PHILADELPHIA -- 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.
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.
But Fay, under heavy pressure, never came close to completing another pass, and, on fourth down, cornerback Garland Gay stepped in front of Cory Schemm to intercept Fay's wobbly toss and dash any last-second hopes.
In the end, the Midshipmen might concede this was a game Army (10-1) deserved to win after making the biggest comeback in the 97-year history of the series.
Navy managed only a 31-yard field goal by Tom Vanderhorst in the second half while Army senior quarterback Ronnie McAda, voted the game's most valuable player, controlled the clock and the ball (15 carries, 134 yards).
All three of Navy's touchdowns came in a wild 4 1/2 -minute second-quarter spurt after Army had gained a 3-0 lead on J. Parker's 22-yard field goal.
McCoy directed a 12-play, 76-yard march for Navy's first touchdown on a 7-yard run by Pat McGrew.
The Mids made it 14-3 on McCoy's 15-yard pass to Butts, and appeared in control when tackle Nate Johnston's fumble recovery on the Army 20 led to a 2-yard McCoy touchdown run for a 21-3 lead.
But then all the momentum turned Army's way. The Cadets, who scored the last 10 points of the second quarter, stunned the Mids in the opening minute of the second half when halfback Bobby Williams, on a play called "69 Tango," took a pitch from McAda and raced 81 yards untouched down the left sideline.
Army moved ahead 25-21 later in the quarter. McAda broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, juked cornerback Robert Green and ran 45 yards to the Navy 18. Six plays later, fullback Demetrius Perry bulled over from the 3.
Vanderhorst's field goal pulled Navy within a point to close the third quarter. But Parker's third field goal, from 20 yards with 6: 35 left, forced Navy to go for a touchdown in the last minutes.
Nelson, a senior playing his last regular-season game, may have summed it up best.
"I don't want to say we're cursed against Army or that we gave the game away," he said. "I'd rather say, they took it away."
Five and 10
Army has beaten Navy five straight games by a combined total of 10 points:
Year .. Score .. .. .. Margin
1992 .. Army, 25-24 .. 1
1993 .. Army, 16-14 .. 2
1994 .. Army, 22-20 .. 2
1995 .. Army, 14-13 .. 1
1996 .. Army, 28-24 .. 4
Pub Date: 12/08/96.