Game 543: Navy loses lead but overcomes Air Force with 15 seconds left, 48-45
Annapolis, Maryland – The Midshipmen of Navy relinquished a 21-point first half lead over arch-rival Air Force (1-4) in our Game 543 and fell behind by four points with 1:53 left in the game before QB Zach Abey connected with TE Tyler Carmona on a 15-yard TD pass into the end zone to triumph, 48-45. Even at that point, however, the game remained in doubt among many Navy fans until the final tackle of the game on the last play as Air Force lateraled close to a dozen times as time expired. Though Navy’s offense struck quickly and efficiently throughout the game to muster 557 total yards, their defense fell short applying pressure and covering receivers that allowed the Air Force Falcons to outgain them with 621 total yards of offense including 281 passing yards on only 10 completions. USAFA QB Arion Worthman completed 9 of 16 passes for 257 yards and two TDs while rushing for 139 and scoring twice on the ground. Navy’s triple option fared much better on the ground as the Mids picked up 471 rushing yards compared to 340 by the Falcon runners. The two academies met for the 50th time in this game.
For Collegefootballfan.com, our tailgate consisted of great food and drink brought by all. This game inspired some first-timers to join us again for future Navy games and tailgating in Annapolis. Guest Game Analyst John Massimilla, attending a non-PSU game with us for the first time in a while, stated that though not emotionally tied to either team, the game falls in among his top five ever attended for excitement. He’s attended many PSU games over the years and not just the hundred-plus we’ve attended with him.
On this day, USNA set the record for the most fans to ever attend a game at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium with 38,972 in attendance. Astonishing when John and I have basically attended so many games at cavernous Beaver Stadium including records there of over 109,000. Nonetheless, the excitement of the fourth quarter at Navy-Marine Corps this day against a prime arch-rival for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy raised the decibel levels at extremes with both Navy and Air Force fans in attendance. Game 543 will long be remembered by all there in attendance.
Early game action
In the second period Navy extended its lead 28-7 with Abey’s 40-yard TD pass to SB Malcolm Perry. The speedy, sophomore slotback opened the scoring earlier with a 91-yard burst around the left side. Air Force countered with a 77-yard drive finished off with Worthman’s 59-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Marcus Bennet (five receptions, 161 yards, two TDs) down the middle of the field. Following consecutive Falcon drives resulting in fumble recoveries by Navy LB D.J. Palmore, the Midshipman offense capitalized.
Navy took the first fumble and scored with RB Darryl Bonner drawing a loud roar when he hurdled a defender on his way for a 24-yard scoring run. The next take-away resulted in a one-yard TD plunge by Abey (29 carries for 214 yards and two TDs; 4 of 11 passing for 86 yards and two TDs) to punctuate the 41-yard scoring drive. As the half ended, Falcon PK Luke Strebel nailed a 27-yard FG to make the score 28-10 at halftime before combined academy Drum and Bugle Corps performed. Three points as time expires in the first half reminds us that not only is this a game of inches, but a game of seconds.
Outstanding tailgate party
Our tailgate offered up a lot of great food. Brian Donnelly did his traditionally great Old Bay wings, but he also added bratwurst we enjoyed from Mike Pitch who brought them to our Navy-Cincinnati tailgate two weeks ago. Pat Healy brought shrimp, first time for him at a Navy game and first time we had shrimp at our tailgate. Eileen, Brian’s sister, stayed up late baking brownies for us the night before. They were still fresh and tasty when it was time for dessert. My Italian Subs and turkey and cheese subs from a deli here in New Jersey went over big. We have the best bread around here (they say it’s the water). John brought our old buddy Evan Williams (honey bourbon) who’s joined us over the years at State College.
Game 543 was celebrated under our Collegefootballfan.com flag and we had our group photo taken by Superman – no really, he had the emblem on his shirt. We found a few TVs among the nearby RVs in our lot in order to catch up on some early game action including the Penn State-Northwestern game we wanted to keep an eye on. John wore his Shippensburg U. “Ship happens” t-shirt – closest piece of apparel he had to wear for a Navy game, he said. The D-2 school shirt brought him a lot of attention and some photo ops in the tailgate parking lot. It gave me a merchandising idea. “The Ship” in the Pennsylvania Athletic Conference is now 5-1. They lost their first game this past weekend to West Chester State, 37-27.
Exciting second half action
The second half started off as if this could be a blow-out Navy desired in its quest for the C-I-C Trophy. The offense continued to hit on all cylinders. They ran plays throughout the game in a hybrid pistol formation where Abey set up in a shotgun formation with a back to each side and a TB/FB directly behind him. They still ran dives and options as usual, and they were just as effective as their wing formations to run the option. Navy controlled the football resulting in a 21-yard FG by Bennett Moehring. Following a 52-yard run by Worthman to Navy’s 21, FB Tim McVey scored a six-yard TD run for the Falcons. Following a touchback after the ensuing kick, Abey sped down field on a 75-yard TD run making it look like the Mids would remain unstoppable throughout the game. Air Force did not let up either though as Worthman scored from the one on a methodical, well-engineered 74-yard drive of their own.
Through my binoculars, I watched Navy HC Ken Niumatalolo pacing the sideline in front of his defensive benches. He let his coaches work with his charges, but he looked ready to jump in only if he was asked or if he determined that he had something critical to say. He paced back and forth looking back and forth from the field to the benches behind him with a concerned look on his face. His patience impressed me. He left it up to his staff to come up with some solutions to stop Air Force from scoring. He seemed to realize that this game was not over by a long shot. His team led 38-24 going into the final period, but you could tell that he did not look too comfortable. There was lot of scoring going on and a lot of time left to play.
Navy started the fourth by punting on a fourth and 15 from their 49. The Navy defense could not force the same on the Falcon offense. Worthman scored on a three-yard TD run following a reverse option pass to him for 24 yards from Gerard Sanders. Air Force now trailed by only one score, 38-31. Niumatalolo kept up his pacing hoping his defensive staff could still come up with some solutions to halt the Falcon offense.
Perry (four carries, 127 yards, one TD) provided some hope for Navy with his kick return out to the 41. On fourth down at the seven, Niumatalolo thought about going for a first down in this situation, but settled for Moehring’s 24-yard FG to assure a 10-point margin. On the first play of Air Force’s next drive, Worthman connected with WR Ronald Cleveland for 60 yards to Navy’s 15. The Navy secondary didn’t even come close to challenging receivers on many of these pass plays. McVey scored from the two with 4:09 left to play. The Falcons then forced the Mids to a very rare three and out. On the second play from scrimmage, Worthman threw long to Marcus Bennett for a 51-yard scoring play to give the Air Force Academy its first lead of the game, 45-41. I told John they left Navy too much time to score. It turned out to be fifteen seconds too long as Navy started its final offensive drive from its 25 when Abey fired to Carmona in the end zone. Game not over!
Not over til it’s over…
As Air Force lateraled the ball around on the final play, I felt like we were about to watch a historical play in the making. Like Stanford-Cal, but instead Air Force would run over some exhausted Cadets from the stands still near the end zone who like the Mids pumped out the total amount of push-ups for the total score after each TD or FG. Thanks to a tackle for what turned out to be only a six-yard gain, Navy triumphed, 48-45. Niumatalolo pranced now along his sideline in front of his benches instead of pacing. Exciting roller-coaster ride with a lot of twists and turns near the end. Intense, fun, and exciting. Game 543 was a tremendous football game to be part of!
Point After Tailgating (PAT)
Before next Saturday, Navy’s got to do something to shore up its pass defense. They had some early sacks, but Air Force came up with deception to offset any pressure and throw to wide-open receivers. Like last year’s game against South Florida, Navy needs more quickness in the secondary to keep up with faster receivers. Two big American Athletic Conference games come up over the next two weeks where the secondary will be tested and exposed big time if they don’t make some adjustments to their coverage.
Next week, Navy (5-0, 3-0), now ranked No. 24 in the AP poll, travels to Memphis (4-1, 1-1) to play the Tigers who like to throw the ball a lot. Memphis just slammed UConn, 70-31, as QB Riley Ferguson completed 34 of 48 for 451 yards and seven TDs. I think he is one of the most unorthodox QBs I’ve ever seen, but he gets the football quickly to his receivers. Navy employs no tight coverage whatsoever. They better learn to this week. The week after, they will host Central Florida (4-0) rated No. 22 in the AP. The next two games offer the Mids a chance to make a statement if they truly belong.
Air Force looks to climb out of the 1-4 record with three losses now to Top 25 teams (Navy, Michigan, San Diego State) against UNLV to try to start a streak to get back into bowl contention. With Game 543 in the book, Collegefootballfan.com heads north this weekend to see No. 2 Clemson (6-0, 4-0) take on improving Syracuse (3-3,1-1) who will look to go to the air against the Tigers’ formidable defense.
As part of our pre-planned upstate double header, we plan to go to nearby Hamilton, NY on Saturday to watch a Patriot League game between Colgate (2-4, 0-1) and Fordham (1-5, 0-1) who were both expected to challenge for the Patriot League championship. With dismal starts by both, we considered to find an alternative. However, based on a 12-noon start, our first time ever to see a Colgate home game, and a pretty even match-up, this may still be our best choice overall. Plus, we’ve seen Fordham senior RB Chase Edmonds, who has some FCS career marks within sight, play his first three years for the Rams. We might as well top off our own history by seeing him play in his fourth. Despite the struggles, this game should be competitive to the end. That’s what we generally like to see when we pick our games before the season.
Despite this being my last of two Navy games in Annapolis this year because of conflicts with three Penn State games we will attend, we plan to see the Mids play at least two more times later this season. We will be at the Temple game in Philly on Thursday, November 2, and again in Philly on December 9 for our sixth straight Army-Navy game. There are possibilities to see them again in the AAC championship game if they win the West and host the East, and then there is the Military Bowl to be played in Annapolis the last week of December. We plan to be a that one whether Navy is or not (AAC vs ACC).