After watching Army win the last five games in their football rivalry by a total of 10 points, Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel said, "I think the Lord is wearing black and gold."One could hardly blame Lengyel for such thoughts. For again yesterday the Midshipmen let opportunity and an 18-point lead slip away, losing to the resourceful Cadets, 28-24, before 69,238 at rain-soaked Veterans Stadium.

In past years, botched field goals, questionable coaching and underthrown passes doomed the Midshipmen.

This time, they carried their frustration to new heights, failing to score on eight plays within the Army 10-yard line.

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In the end, the Midshipmen had not only suffered another bitter loss, but also lost their chance to capture the Commander in Chief's Trophy and clinch an invitation to the Independence Bowl.

There is still a remote chance Navy (8-3) could get invited to the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii, depending on today's Bowl Alliance resolution. But that was hardly on the mind of coach Charlie Weatherbie or his distraught players as they left the field.

"It hurts like heck," said Weatherbie, who, last year apologized to the team after a losing gamble led to Army's 14-13 victory.

"We had our chances today leading 21-3. At that point, you have to put them away. But we didn't do the fundamental things you need to win. We missed scoring opportunities in the first half after forcing turnovers, and dropped some key passes in the last 2 1/2 minutes. But give Army credit. They made a lot of big plays to come back when they had to."

It was almost too painful for Weatherbie to renumerate his team's blown chances in the closing minutes, starting with a first-and-goal from the 4 after Astor Heaven's 43-yard catch.

A run by fullback Omar Nelson (18 carries, 74 yards) moved the ball to the 2. Then everything turned sour.

Navy was penalized 5 yards for a false start when a lineman jumped offside, pushing the ball back to the 7. "That penalty really hurt us," said Nelson. "It took away a lot of things we could run close to the goal line, especially for a team that likes to pound it out."

On second down, quarterback Chris McCoy threw a low pass that wide receiver LeBron Butts failed to catch in the end zone.

"All season long, we've had 'low-ball' drills in practice," said Butts. "It's a ball I should catch."

On third down, Weatherbie tried to surprise Army with a trap play, but Nelson managed only 2 yards to the 5.

"It had a chance to work," said Nelson. "Their free safety took a gamble and came up quick. If he doesn't get me, I score."

The series ended when McCoy's pass bounced off Butts' hands in the corner of the end zone.

"That was another play I should have made," said Butts.

DTC After an Army punt to the Navy 43, the Midshipmen had one last chance with 56 seconds left. With no timeouts, Weatherbie turned to senior quarterback Ben Fay, considered a superior passer to McCoy.

For a few tantalizing seconds, it appeared Fay, Navy's co-captain, might emerge the game hero.

His consecutive sideline completions to Heaven and Neal Plaskonos and an Army holding penalty advanced the ball to the Army 10 with 40 seconds remaining.