A game that saw Navy run more than twice as many plays as Air Force and come back from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit was decided by a controversial call Saturday — an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for taunting against senior quarterback Kriss Proctor after he had scored the go-ahead touchdown in overtime.
A rivalry that has had its share of close games and crazy finishes over the past decade had its closest and craziest conclusion at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium – a 35-34 victory for the Falcons that was decided when Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson tied the game on a 1-yard touchdown run and Parker Herrington did what Navy's Jon Teague could not by converting the extra point.
Teague, a senior who had set a school record with a 54-yard field goal in the season opener against Delaware but had missed a 26-yard attempt in the second quarter against Air Force, saw what amounted to a 35-yard extra-point try blocked to allow the Falcons an opportunity to win the game on their first possession of overtime.
The touchdown by Jefferson and subsequent point after — set up by a 16-yard pass to Zack Kauth on Air Force's first play in overtime and an interference call in the end zone against cornerback David Wright on a pass intended for Kauth on its second — helped give the Falcons their second straight win over Navy and the inside track to retaining the Commander in Chief's Trophy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a second straight year.
The game-winning extra point set off a wild celebration on the field by Air Force (3-1) and left Navy (2-2) in disbelief after their comeback was aborted by what the Midshipmen and their coach, Ken Niumatalolo, thought was an excessive interpretation of Proctor's actions. Television replays showed Proctor saying something to two Air Force players.
Referee Mike Defee told a pool reporter afterward that Proctor had "gotten in the face" of an Air Force player after scoring a touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons' 3-yard line and that back judge David Vaughan called the 15-yard penalty. Proctor said that after scoring the touchdown and untangling himself from the pile, he tried to run to his team's sideline and an Air Force player got in his way.
"I told him to move, explicitly," Proctor said.
Though Niumatalolo said he didn't see what Proctor was accused of doing, the Navy coach said: "It's a tough call to make in a situation like that. If something is going in that situation, you would hope that a referee would say, 'Settle down, guys'. It's too critical a part of the game to make a call like that. That was a veteran crew; I would hope that they would use more discretion."
Said Navy fullback and senior co-captain Alexander Teich: "It's sad. The game should not come down to a call like that. This is an emotional game; you should know that coming in here as a ref. You are reffing on CBS, the Navy-Air Force game. [As a player], you can't get more psyched for a game like this. We fought back, we worked so hard. … To have it go down like that is pitiful."
The Midshipmen, whose seven-year hold on the Commander in Chief's Trophy and 15-game winning streak against the two other service academies ended with a 14-6 loss to Air Force last year at Falcon Stadium, also blamed themselves for falling too far behind. Air Force scored on its first three possessions, took a 21-3 lead at halftime and led 28-10 with 14:55 remaining in regulation.
"We just really weren't executing in the first half," Teich said. "They were playing 100 miles an hour. It took us awhile to get going, and by the time we did, it was too late."
But the more plays Navy ran — 105 from scrimmage, including 39 in the fourth quarter — an Air Force defense that came in without four injured starters seemed to wear down. Teich, who finished with 148 yards on 35 carries, and Proctor, who finished with 134 yards on 37 carries, led the Midshipmen in their remarkable, yet ill-fated, comeback.
On what many thought would be the game's most crucial play — a 27-yard run to set up a touchdown and tying 2-point conversion with 19 seconds left in regulation — Proctor dodged around and through a half-dozen would-be tacklers. A crowd of an announced 37,506 that had watched silently and even went to tailgate well into the third quarter was suddenly revived along with the Midshipmen. The Falcons seemed on the brink.
"There was no question we ran out of gas," said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose team had lost in overtime in Annapolis in 2009 when it missed a 31-yard field goal attempt.
The Midshipmen's momentum continued into overtime, when Proctor and Teague took turns pounding the ball inside and Proctor scored from the 1. Then came the penalty and the blocked kick. Because of a head wind and the extra 15 yards, Teague tried to drive the ball low. Air Force linebacker Alex Means got his left hand on the ball.
"I felt we had them reeling," Niumatalolo said. "Everything was going our way until that penalty."
The coach wouldn't blame Teague.
"John's a great kicker, John's been great for us all year," Niumatalolo said. "The penalty affected the way he kicked the ball."
Said Navy defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani: "Every year, the game comes down to a special teams play. My hats goes off to those guys."
Niumatalolo, who has been known to shed tears even after victories, was remarkably composed given the way the game ended.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," he said at the start of his news conference. "Congratulations to Air Force. I am proud of our guys and the way they battled. Unfortunately, we came up one point short."
But his composure eventually waned and the fourth-year coach could not hide his anger for the call by the Big 12 Conference officiating crew.
"That is an unfortunate call to make in hard-fought game," he said. "It is a service academy game with two teams who will be serving their country. It was a huge penalty. It changed everything. I hope they [the officials] can sleep well tonight."
An earlier version of this article misidentified Air Force kicker Parker Herrington. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun