ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 10 -- For much of this afternoon, Navy seemed poised to erase more than a year's worth of frustrating losses. But Air Force scored 13 points in the final nine minutes to pull out a 23-13 victory, sending the Midshipmen to their fifth straight loss this season and 12th straight over two years.

"It was a get-after game and our players were into it, one helluva football game," said Navy Coach Elliot Uzelac. "It was a game of inches, it could've gone either way with a play here or a play there. I'm very proud of our guys."

Navy lost leading rusher Chuck Smith to a sprained knee after the first two series of the game. Entering the contest without two defensive starters, the Midshipmen had lost another three by the time of the game's climatic moments.

The biggest play down the stretch was a 23-yard touchdown run by Air Force fullback Andy Smith with 4:54 left that broke a 13-13 tie and spoiled what looked to be shaping up as a remarkable day for Navy.

Alton Grizzard became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Navy since 1974. The Virginia Beach product handled Navy's wishbone offense deftly although he did not learn of his starting assignment until 10 minutes before the game.

"My roommate told me that he'd read something that said that I might be starting but I didn't pay attention because it didn't come from the coach," Grizzard said. "It didn't really matter what team we were playing, you're just playing football. It don't matter how old you are, it's what you can do."

Late in the second quarter, Grizzard directed a 56-yard, 13-play drive that ended with Ted Fundoukos' first-ever collegiate field goal, a 32-yarder. The play put Navy ahead, 3-0, the first time this season the Midshipmen had led.

Though quarterback Dee Dowis rushed for a school-record 241 yards against Utah last week and Air Force entered the game ranked second in the nation in rushing with almost 400 yards a game, it committed countless errors in the opening half, including two turnovers.

"What hurt us is we had good field position and good scoring opportunities and didn't take advantage of them," said Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry. "They did a good job defending Dowis."

A 32-yard field goal by the Falcons' Steve Yarbrough shortly before halftime tied the game at 3-3.

Air Force (5-1) took the second half's first possession and went 80 yards in 16 plays, with fullback Quinton Roberts (24 carries, 116 yards) rushing 10 times for 51 yards before scoring on a four-yard run for a 10-3 Falcons' lead.

Air Force seemed poised to take total control when Yarbrough's subsequent kickoff caromed off a Navy player and was recovered by the Falcons' Joe Powell. But officials ruled that the Air Force coverage team didn't give Navy a chance to receive the kick. The interference call gave the ball back to Navy, which tied the score soon thereafter on a one-yard plunge by Grizzard.

On Air Force's next possession, Smith fumbled on the first play. That led to Fundoukos' 39-yard field goal, giving Navy a 13-10 lead with 2:21 to play in the third quarter.

"I really thought we were in control," said Grizzard.

Navy held fast after taking the lead but it soon appeared the team was too undermanned to win. Already down to a single outside linebacker, Navy switched from its customary 3-4 defense to a 4-3. Roberts and Smith kept pounding through the middle of the line, moving Yarbrough into position for a game-tying 34-yard field goal with 8:37 to play.

Clay Stackhouse stepped out of bounds with the kickoff at Navy's 10-yard line. After Navy was unable to gain a first down, Andy Mueck had a 25-yard punt. Air Force took over on the Navy 41, and five plays later, Smith scored on a 23-yard run to give the Falcons the lead for good.

On Navy's next drive, James Bradley (17 carries, 109 yards) rushed twice for 10 yards but Grizzard was sacked for a seven-yard loss.

A few plays later, Navy faced a fourth and one with 2:26 left. But Grizzard was dropped for a loss shortly after pulling away from center.

On its next possession, Air Force iced the game on Yarbrough's 32-yard field goal.

"He's certainly a courageous kid, he had back spasms and didn't even practice until Wednesday," Uzelac said of Grizzard. "It was a tough spot for him to be in; he made some freshman mistakes but he makes a lot of good plays, too. If we could've sustained a drive with eight minutes to go, we would've won it. We didn't but I'm anxious to play the next game."

Air Force 0 3 7 13 23 Navy 0 3 10 0 13

N -- FG Fundoukos, 32

AF -- FG Yarbrough 32

AF -- Roberts 4 run (Yarbrough kick)

N -- Grizzard 1 run (Fundoukos kick)

N -- FG Fundoukos 39

AF -- FG Yarbrough 34

AF -- A. Smith 23 run (Yarbrough kick)

AF -- FG Yarbrough 32 Air Force Navy

First downs 17 14 Rushes-yards 63-301 64-242 Passing yards 23 37 Return yards 0 1 Passing 2-7-1 2-7-1 Punts-average 4-29.8 5-28 Fumbles-lost 3-2 4-2 Penalties-yards 3-35 6-52 Time of

A -- 35,622INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING -- Air Force: Roberts 24-116, A. Smith 9-63, Roberson 9-47, Dowis 12-41, Booker 9-34. Navy: Bradley

PASSING -- Air Force: Dowis 2-7-1, 23 yards. Navy: Grizzard 2-6-1, 37, Holl 0-1-0, 0.

RECEIVING -- Air Force: Martini 1-14, Barth 1-9. Navy: Jordan 1-21, Hughes 1-16.