Navy's sixth defeat of the season was perhaps its most dramatic, a 24-20 loss to Syracuse today that sentenced the Midshipmen to a losing season in what was supposed to be one of their finest years.
Several things stood out before a crowd of 25,049 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. There was quarterback Bill Byrne breaking six school passing records by completing 37 of 52 attempts for 399 yards and two touchdowns. But then there was Byrne on his back with six seconds left and unable to throw the final pass, which Bob Misch threw instead, a 42-yarder for an interception with no time left in the Syracuse end zone. And Byrne afterward saying, "The only record I was interested in was 4-5."
There also was the look of disgust on the face of sophomore wide receiver Troy Saunders, who caught nine passes for 146 yards and both of Navy's touchdowns, of five and 39 yards. But Saunders fumbled at the Syracuse three with 2:11 remaining, depriving Navy of what could have been the winning touchdown.
Then there was Heisman Trophy contender Napoleon McCallum, held to a season-low 63 yards in his final home game for Navy (3-6). He carried 20 times against a defense ranked 13th in the nation against the rush and said, "It was probably the hardest I've ever run against."
Finally, there was Coach Gary Tranquill, looking surprisingly calm in the wake of Navy's fourth loss by a touchdown or less and even tossing off a little French, saying "C'est la vie." But also saying, "They're all bitter losses. The kids played hard and I'm proud of them. We were just short again."
Navy led twice, including by 20-17 with 10:04 remaining. The Midshipmen outgained the Orangemen, 459 yards to 349, and the Orangemen were fortunate to escape with a win in light of Byrne's performance. He set single-game records for attempts, completions (erasing Roger Staubach's record of 25 set in 1963 against Maryland), total offense and yardage. He also set records for most completions in a season, with 151, and yardage, with 1,694.
"This was a great win and I told the kids to enjoy it," said Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson, whose team won its third straight for a 5-3 record.
Syracuse got a 15-yard touchdown run from quarterback Don McPherson just before the half and a 10-yard scoring pass from McPherson to split end Mike Siano in the third quarter, and then one more from McPherson, as he rushed two yards with 5:37 remaining to erase Navy's 20-17 lead and provide the winning margin.
McPherson completed nine of 16 passes for 156 yards and rushed for 63 more yards. Don McAulay kicked a 22-yard first-quarter field goal.
Syracuse turned a Byrne interception into a touchdown for a 17-10 lead with 7:06 remaining in the third quarter after linebacker Rudy Reed picked off the pass on third and 20 at the Syracuse 20 and returned it to the 45. On third down at the Navy 10, McPherson threw a simple streak to Siano, who beat Greg Stefanon in the corner of the end zone.
Byrne's second touchdown pass came on the next series to tie the game at 17, however. On first and 10 at the Syracuse 39, he found Saunders at the 15 between defensive backs Jeff Mangram and Markus Paul. Saunders took the ball in stride as the two defensive backs collided, and ran to the end zone with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
With the touchdown, Byrne broke John Cartwright's record for most passing yardage in a single season of 1,537 yards, set in 1967.
Navy took a 20-17 lead with 10:04 left on a 33-yard field goal by Todd Solomon, who had kicked a 36-yarder as the first half ended to tie the game at 10. But Syracuse produced its clinching drive on the next series. The Orangemen drove 66 yards in 10 plays almost exclusively on the ground. The drive culminated in McPherson's two-yard scoring run with 5:37 left.
Navy still had two promising possessions to go, but both ended in disaster. The Midshipmen took over on their 31 with 4:27 remaining, and promptly drove to the Syracuse 26. The Midshipmen got a large break on third and nine when defensive back Dave Holmes' interception of Byrne's pass near the goal line was nullified by a pass interference call that gave them first and 10 at the 11.
The Midshipmen were called for illegal procedure on the next play, setting them back to the 16, and two plays and six yards later they faced third and nine at the 10. Byrne found Saunders once more over the middle for what appeared to be another sensational completion. But Saunders lost the ball as he went down and it was ruled a fumble. Defensive back David Lee recovered on the three.
"That's going to be a controversial one," Tranquill said. "I saw him down."
"I was sure I was down," Saunders said. "I caught the ball, both knees hit the ground, and then it came loose. I looked around to see who had it, and the Syracuse guys were jumping around."
Navy had one more shot, Syracuse punting to the Midshipmen's 27 with 1:05 remaining. Byrne began driving again, completing a 20-yard pass to tight end Greg Schildmeyer on fourth and 13 at his 24, to get to the 44 with 44 seconds left. But on second and 10 at the Syracuse 42, Byrne was blindsided by defensive tackle Jerry Kimmel with six seconds left. He left the field shaken up, and Misch's desperation pass was intercepted by Reed in the end zone with no time left.
"I haven't seen a team this unlucky," Byrne said.