thereafter Kershner worked both the clock and the Midshipmen's defense to set up the decisive kick.