Naval Academy football Coach Gary Tranquill yesterday said he agreed with the official who ruled that an ineligible receiver was downfield, depriving the Midshipmen of a two-point conversion and tie with North Carolina. But what he saw on film of the last-minute, 21-19 loss to the Tar Heels in the season opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium didn't make the defeat easier to accept.
With hundreds of Midshipmen doing the traditional pushups in the opposite end zone and a crowd of 26,294 in bedlam, it was at first difficult to tell exactly what had gone wrong with quarterback Bill Byrne's two-point pass to split end John Lobb that appeared to tie Saturday night's game, 21-21, with 53 seconds remaining after Byrne had hit Napoleon McCallum with a five-yard touchdown pass.
But as the crowd cleared following the conversion, umpire Scott Dawson's yellow flag flashed like a neon stoplight at the goal line.
Dawson, an Atlantic Coast Conference official, observed that offensive guard Mark Miller strayed too far from the line of scrimmage without hitting anybody, and the penalty resulted in the nullification of the two points and a loss of down.
The Midshipmen were left with an onside kick as their only option; the Tar Heels recovered it and ran out the clock
A disappointed Tranquill, after viewing the game films in his darkened office at Ward Hall yesterday, had to concur with the outcome.
"He was downfield," Tranquill said. "The film showed it. When a lineman is downfield, it's a penalty."
The play was a straightforward sprint-out pass designed with tailback McCallum as the primary receiver if the coverage was man to man. If North Carolina was in zone coverage, Byrne was to look for Lobb, who would try to get free in the right corner of the end zone. Lobb improvised and slid to the back of the end zone, where Byrne found him.
Miller merely was supposed to protect Byrne as he sprinted out. What perhaps hurt most about the penalty was that the lineman, who was in the middle of the field, was not a factor in the play by the time Byrne threw the ball along the right sideline.
"I didn't see him, I was too busy looking for an open receiver," Byrne said. "He's protecting me and I'm sprinting out. I took a long time to find John, I had to keep rolling out. Mark probably just got anxious to hit someone."
The penalty was one of just two possible infractions that would result in a loss of down and no second chance for the Midshipmen. Offensive interference is the other.
"He was out of it," Tranquill said of Miller's role in the play at the time of the call. "It was just one of those things. The play was coming at an angle. When the ball was thrown, he was on about the one. Lobb caught the pass, and when the umpire turned around Miller was right at the goal line. He saw him and threw the flag."
Tranquill, who is naturally subdued, suffered more from frustration than he did from anger at the penalty. It was not as though the Midshipmen didn't have chances to win the game long before the deciding play, and other less significant penalties played a large part in their inability to do so.
Navy was penalized 10 times for 81 yards. Three penalties deprived the Midshipmen of crucial first downs, two of them for holding, one of them in North Carolina's territory.
Then there were Byrne's three interceptions, which resulted in 14 points for the Tar Heels, including Brad Lopp's 22-yard scoring run with 4:31 remaining that provided the margin of victory.
Navy, which allowed an average of almost 25 points a game last year, sacked Kevin Anthony seven times for 77 yards, came up with two interceptions -- one by safety Marc Firlie and one by linebacker Jim Dwyer -- and limited North Carolina to minus 49 yards rushing in the first half.
McCallum gained 77 yards on 16 carries, caught seven passes for 44 yards and scored two touchdowns in his heralded fifth-season debut.