Nothing ever has been easy for this Navy team, not even losing. The Midshipmen did that again today, suffering a 34-31 loss to South Carolina that made them 3-7 in a season that is becoming less and less believable all the time.
On the day that the indomitable Napoleon McCallum broke Darrin Nelson's NCAA record for career all-purpose yardage, it would seem fitting for Navy to win one. But this was the kind of grab-your-heart, clutch-your-throat game that Navy has played all season, and usually lost.
South Carolina scored on quarterback Mike Hold's nine-yard run with 2:11 remaining, and Navy began an ill-fated drive that moved all the way to the South Carolina 24. But Bob Misch, playing with a brace on his knee and four stitches in his chin from a second-quarter gash, threw three incompletions against a prevent defense as time ran down, including a desperation attempt toward Troy Saunders in the end zone on fourth down.
Hold, who rushed for 104 yards on 21 carries, came on to end the game by falling on the ball before a frighteningly loud crowd of 69,542 at Williams-Brice Stadium. The victory avenged Navy's 38-21 upset victory last year, which had come while the Gamecocks were ranked second in the nation.
This was Navy's fifth loss by four points or fewer, for a combined total of 15 points. That averages out to a field goal a game, and Todd Solomon missed two today (from 42 and 44 yards) that might have helped the Midshipmen considerably against a team dying to give this game away. The Gamecocks fumbled four times, two of which set up second-half touchdowns for Navy.
"I told them, 'I don't know what to tell you,' " Navy Coach Gary Tranquill said. "They played their hearts out and they're as frustrated as I am. Maybe if we had scored 20 more points we'd be 7-0."
The Gamecocks (5-5) got two touchdown runs from Hold, of 23 and nine yards, and two from halfback Thomas Dendy, of 23 and four yards. The Gamecocks gained 398 of their 461 yards offense rushing, and Scott Hagler kicked field goals of 40 and 42 yards.
Navy trailed by 17-10 at the half and by 27-17 at the end of the third quarter. But the Midshipmen got back in it with three second-half touchdown runs from McCallum, who rushed for 138 yards, caught six passes for 97 yards, returned three punts for 85 yards and four kickoffs for 85 yards.
His 323 all-purpose yards gave him 6,896, breaking Nelson's mark of 6,885 set at Stanford. He also broke school records for career touchdowns, with 33 to Joe Bellino's 31, and for career points, with 200.
"It's great," said McCallum of the records, which he hardly could enjoy because of the game's outcome. " . . . There were just a lot of little mistakes. They ran well, we missed some opportunities, and we came up on the short side."
McCallum scored on a one-yard run early in the third quarter, set up by Dendy's fumble, to tie the score at 17. He scored again early in the fourth period on a seven-yard run to bring the Midshipmen to 27-24, and gave them their only lead with 9:32 remaining on a three-yard run that made it 31-27, again set up by a fumble by Dendy.
"Going into the game we knew we had to play the full 60 minutes to win," Gamecocks Coach Joe Morrison said. "We didn't know we'd have to play the last 30 so doggone hard."
South Carolina began its final drive with 9:32 left and held the ball seven minutes, going 76 yards in 19 nickle-and-dime plays and converting two fourth-down situations before Hold made the winning touchdown of nine yards.
The first fourth-down conversion was controversial. On fourth and a little more than a yard at the Navy 16, linebacker Eric Fudge tackled Kevin White for what appeared to be a loss. But the ball was marked for the first down. Six plays later, Hold scrambled around end from the nine.
The Midshipmen had plenty of time, taking over at their 28 with 2:21 left. Misch, who completed 26 of 44 passes for 307 yards, found John Lobb for 24 yards on a fourth-and-22 play to get to the South Carolina 35. The Gamecocks went into a prevent defense, and, four plays later, Navy was called for a motion penalty on first and 10 at the 20. A screen to McCallum got only one yard, then Misch threw his three incompletions.
"At the end, there we were just throwing plays in," Misch said. "It was like drawing them in the sand, we were just trying to find something that would work."
Tranquill said the Midshipmen never considered going for a tie, a situation they had been in twice before this season and declined (in losses to Indiana and Lafayette). "We're 3-6. I'm not going for a tie," he said.
Misch's performance under the circumstances was worthy of praise. A junior who underwent knee surgery in the offseason, he had directed Navy's upset last season when starter Bill Byrne was lost to a broken leg. He was in the same position this week after Byrne underwent emergency surgery to remove his spleen last Sunday.
Navy came into the game beat up. Besides Byrne, Navy was missing two key linebackers -- Vince McBeth and Jim Dwyer -- out with sprained ankles. Dwyer leads the team in tackles with 123 for the season, followed by McBeth's 93. That may have accounted for Navy's lack of defense. The Gamecocks were not thrown for a loss all day and had three rushers with more than 100 yards.
As for McCallum, he also passed the 1,000-yard mark today, with 1,110 yards, making him the only Midshipman to rush for more than 1,000 yards twice in a career. It was not much consolation, however, for what was to be one of Navy's better seasons. He will play his final game against Army in Philadelphia Dec. 7.
"It's all a game," he said. "You play hard, you try to win, and if you don't, it's just a game. It's not life or death. Only Army is."