It was the classic college football upset. Navy, poor Navy, winding its way to the end of a season of near-misses, met second-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina on a cold afternoon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. They were there to play out everyone's expectations and go home.
Instead, they played what may have been the most surprising game of one of college football's strangest seasons. This game was won, 38-21, not by South Carolina, but by Navy, poor Navy.
"This is the biggest upset of the season, even more so than Nebraska-Syracuse," said Navy quarterback Bob Misch, who completed 10 of the 21 passes he threw, two for touchdowns. "Look at the situation. We're battered and beaten and everyone's hurting and you figure we have no chance at all.
"South Carolina, on the other hand, is on a roll and heading for the Orange Bowl."
So what happens? The little guys win big, relying on a crush of 17 straight points in the third quarter to romp so convincingly that the fourth quarter was a moot point.
"That was almost a blowout," said tailback Rich Clouse. The score was 38-7 with 10 minutes remaining before the Gamecocks scored two meaningless touchdowns. Perhaps Clouse should reconsider his caution.
The four Orange Bowl representatives who watched from the press box might be reconsidering their choices today, although ABC-TV reported South Carolina (9-1) will get invited to the Orange Bowl anyway if it beats Clemson next Saturday.
"At 10-1, they still would be better than anyone else we can get," said Nick Crane, chairman of the bowl's selection committee. "If we had to take them with a 10-1 record, we'd rather they lose this week than next, and come into our game off a victory."
Ironically, the Orange Bowl representatives stopped by to congratulate Navy Coach Gary Tranquill and his players after the game. "The rumor is that they (the Midshipmen) are high on our list," Crane said, laughing.
With its 4-5-1 record, Navy isn't about to be invited to any bowl game. Yet, the Midshipmen may well have won one of the most important games in their history. Only twice before has a Navy team beaten the No. 2 team in the nation, in 1944 against Notre Dame, and in 1950 against Army.
"It's a pretty good win, isn't it?" Tranquill asked, puffing on a victory cigarette.
It was an amazing victory, considering the circumstances at the Naval Academy. Three-fourths of the backfield that started the season for the Midshipmen missed the game with injuries -- Heisman trophy candidate Napoleon McCallum and running back John Berner and quarterback Bill Byrne.
Additionally, the players were busy all week taking tests, so there was no time for football meetings.
Last week, Navy was beaten, 29-0, at Syracuse, with the offense gaining just 113 yards, and netting negative three rushing.
This was a complete turnaround. Navy gained 352 yards today, 196 on the ground. Tranquill credited "those two little pipsqueak running backs."
One was 5-foot-9 Clouse, who gained 97 yards on 12 carries and scored on a 53-yard run in the third quarter. The other was 5-8 Mike Smith, who gained 96 yards and scored touchdowns of one and seven yards.
Clouse returned the favor. "I might go so far as to call him our pipsqueak coach." Tranquill is 5-8.
It turned into a good day for little people, although it didn't begin that way.
The Midshipmen turned the ball over on their first two possessions, prompting Tranquill to say, "We were off to our usual start."
But South Carolina couldn't take advantage of Navy's mistakes because the Gamecocks were making their own. They finished with four fumbles (but lost only one), four interceptions, and four sacks.
Said Coach Joe Morrison, whose all-black attire was fitting for this game, "We had too many bad things happen to us to overcome."
Navy led at halftime, 14-7, on Smith's one-yard run and split end Chris Weiler's 15-yard reception. Quarterback Allen Mitchell, who later was lifted for Mike Hold, ran two yards for the Gamecocks' touchdown.
Weiler's touchdown near the end of the half came on a crossing pattern. The play ended up looking like a basketball pick just outside the lane. Tight end Mark Stevens, crossing from the other side, took out four defenders in front of Weiler, leaving him alone for an easy catch.
This was the fourth time this season South Carolina was behind at halftime. "It was only 14-7," Weiler said. "Usually, good teams come back."
Fresh in the minds of the Midshipmen was their heartbreaking, 18-17 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago, in which they held a 10-point lead with four minutes to play.
"After Notre Dame, we were taking nothing for granted," Weiler said.
They should take nothing for granted more often. As Tranquill said, "The game unfolded in the third quarter."
With two minutes gone in the second half, Clouse raced down the left sideline for his 53-yard touchdown run, the longest of the season for Navy.
Midway through the third quarter, Todd Solomon kicked a 21-yard field goal to increase Navy's lead to 24-7.
Then, Weiler caught another pass, this one 11 yards from Misch as he jumped in the front corner of the end zone, and the score ballooned to 31-7.
With many reserves playing, the Midshipmen drove to their final touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Smith's seven-yard run.
The Gamecocks scored the final two touchdowns of the game on Quinton Lewis' one-yard run and Eric Poole's 81-yard reception with two minutes remaining.
Tranquill said he didn't begin to enjoy the game until the final "twelve seconds." He explained why: "We have a tendency to relax a little bit."
Eric Rutherford, Navy's co-captain who had four sacks today, agreed. "I had this sinking feeling that we're ahead, but they're just going to come back," he said. "We have lost a lot of close games. But this time, it was our turn to win."
All week, the Navy players had heard their classmates talking about this game. "I heard the other midshipmen saying we were going to get killed," Clouse said.
"I felt they (South Carolina's players) felt they were going to walk over us," Rutherford said. "They were second-ranked in the country and we got beat pretty bad last week. But any team can beat any other team, I guess."
Perhaps the most telling comment of all came from Misch, the reserve who replaced Byrne after he broke his leg against Notre Dame. He pulled up a chair, smiled at the reporters who circled him, and didn't even wait for the first question.
"It was no fluke," he said.