It was early in the fourth quarter and Navy appeared on the verge on its fourth straight shutout loss when junior fullback Cleavon Smith took the handoff on a play that may prove to turn the season around for the Midshipmen.
The play began on the North Carolina 9-yard line and ended with Smith offering a pleading look to the officials with his fully extended arms barely reaching the goal line. A couple of seconds later he realized he had gone where no Navy player this season had gone before -- the end zone.
"I didn't know if they were going to call it a touchdown or not," Smith said yesterday. "When I saw the official's hands go up, I was just relieved."
As was every other individual on the visiting sideline as the Midshipmen scored their first points of the season with 12:26 left that pulled Navy to 20-7. After losing its first three games by shutouts, Navy even had visions of beating the Tar Heels after pulling to 20-14, but eventually lost, 28-14. Navy dropped to 0-4, but Smith's scoring run appeared to awaken an offense that is last in Division I-A in scoring offense (3.5 points per game) and had failed to end a drive inside an opponent's 30-yard line.
"After I scored, the first thing I did was look up at the clock," Smith said. "And I said, 'Can we get two more of these?' "
The Midshipmen will need quite a few scores on Saturday if they want to be in the position in the fourth quarter to beat Air Force (4-1). The Falcons are averaging 27.2 points and, with their option offense, lead the Western Athletic Conference in rushing offense (252.4 yards per game).
Recent history will not be on the side of the Midshipmen, who have failed to score more than seven points in their past three games against the Falcons. Navy coach George Chaump is hopeful that surviving the North Carolina game with no serious injuries will benefit his team.
"Our defense is intact, our offense is intact," Chaump said. "For the first time this season we have the same players two weeks in a row."
That includes Smith who, because of injuries that have depleted the quarterback and running back positions, will be making his second career start. Listed as the third-string fullback on the preseason depth chart, Smith is the starting fullback in the new I-bone formation that features three running backs in a wishbone-type offense that uses the skills of quarterback Jason Van Matre.
"It was basically the offense that we've run all season, with an extra back," Smith said. "It's not hard to adjust to at all."
And Smith is hoping he can improve on his new role as a starter. Against North Carolina he had 13 carries for a career-high 61 yards.
"Playing more is just something you work for -- you go to practice and you hope you'll get a chance," Smith said. "When you play you hope that they have enough confidence in you to give you the ball."
It's Smith's hope that his touchdown will change the team's luck.