CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For the Navy football team, three weeks of being shut out, battered and ridiculed had been long and trying. So the huge ovation received from the Navy fans on hand yesterday had to be especially uplifting for players and coaches.
No, Navy didn't win -- although going through a game without losing a quarterback to injury could be considered a moral
victory. But after playing more than 227 minutes of scoreless football (that's just over 15 quarters), the Midshipmen -- with a totally revamped offense -- erupted for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and even had visions of winning before eventually losing to Noth Carolina, 28-14, before 42,000 at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
In terms of wins and losses, the Midshipmen are still 0-4 and still need to make major steps to become a solid football team. But the fact that the team finally scored -- and was in position to possibly win late in the fourth quarter -- should be a confidence builder.
"It's just getting better and better each week," said Navy linebacker Javier Zuluaga, who had 17 tackles. "It's like you have so much anger in your head you let loose. We're going to explode on somebody soon."
Going into yesterday's game having been outscored 121-0 in its first three games, a Navy field goal would have been considered an explosion.
So one could imagine the celebration on the Navy sideline after tailback Cleavon Smith scored on a 9-yard run that made the score 20-7 with 12:56 left in the game. It spared the players from becoming the only Navy team to be shut out in four straight games.
"It was a good feeling, it broke the ice a little," Smith said. "The team realized that we were capable of scoring."
Despite Smith's touchdown, North Carolina, which had blown countless scoring opportunities, still appeared to be in control.
But the Navy defense, which played well for most of the game, came through on North Carolina's next possession when backup quarterback Mike Thomas fumbled while under a heavy rush.
The ball was recovered by Navy strong safety Steve Lipsey on the North Carolina 29.
Three plays later, facing third-and-eight, Navy quarterback Jason Van Matre threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tom Pritchard and Navy trailed just 20-14 with 8:31 left.
"A guy was coming at me a full speed and I was prepared to take a big hit," said Pritchard, who caught four passes for 46 yards. "Everyone was so excited and it was a great feeling. We were ready to win."
The Midshipmen were looking to duplicate the late-game heroics they pulled off here three years ago in a 12-7 win over the Tar Heels that at the time snapped a 21-game losing streak against Division I-A schools.
But this time, North Carolina did not fold at the end.
Tailback Natrone Means (18 carries, 112 yards) started North Carolina's next possession with a 14-yard run. Later, quarterback Jason Stanicek, who returned after being pulled in the third quarter, threw a 21-yard pass to split end Corey Holliday (career-high nine catches for 152 yards) to the Navy 30. On the next play Means found a hole around the right side and ran into the end zone. A two-point conversion gave the Tar Heels a 28-14 lead with 6:22 left.
"If we had stopped them on that last drive we had them on the ropes," said Navy coach George Chaump. "Our defense played good football. I've got to be satisfied with the improvement of every phase of our game."
The Navy offense went with a three-back offense for the first time this season to make better use of Van Matre's skills. The offense came out in I-bone formation with Jeff Williams, Cleavon Smith and Lionel Hines behind Van Matre in the backfield. Combined, the three backs had a career 12 rushes for 46 yards. But injuries to the backfield, including three quarterbacks, forced the change from the pro-set passing offense Chaump had envisioned with Jim Kubiak as his quarterback.
"We had to do something radically different with new quarterbacks and a new system," Chaump said. "It was our only hope."
The new system had difficulty moving the ball in the first half, gaining just 135 yards in total offense. But the offense did post its best effort of the season with 321 total yards. Its previous best was 225 yards against Boston College.
"Today was the first time a lot of guys got snaps, and the backs really hung in there," said Van Matre, still hurting from the hip-pointer suffered last week. "We have so many people injured that you just have to go."
Despite the offensive improvement, Navy lost three of six fumbles. Van Matre lost two of four fumbles, and tailback Monty Williams lost a fumble on the North Carolina 20 late in the third quarter.
"You can't win a game with that many turnovers," Van Matre said. "We just made a lot of mistakes we couldn't overcome. Once we do, we'll be a good ballclub."
With the exception of some costly missed tackles, it was another improved outing for the Navy defense.
"I want to congratulate Navy for its effort. They've had a tough start against a difficult schedule, but they fought hard throughout the game," said Carolina coach Mack Brown.
Next week Navy is at Air Force and will be in search of the only real prize available to the team -- the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy that goes to the winner of the series between the three academies.
After showing some forms of life against North Carolina -- and by scoring for the first time -- the Midshipmen are looking forward to next week.
"Our defense played well, we had good scoring drives in the fourth quarter -- we are close to putting it all together," Pritchard said. "I really think the next game it's going to happen."