The transition from hero to game loser can be quick and painful. Today, that was the case for Navy's Eric Wallace.
Wallace opened the game with a school record 97-yard kickoff return and had a third-period interception that led to the score that put Navy ahead of Air Force, 22-21. Then a fumbled punt by Wallace enabled the Falcons to score in the final period and turn back Navy's rally, 29-22, before 44,699 at Falcon Stadium.
Although Wallace's mistake was one of the turning points, some blame must be placed on a Navy defensive unit that couldn't stop the wishbone offense of the Falcons (4-2) in the final period.
With quarterback Bart Weiss (103 yards on 24 carries) and running backs Jody Simmons (100 yards on 16) and Pat Evans (75 on 11) doing most of the damage, Air Force was able to work valuable time off the clock. The Falcons did so on an abbreviated 41-yard winning touchdown drive and later in the period to maintain the ball.
"There were two big plays in the fourth period," said Navy Coach Gary Tranquill, "the dropped punt and the pass (end Ken) Carpenter caught to keep a drive going."
Navy's one-point lead was in danger after Rod Vernon pounced on the fumbled punt at the Navy 41.
"I went up to catch it and it got caught up in a gust of wind and dropped straight down," said Wallace. "It hit my fingertips and I didn't adjust to it quick enough."
Staying with the ground attack that had averaged 333 yards per game (and netted 333 today), the Falcons ran inside and outside a tired Navy defense until Evans powered his way into the end zone from a yard out to put his team ahead to stay. Weiss ran over on a keeper on the two-point conversion and Air Force led, 29-22, with 26 seconds elapsed in the last period.
"Air Force isn't as big or fast as Arkansas (which used the wishbone in beating Navy, 33-10, two weeks ago) but they run it better," said Navy linebacker Mike Taylor, who left the game briefly with a sprained ankle. "I think we just missed more assignments and that allowed them to get much of that yardage. In the fourth period, we might have gotten a little tired."
Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry said his team made several adjustments in the second half, and Weiss made them work.
"He (Weiss) showed he's a pretty good runner," DeBerry said. "He did a very good job."
Weiss seemed to come up with every big play in the last period to keep the ball away from Navy. On a drive that consumed almost six minutes, the junior had runs of eight and seven yards and completed a pass to Carpenter on third and eight.
By the time the Midshipmen got the ball back, they had 82 yards to travel and 3:22 remaining. But the Falcons, averaging 39.6 points before today, were not about to allow another North Carolina miracle (Navy scored on a last-second 50-yard yard pass to stun UNC, 33-30).
Falcon defenders gave ground grudgingly, allowing the visitors to reach their own 44 before really tightening up. Bill Byrne (10 of 30 for 95 yards) missed on a first-down pass, completed a desperation pass to Rich Clouse for minus five yards, then misfired on two final throws.
The defeat, Navy's third in four games, came despite fine efforts by Wallace and Clouse. Starting a second straight game in place of Napoleon McCallum (out for the season with a broken ankle), Clouse, a senior, had his first 100-yard rushing game (140 on 29 carries) and a touchdown.
After Wallace's interception and 27-yard return, Clouse ran sweeps that covered 12, nine and finally 10 yards for the touchdown and a 22-21 lead with 6:39 left in the third period.
Clouse's run silenced the crowd, which undoubtedly was expecting a rout by their Falcons, who were favored by 12 points.
Navy made it clear that was unlikely from the first, when Wallace took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
"Nothing fancy," Wallace said.
It didn't take Air Force long to tie the game at 7. Weiss, Simmons and Greg Pshsniak, playing in place of the Falcons' top runner Mike Brown (injured ankle) fueled a 78-yard drive. Weiss capped it with a four-yard touchdown run with 11:17 left.
Navy punted and the Falcons went right back to their option attack. Five running plays moved the ball from the 15 to the Navy 48. Weiss then cut inside on a keeper, reaching the 30. Just as he was about to be hit, he lateraled to Simmons, who never broke stride in completing a 48-yard run.
The kick was good and Air Force was rolling, 14-7, with 4:53 to play in the first period.
But the Midshipmen stuck a few more folks near the line of scrimmage and shut down the Falcons. In addition, Navy showed a little ball control of its own. Despite running almost four times as many plays and driving inside the Air Force 11 twice, all Navy could get was a pair of field goals by Todd Solomon.
"We seemed to have the field possession in the period but didn't get much out of it," Tranquill said. "Just those field goals. We weren't very good offensively again. We're not very good inside the 30. We're playing well enough to win, but then everything seems to go wrong."
Air Force upped its one-point halftime lead before the third period was a minute old. A 49-yard kickoff return by Tom Rotello put the ball at midfield. Pshsniak ran for 15 and Evans finished off the two-play drive with a 35-yard touchdown run up the middle. Carlos Mateos' kick made the score 21-13.
Solomon countered with another field goal, a 42-yarder, later in the period to cut the deficit to 21-16.
Navy, which plays Lehigh Saturday at Annapolis, suffered several more injuries. Cornerback Vince McBeth has a broken fibula and fullback John Berner has a bruised kneecap.