Army's three previous victories over Navy were decided by a swing of a kicker's leg -- the clutch ones made by the Cadets and the easy ones flubbed by the Midshipmen.But yesterday at Veterans Stadium, the difference was a strategic error by first-year Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie, who opted for a touchdown try from the Army 1-yard line rather than allow kicker Tom Vanderhorst to try a chip-shot field goal, which would have put Navy ahead by nine points.
Capitalizing on Navy's losing gamble, Army staged a classic 99-yard march in the closing minutes to score with 1:03 left and stun the Midshipmen, 14-13, before a sellout crowd of 68,853 in the traditional season finale.
"Instead of going for the win, we went for the jugular," said Weatherbie, looking red-eyed and emotionally drained. "I'll kick myself from now to next season for not going for the field goal and making them score twice.
"I apologize to Navy fans and my team. Subconsciously, I didn't want it to come down to a kick. But it was a tactical error.
"And it hurts me even more because we would have had a winning season and the seniors, who played so hard, would have had their first victory over Army."
Navy, which finished the year 5-6, has lost the past four meetings with Army by a total of six points, and this one might have been the most painful.
The Cadets' comeback may not be enough to save the job of Army coach Bob Sutton, who went 5-5-1 in the last year of his five-year contract. At the same time, it put a tremendous burden of proof on Weatherbie in future seasons.
In essence, the game came down to Weatherbie's decision to leave plebe Vanderhorst on the sidelines, rather than attempt an 18-yard field goal with Navy leading 13-7 and 8:24 remaining.
Vanderhorst, who won the kicking job this week after spending all season at junior varsity, earlier had kicked field goals from 39 and 22 yards. By adding another three points, Navy would have forced Army to score twice to win.
But after calling a timeout to discuss strategy, Weatherbie went for the touchdown. From the coaches' box, offensive coordinator Paul Johnson instructed sophomore quarterback Chris McCoy to call "328-A-Pop," a simple, quick pass to the slotback.
Cory Schemm broke free in the end zone, but McCoy's pass was under-thrown and bounced short of Schemm's diving attempt.
Led by junior quarterback Ronnie McAda, the Cadets then began a dramatic 19-play, 99-yard march sure to become legendary in West Point sports history.
McAda made several clutch third-down plays to keep the drive alive. Close to being sacked on a third-and-seven play from the Army 44, he threw a screen pass to fullback Demetrius Perry for a 9-yard gain.
But the critical play came after linebacker Fernando Harris and safety Andy Thompson dropped a scrambling McAda for a 12-yard loss on the Navy 29.
Faced with fourth-and-24, McAda eluded a pass rush and found split end John Graves open on the left sideline. Graves, who had outmaneuvered safety Kevin Lewis, was knocked out at the 1-yard line.
"When I went into the huddle, I told our captain, [guard] Joel Davis, 'This is our last chance, so let's make it, and win our fourth in a row over Navy,' " McAda said. "I didn't think they could cover Graves with a strong safety. He ran a great route to get open."
Two plays later, fullback John Conroy, who watched the game from the stands last year, crashed off tackle for the tying touchdown.
The drive lasted 7 minutes, 20 seconds. J. Parker kicked the deciding extra point, and the Corps of Cadets roared in approval.
After the kickoff, the Midshipmen had 63 seconds remaining to move into field-goal range, but no timeouts.
Their first play from their 30 was a run up the middle by Tim Cannada after quarterback Ben Fay was forced to call an audible.
A 26-yard completion to Astor Heaven and a 7-yard run by Fay advanced the ball to the Army 37. But Fay's last-second pass into the end zone was intercepted by defensive back Donald Augustus.
"I imagine our drive will go down as one of the greatest in Army history," said Sutton, "But as important as that drive was, our defense stopped them from scoring. It seemed like they were going for a field goal for sure, but we still had to stop them from a yard out."
The electrifying closing minutes made it easy to forget what had occurred previously. Navy jumped to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes after senior defensive end Andy Person recovered McAda's fumble on the Army 22.
On second down, Fay threw a 22-yard bullet to wide receiver LeBron Butts, who was wide-open in the end zone. Vanderhorst then converted his first varsity extra-point attempt.
Army tied it in the second quarter, thanks to a tipped 15-yard pass to Graves that gave the Cadets a first down on the Navy 6. On third down, Conroy made a 1-yard dive for the first of his two touchdowns.
Just before the first half ended, Navy missed a chance to regain the lead when senior wide receiver Matt Scornavacchi dropped a 32-yard pass from Fay in the end zone.
Perhaps Person, playing before relatives and friends in his hometown of Philadelphia, best summed up Navy's despair.
"They all hurt," he said of his four defeats against Army, "but this was the most frustrating. This is my senior year. My last chance. But life goes on."