For the second straight year, the Army-Navy game came down to a field goal in the closing seconds.But where the senior Patmon Malcom succeeded for the Cadets in winning last year's contest with a 49-yard kick at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Ryan Bucchianeri, a baby-faced plebe, failed for the Midshipmen when his 18-yard kick with six seconds left sailed wide right yesterday at Giants Stadium.
Instead of climaxing a spectacular fourth-quarter comeback after spotting Army a 16-point lead, the Mids suffered the agony of a 16-14 defeat that kept the crowd of 67,852 riveted until the final gun.
"It was a miracle," Army quarterback Rick Roper said. "I felt there was no way he could miss it."
But he did, and Bucchianeri, 18, who did not become Navy's place-kicker until facing Notre Dame eight games into the
season, was big enough to face the media after the game.
"I've kicked that ball right through the uprights 1,000 times in my head," said Bucchianeri, a native of Monongahela, the western Pennsylvania town that produced quarterback Joe Montana. "I'll go to sleep tonight believing I did my best. It all happened so fast, I can't say what went wrong. I just missed it."
The wild finish began after senior tailback Billy James, who had fumbled on Army's 2-yard line in the opening quarter, sparked Navy's final drive with brilliant runs of 21 and 22 yards. James' second sprint produced a first down on the Army 14. The Mids would move against the clock for another first down on the 2 with 34 seconds left. But two runs by fullback Brad Stramanak sandwiched around a deliberate throwaway by quarterback Jim Kubiak failed to advance the ball. Stramanak's last run left the ball 9 yards right of center, an angle that might have proved difficult.
"We were near the pro hash mark. We tried to keep the ball in the middle of the field as much as possible, but that was as close as we could get," Navy coach George Chaump said.
Both teams called timeouts before the field-goal attempt, but Bucchianeri insisted it had no effect on his kick. "Once you come off the sidelines, it shouldn't matter if you waited 10 minutes or 10 seconds."
Chaump, who has lost three of his four meetings with Army, did his best to deflect blame from his freshman kicker.
"We had many opportunities to win this game, and they come back to haunt you," said Chaump, referring to Navy's turnovers in the first half. "Unfortunately, the game came down to putting all the weight on a freshman's shoulders. But no game is really won or lost on a single play."
The week leading to the traditional season-ending game with Army had started on a positive note for Chaump, who was given a contract extension despite four losing seasons (11-33). But the Naval Academy was stunned Wednesday by deaths of former quarterback Alton Grizzard and two other Academy graduates in a double murder-suicide in California.
"It's been a very emotional week," Chaump said. "But you need to put things in perspective and learn to take adversity like a man."
By losing its last five games, the Mids finished a once-promising season 4-7. Army, which spoiled Navy's attempt to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1981, finished 6-5 and took a 44-43-7 lead in the rivalry.
The first half was typical of Navy's sloppy play that led to trouncings by Vanderbilt and Southern Methodist in their previous games.
The Mids' first botched opportunity occurred early in the first quarter after a short punt gave them possession at midfield. Led by tailback Jason Van Matre's running and catching, Navy advanced to Army's 11. But two plays produced 1 yard, and, on third down, Jim Screen missed Kubiak's pass in the end zone.
Bucchianeri was called on to attempt a 27-yard field goal, but Chaump had actually called a trick play designed to have the upback flip to Stramanak. Snapper Brad Soper, however, said he thought he heard a signal called and centered the ball prematurely, while the holder, Tony Solliday, was still marking a spot on the field for Bucchianeri.
The snap sailed over Solliday's head and was retrieved by Army linebacker Bob Heckathorne on the Cadets' 45.
Army reciprocated when Wicks' 38-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left.
With the Mids uncharacteristically running the ball, they used Stramanak's off-tackle slashes to march 76 yards to Army's 3. But on first-and-goal, James was rocked by defensive back Jason Sutton. The ball sprung loose, and Heckathorne again recovered, this time on the 2.
The Cadets then began a 98-yard scoring drive that consumed more than six minutes. Kevin Vaughn, Chad Davis and Lane took turns in crashing through Navy's interior line before Lane turned the right corner for a 16-yard gain to the Mids' 6.
Lane completed the march early in the second quarter with a 2-yard bolt off left tackle, but Wicks' conversion kick failed.
The Cadets dominated the second quarter, maintaining possession for 11 minutes, 40 seconds. But after freshman tight end Ken Leshinski couldn't hold on to a pass from Roper in the end zone, Army's 67-yard drive ended when Wicks missed a 24-yard field-goal attempt with 24 seconds left in the half.
Navy wasted a chance in the third quarter when Kubiak's passing gave the Mids a first down on the Army 32. The Mids turned the ball over on downs after picking up only 2 yards.
That set the stage for another march by the Cadets. Roper did an excellent job of keeping the Navy defense off balance with his fakes and keeper plays out of the wishbone.
Roper ran 21 yards to the Navy 29. Five plays later, the junior
quarterback darted 9 yards through a big hole to score untouched. Wicks converted to boost Army's lead to 16-0 with 3:50 left in the third quarter.
Suddenly, Navy started doing everything right. Kubiak drove the team, teaming with Damon Dixon on 19- and 16-yard completions, to move to the Army 2.
Three straight runs by Stramanak resulted in a loss of a yard. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Kubiak rolled right and beat the Army defenders into the end zone. Kubiak passed to Dixon for a two-point conversion to cut Army's lead to 16-8.
In less than two minutes, the Mids scored again. Keith Galloway forced a fumble by Dondra Jolly on the kickoff, and linebacker Matt Kaslik recovered on the Army 19.
After three running plays, Kubiak found tight end Jim Mill on a crossing pattern for an 8-yard score. This time, Navy botched a reverse play on another two-point conversion attempt, and Army led, 16-14.
NOTES: Kubiak, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, was named the game's MVP. His 11 touchdown passes this season were one shy of Grizzard's record, set in 1990. . . . James bounced back from his first-quarter fumble to gain 90 yards on 10 carries. . . . A memorial service for Grizzard will be held at the Naval Academy chapel today at 3 p.m.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun