Bewildered and just short of enraged, some of the central figures in Navy’s 35-34 overtime loss to visiting Air Force on Saturday sat at the podium outside the team locker room trying to process a back judge’s call that dramatically affected the outcome.
The word senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich offered was “pitiful,” echoing Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s pointed remarks about the Big 12 officiating crew that called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following quarterback Kriss Proctor’s one-yard touchdown for a 34-28 lead in overtime. That forced place kicker Jon Teague to try a 35-yard extra point, which was blocked.
Five plays later, Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson scored from one yard on third and goal, and place kicker Parker Herrington’s extra point sent Navy to its second straight loss this season and second in a row to its service academy rival. It also means the Midshipmen (2-2) must wait another year to try to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy it ceded to Air Force last season after winning it for seven consecutive years, a record.
“To make that call, man, that’s just a huge, huge penalty,” Niumatalolo said. “It just changes the whole complexion of the deal. I hope those guys can sleep well tonight.”
The loss left Niumatalolo and his players feeling especially raw considering that only moments earlier, Navy had rallied from 18 points behind in the second half to force overtime on Proctor’s five-yard pass to slotback Gee Gee Greene and Teich’s two-point run with 19 seconds left in regulation. The touchdown came seven plays after the Midshipmen recovered an onside kick following Teague’s 37-yard field goal with 2 minutes 4 seconds to play, which whittled the margin to 28-20.
Teich finished with a game-high 148 yards rushing and Proctor added 134 in their final game against Air Force (3-1). Navy’s 334 rushing yards were 111 more than Air Force, and it managed 12 more first downs, more than a two-to-one advantage in time of possession and ran 105 plays to 51 for the Falcons. Most of that production came in the second half, when Navy turned what was looking to be a lopsided loss into one of the most memorable games in this heated series.
“It shouldn’t come down to a ref’s call at the end of the game,” Teich said. “This is an emotional game. You’ve got to know that coming in as a ref. You’re reffing on CBS, the Navy and Air Force game. You can’t get anymore psyched up about a game, and we scored a touchdown at the end. We fought back. We worked so hard. It’s disappointing. It’s pitiful really.”
Following the game, head referee Mike Defee told a pool reporter the infraction was issued when Proctor “got in the face of an Air Force player right after the play.” When asked about the incident, Proctor said he had told an Air Force player “explicitly” to move out of his way, and that’s when David Vaughan threw the penalty flag to mark a seminal moment in the highest-scoring game in series history.
Air Force set that pace by logging touchdowns on its first three possessions, including Jefferson’s 52-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Ty MacArthur on the fourth play from scrimmage. MacArthur caught the ball roughly 20 yards downfield, broke free from safety Kwesi Mitchell’s tackle attempt and dashed into the end zone untouched the rest of the way to begin the initial onslaught.
The Falcons made it 14-0 on Jefferson’s two-yard run and 21-3 when slotback Asher Clark wiggled through a seam on the right side, froze sophomore free safety Shawn Lynch with a head fake and ran untouched over the goal line from 23 yards. But Navy cut its deficit to 11 for the first time on Proctor’s five-yard run with five minutes to play in the third quarter and got it to 28-17 with a seven-yard run from Proctor with 9:34 to go in regulation to set up the wild final minutes that included the controversial penalty.
“It’s too critical of a part of a game to make a call like that,” Niumatalolo said. “Our guys are battling. Both teams are fighting hard. They’re battling hard, and for someone to make a call like that, it hurts.”