Oct. 4, 2009
Navy was in the locker room celebrating its 16-13 overtime victory over Air Force before 37,820 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday when one of the equipment managers came sprinting out of the room. He rummaged through a large canvas bag, emerged with two footballs to be used as game balls and sprinted back into the room.
It was appropriate because the victory for the Midshipmen (3-2) had more than a usual number of big plays and players deserving of a game ball.
The biggest play was made by junior place kicker Joe Buckley. He made a 38-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime to give Navy a 16-13 lead. The game ended on the ensuing possession: Air Force sophomore place kicker Erik Soderberg missed a 31-yard field goal wide left.
Navy has won seven in a row in the series over the Falcons (3-2). The attendance at Saturday's game included the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of the Air Force. They watched the first overtime game between service academies and with the victory Navy took a large step toward retaining the Commander-In-Chief's trophy.
"All I can say is unbelievable," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Unbelievable game."
Said Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun: "Physically, that was just an extraordinary game."
There were other standout performances from Navy, mostly on defense. Eight players had at least six tackles. Senior captain Ross Pospisil led the way with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery. Junior safety Wyatt Middleton added nine tackles and junior safety Emmett Merchant intercepted a pass.
The defense appeared to have made a game-clinching play in the final two minutes of regulation with the Midshipmen holding a 13-10 lead.
On a first and 10 from the Navy 44, Air Force sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson rolled out and looked to throw the ball downfield. Initially, no one was open. In the Air Force coach's booth, the assistants were yelling, "Throw it away! Throw it away!"
Yet Jefferson continued to roll out. Finally, just before he stepped out of bounds in front of his team's sideline, he forced a pass; Middleton made the interception. The Navy players, fans and coaches began to celebrate.
What they did not realize was that the interception did not count.
Navy senior linebacker Tony Haberer was called for roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty that negated the interception. Haberer hit Jefferson an instant after Jefferson released the pass.
The penalty gave Air Force a first down at the Navy 29.
"I thought the timing [of the penalty] was horrible," Niumatalolo said. "It's like making a pass interference call on the last play. There is an emphasis on protecting a defenseless player, but there was a lot of stuff going on after the whistle. If you don't call those, then you can't make the other call."
Three plays later, Navy's defense made a crucial play that counted. Senior linebacker Clint Sovie tackled sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka three yards short of a first down on third-and-seven.
And the game went to overtime after Soderberg made a 39-yard field goal as time expired. There, too, Middleton almost made a game-clinching play -- he got one hand on the field goal but didn't get enough of the ball to thwart the kick.
That the game came down to defense and special teams was probably not a surprise given that neither offense was very effective. Navy's 31-20 victory over Air Force in 2007 -- the largest margin of victory in the seven-game winning streak -- was keyed by Navy using a number of successful toss sweeps to the slotbacks.
Navy's first play from scrimmage on Saturday was a toss sweep to sophomore slot back Marcus Curry. Air Force knew it was coming and stuffed it for a three-yard loss. Throughout the day, anytime Curry went in motion, two Air Force defenders usually followed.
Navy's game plan was, is and always will be to take what the defense gives it. And on Saturday, the defense dictated that Navy run the ball inside, with quarterbacks or fullbacks as ball carriers.
Of Navy's final 55 running plays, 52 went either to a fullback or quarterback. The Midshipmen also attempted only four passes.
Yards were available inside when the play was blocked correctly. More often than not, however, Air Force's physical defensive line took away any available space for the Navy runners.
The Midshipmen finished with 173 yards rushing; they did not have a run longer than 13 yards.
Junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs led the way with 23 carries for 92 yards; junior Vince Murray, who played the second half after starter Alexander Teich left with an ankle and knee injury, added 22 carries for 68 yards.
But the Falcons did not exactly move the ball at will either. Their scoring came from a 67-yard interception return by sophomore Anthony Wright with 5 minutes 33 seconds left in the second quarter; and two field goals from Soderberg.
Air Force finished with 183 rushing yards. Jefferson completed 6 of 14 passes for 57 yards and gained 34 yards on 7 carries. Air Force's longest play was 21 yards, on an option keeper by Jefferson in the first quarter.
In the end, the game came down to Buckley and Soderberg. Soderberg entered the game ranked among the top five kickers in the country in efficiency,; he had made 10 of 14 field goals and 14 of 14 extra-points.
Buckley entered having not regained his job as the starter until Thursday when he out-kicked sophomore Jon Teague.
"Jon Teague and I have been battling at every practice," Buckley said. "It is not an ideal situation, but it has made both of us better kickers. I think that showed today."
Buckley became the latest Navy kicker to have final-second heroics against Air Force. Navy's 24-21 victory in 2004 came on a last-second field goal by Geoff Blumenfeld. And a 27-24 victory in 2005 came after Joey Bullen made a field goal with less than one second to play.
In the locker room after the game, as the manager raced in with two more game balls, the team chanted "Buckley! Buckley!"