It has been nine years since the Naval Academy football team and its supporters staged the kind of wild celebration that followed yesterday's come-from-behind, 28-24 victory over Air Force before a record Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium crowd of 35,753.
Not since 1984, when the Midshipmen upset visiting and second-ranked South Carolina, 38-31, has the same outpouring of emotion been seen here.
Navy coach George Chaump was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players, feeling euphoric after ending Air Force's 11-game winning streak in the inter-service rivalry and improving the Mids' record to 3-2.
The losing streak, capped by last year's bitter 18-16 defeat on a Falcons field goal resulting from a disputed non-fumble call, had led to bad feelings between the academies.
"I hate their guys," said Navy fullback Brad Stramanak, who ran for three touchdowns for the second time this season, including the game-winning, 1-yard dive with 7:21 remaining. "They were cocky and arrogant when they beat us in the past. I don't like their uniforms or their coaching staff. I really wanted to beat them this time."
It was this strong motive for revenge that spurred Navy's second-half comeback after two fumbles by junior quarterback Jim Kubiak led to two Falcons touchdowns and a 24-14 Air Force lead late in the third quarter.
But Kubiak, who passed for 304 yards, including a near-record, 74-yard touchdown toss to Jim Screen to start the second half, again proved resilient.
Early in the fourth quarter, Kubiak teamed up with wide receiver Matt Scornavacchi on a 46-yard pass that moved the ball to the Air Force 44.
The Mids drove to the 19, and an 18-yard pass to all-purpose back Jason Van Matre advanced the ball to the Falcons' 1. Two plays later, Stramanak sliced into the end zone, and Dave Gwinn's conversion cut the deficit to 24-21 with 8:54 left.
"I felt at that point if we could hold them deep in their territory and give the ball back to our offense, we'd find a way to win," said defensive tackle Javier Zuluaga (17 tackles).
Zuluaga took matters into his own hands. Defensive back Grover Favors jarred the ball loose from quarterback Scott Teigen and ++ Zuluaga recovered on the Air Force 17.
Kubiak then found Damon Dixon on a sideline pattern that pushed the ball to the 3. Two plays later, Stramanak dived in for the winning points.
Air Force, which has lost five straight since an opening win over Indiana State, had plenty of time to mount a comeback. But unlike last week's frustrating, last-second loss to Tulane, the Mids produced big defensive stops when needed.
Defensive back Jim Hart, whose interception stopped a last-minute comeback attempt by Bowling Green earlier this year, picked off Teigen on the Air Force 35 on the Falcons' next possession.
Air Force then missed a chance to get the ball back when it was charged with roughing punter Brian Schrum on the Navy 39. The Mids retained possession and marched to the Air Force 13 before a fumble by fullback Billy James gave the Falcons a final chance.
But the Air Force wishbone was incapable of making a big play and was caught with only 10 players on the field in its final possession. Navy took over on the Air Force 25 and ran out the clock, precipitating the wild, on-field celebration.
After watching his team commit 10 turnovers in the previous two games, Chaump was relieved to not let this one slip away.
"I wondered when things were finally going to go our way," said the fourth-year coach. "We got a big break when that fumble set up our last touchdown. But our defense did an excellent job of stopping their options in their second half."
Sophomore Demond Cash, who had won the starting job over Teigen, had the Mids on their heels with his darting runs on keeper plays in the first half, when the Falcons gained 177 yards rushing and a 10-0 lead.
But when his interception ended another scoring drive late in the second quarter, Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry switched to Teigen, a lightly tested senior. The Falcons rushed for only 100 yards in the second half and might have gone scoreless if not for the Navy turnovers.
Asked about the psychological effect of ending the Falcons' streak, Chaump said, "Well, I only experienced the last three losses. To me, it's more important that our football program is on the rise. We're really seeing signs of progress."
NOTES: Kubiak tied a Navy mark with his fourth 200-yard-plus passing game of the season. He also has three 300-yard games despite missing all but part of last year's opening game. . . . Navy has a step up on the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy competition, symbolic of supremacy among the service academy football teams. Air Force has won the past four.
NEXT FOR NAVY:
When: Saturday, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis.
Yesterday: Lost to Penn, 30-12. Colgate's Bill Sparacio rushed for 108 yards on 25 carries. He scored both of the Red Raiders' TDs.