Throughout the past week, Navy football players had been quick to call yesterday's game against Air Force every bit as important as their annual regular season finale against arch rival Army.
The finish turned out to be just as agonizing for the Midshipmen as that of any recent Army-Navy game.
In a game filled with missed opportunities, Navy quarterback Brian Broadwater's pass for wide receiver Travis Williams from Air Force's 7-yard line hit off Williams's hands in the back of the end zone as time expired, leaving Navy with a 19-14 defeat before 46,450 at Redskins Stadium.
The finish was eerily similar to those of Navy's six losses to Army in the past seven seasons. All have been by four points or less, and many have come down to the final play.
"I felt like we had an opportunity to win [today's] game several times," said Navy Coach Charlie Weatherbie, whose team has lost its past three games by a combined 12 points. "We just didn't seize the moment."
Instead, the Midshipmen (2-4) practically gift-wrapped it, leaving them with their 16th loss in their past 18 games against Air Force (4-1).
Their trouble started after they had cut a 19-7 deficit to 19-14 on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Broadwater to wide receiver Brandon Rampani with 11 minutes 16 seconds to play early in the fourth quarter, then recovered a fumbled pitch left at Air Force's 24 with 10:59 left.
Two plays later, Navy called for a pass, and slotback John Vereen came wide-open at the 5. However, he dropped what almost certainly would have been a touchdown reception. Two plays after that, Tim Shubzda's 34-yard field goal attempt bounced off the right upright--his second miss of the day.
"The ball was in my hands," Vereen said. "I let it go and let the game go."
That was only a prelude, however, to a curious string of events in the game's final moments.
After getting the ball back on a punt with 1:53 left, Navy drove from its 36 to the Falcons' 7 as Broadwater completed 5 of 6 passes for 48 yards. But with 27 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, Broadwater inexplicably chose to run up the middle on an option play. He was stopped for no gain, and by the time Navy again lined up and Broadwater spiked the ball, 21 seconds had elapsed, leaving the Midshipmen just one more play.
"It was a bad decision on my part," Broadwater said. "I should've done something to get the clock stopped."
Said Weatherbie: "We work on that situation. The whole staff agreed on that play. What we have got to do is get the ball out of bounds. We can't run inside with it. That was just something we have got to learn from."
Following a timeout by Air Force, Broadwater, under pressure, threw a high-arching pass toward Williams, who was running along the end line. The wide receiver leaped and got both hands on the ball, but couldn't hold it.
Navy's near-misses overshadowed a solid effort by Air Force backup quarterback Mike Thiessen. Starting in place of the injured Cale Bonds (sprained ankle), Thiessen had 14 carries for 108 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave the Falcons their first lead, 12-7 (a two-point conversion try failed).
After gaining just 67 yards in the first half, and trailing 7-0 at halftime, the Falcons began attacking the middle of Navy's line and came up with big results. Air Force gained 284 yards in the second half, using their rushing attack, ranked second in the nation entering the day, to shred Navy's defense.
"We challenged our players a bit at the half," Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry said. "We weren't playing at the level we needed to play at, so we appealed to their pride a bit, and they made up their minds they were going to come out a more determined team."
Navy had little trouble moving the ball early. After its first drive stalled at Air Force's 31, the Midshipmen broke on top.
Broadwater's 33-yard pass to Matt O'Donnell keyed a nine-play, 74-yard drive, with Vereen scoring on a four-yard run to give Navy a 7-0 lead 7:44 into the game.
That's the way it stayed until midway through the third quarter, when Air Force capped their first two drives of the second half with field goals of 23 and 49 yards, by Jackson Whiting and Dave Adams, respectively.
While Navy struggled on offense, gaining just one yard on its first two drives of the half, the Cadets effectively moved the ball, taking a 12-7 lead on Thiessen's touchdown run and, after recovering Navy's third fumbled exchanged from center on the day, 19-7 on Jeremy Laster's one-yard run up the middle.