Oct. 12, 2010
By Bob Socci
We should have known what we were in for long before the game clock crept under 3½ minutes to go Saturday in Winston-Salem.
Four games were in the books for the Navy Midshipmen. The two wins weren't secured until, at the earliest, midway through the fourth quarter. The two losses were left, agonizingly, undecided until the final half minute.
Player or coach, fan or broadcaster, Navy football isn't for the faint of heart.
With all due respect to every cliché ever uttered in the history of pre- and post-game interviews, it's almost humanly impossible to stay on that even keel we've heard about for decades every time the Mids take the field.
Don't get too high, or too low? Are you kidding me? After our latest adventure, trying to keep up (and down!) with Navy and Wake Forest, you can stick that pearl of wisdom back in its shell.
First, the Mids trail the Demon Deacons by six. Then they're looking good, thanks to a 1st down at Wake's 37-yard line. Uh oh, quarterback Ricky Dobbs is sacked, shaken up and off to the sideline. But, wait, he's back after missing just one snap, to finish the drive he started.
Two plays later, though, his pass is broken up by safety Alex Frye, who leaps in the air to celebrate with someone off the Wake Forest sideline. Both show good hops, as they twist in mid-air and bump backsides. There's 3:13 left, they have the ball. Home team and home crowd are pumped.
Visitors have two timeouts remaining. Navy needs a defensive stop. So much as a 1st down by the Deacons likely seals the Mids' fate. But, Mids being Mids - and Jabaree Tuani being Jubaree Tuani - suddenly there's hope.
On 1st down, Tuani blasts into the backfield and throws running back Josh Harris for a loss of six yards. On 2nd down, Tuani hits Harris from behind on a gain of four. Navy calls timeout, the scoreboard shows 2:26.
Meanwhile, in our radio booth, commentator John Feinstein compliments the officials for stopping the clock quickly. Let's just say that, until now, their performance hasn't been drawing any rave reviews from the Mids' point of view.
When play resumes, it's 3rd-and-12 for Wake, from its 36. Quarterback Tanner Price swings a pass to Devon Brown. He gains only three yards. The Mids spend their third, and final, T.O. All of nine seconds elapse. Now, radio analyst Omar Nelson compliments the time management by Navy coaches. They're about to get the ball back just shy of the 2-minute mark. The defense does its part.
But Gary Myers is dispatched to the Mids' 17-yard line, out of respect for the Deacons' Shane Popham, who has averaged nearly 53 yards on his three punts so far. Heavy pressure leads to a near block, a Popham fall after the kick and a Navy bounce, back to its 36-yard line.
As the ride in the booth continues, we're climbing once again.
"Navy starting with decent position," says Omar, lifting his voice with every word. "They have a great opportunity here to drive downfield."
Two plays into the series - both incomplete passes intended for wide receivers - optimism becomes hope.
"You've got to try something to a slot back," John advises, issuing his own 2-minute warning.
Dobbs does just that, finding slot Aaron Santiago for nine yards. The Mids face 4th-and-1. Dobbs then tosses to Santiago on a sweep to the right. Six yards net a 1st down in Wake Forest territory, momentarily stopping the clock at the 1:46 mark.
The outlook is brighter, as the Mids align three potential receivers to the left, and Dobbs sprints in that direction. Greg Jones is open, Dobbs lets it go. With the ball in mid-flight, John says on the air, "too far."
He's right. Soon enough, following another incomplete throw, with 87 seconds to go, Navy confronts 3rd-and-10 for the second time in five plays. The music operator at BB&T Field chooses a clip from the soundtrack of NFL Films. The selection, in this bleak situation for the Midshipmen: "A New Game."
You better believe it. An instant before getting blindsided, Dobbs moves to his left and lasers his 18th - and best - pass of the night to Gee Gee Greene. Thirty-four yards! Navy has possession at the Deacons' 15.
Indeed, a brand new game. Now it's Wake Forest's turn to stop the clock. Coach Jim Grobe looks to settle his defense and preserve as much time as possible for his offense should the Mids score a touchdown.
Dobbs runs to the 9-yard line. The Deacons take their second timeout.
Caught up in the drama, Omar returns to his roots as a former sprint football coach at the Academy. He suggests that the Mids can run again, but wonders if we'll see a pass play similar to Navy's first touchdown. Back in the 1st quarter, Dobbs hit fullback Alex Teich in the right flat for his first career score.
But Teich, like starter Vince Murray, is out due to injury. Junior Delvin Diggs has handled the ball once in his career, about five minutes earlier on the game clock. We go back-and-forth in the booth, filling time with conjecture.
As you know - and appreciate, no doubt - none of what we say has any real bearing on what we're about to see. But, hey, at this point we're totally engrossed in the game. Each of us is the next Vince Lombardi.
Dobbs carries again and is brought down at the 6, forcing 3rd-and-inches, as seconds slip away. Forty ticks remain as Dobbs ducks under center. Thirty-five are left as Greene motions left, from the right wing into the backfield.
Dobbs takes the snap and rolls toward the right. Diggs goes that way - in the flat, no less. Dobbs draws his arm back.
"Ricky's gonna loft into it into the end zone for Jones!" I say, my inflection reflecting the rising arc of his pass. "He's got the catch, a Navy touchdown! Touchdown Navy!"
I guess it bore repeating, that touchdown for Navy, which tied the game at 26-26. We're on another high, until John brings us down to earth.
"Let's remember, first of all," he says. "Joe Buckley's gotta make this extra point."
That's as close to even that our keel can get. Buckley's conversion breaks the tie and puts the Mids on top.
With 26.4 seconds left, Jon Teague kicks off. A few seconds after that, about the time Michael Campanaro sprints through a seam at the 30-yard line, we're on the verge of keeling over. Fortunately for Navy, freshman Marcus Thomas tackles him just shy of midfield.
In the 8.8 seconds it takes for Campanaro to return Teague's kick from the 2-yard line, our collective heartbeat obliterates the Navy radio record. Again, we go from way up here, to uh-oh, not there!
Clock and score both favor the Midshipmen. But Wake's kicker Jimmy Newman has already proven his leg strength with a 45-yard field goal in the 2nd quarter. His career-long was a 48-yarder. Plus, Price has completed 37-of-50 passes for 326 yards and 2 touchdowns.
In another 17.6 seconds - time, as turns out, for three plays - the ending will be exhilarating for one team, excruciating for the other. Price's first shot takes about four seconds, as he short arms a throw to the right.
His next attempt is a microcosm of the evening. Price drops back and the Mids converge on him, almost certain to record a game-ending sack. But Price somehow escapes and finds an open Josh Adams to his right.
Yes! No! Yes, again! Adams can't hold on.
"I don't know how they missed that sack," says an incredulous Feinstein. "And I don't know how he dropped the ball!"
The Deacons are left with one last gasp, in 7½ seconds. Again, Price retreats from center.
"Tuani with a push," I say, the play developing, "Forces Price..."
My next few words are inaudible. As a play-by-play announcer, you live for such tense moments when the outcome of an event hangs in the balance. Relying on spontaneity, you only hope not to screw up the call.
And, oh yeh, most of the time you hope your partners will stay out of your way. Omar and John aren't about to let this become one of those times. Tonight, I wouldn't want it any other way.
"Holding, holding!" Omar bellows at the sight of Tuani being blocked. "That was a hold!"
"The game's going to end," John exclaims, almost simultaneously. "The game's gonna end!"
"...Price on the roll, Price on the roll," I resume. "Throws to the near side and the pass is..."
"Game's over!" John shouts. "Game's over!"
"...incomplete, incomplete!" I continue. "Time expires and Navy wins, 28-to-27!"
Thankfully, the booth is open air. Otherwise, we would have blasted out a few windows the way Ella Fitzgerald used to shatter wine glasses in the old Memorex commercials.
As it is, I think we blow out the headset of producer Frank Diventi. After 3 hours and 9 minutes, our voices still have timbre. More importantly, our tickers are still beating strong.
Good thing, because a week later, we get to do it again this Saturday in Annapolis. The Mids host SMU. Their last meeting, a 38-35 Navy win, was decided on the final snap of overtime.
Avoid any peaks and valleys? Forget about it.
I'd rather buckle up, take it one play at a time and enjoy the ride.