LANDOVER -- The Air Force Falcons were ripe for a grounding yesterday, but Navy couldn't quite bring them down to earth.
In a game reminiscent of so many recent heartbreaking endings against Army, the Midshipmen frittered away two late scoring opportunities and dropped a 19-14 decision before 46,450 at Redskins Stadium.
This one hurt, coming against the haughty service academy that Navy's players love to hate.
"Of course," quarterback Brian Broadwater replied when asked if it was tougher to take than earlier narrow defeats to Boston College and Rice. "We were playing Air Force, and our No. 1 goal is the Commander in Chief's Trophy [which the Mids haven't won since 1981]. You have to go through Air Force, and we came up short."
It was a game of what-ifs for the Midshipmen (2-4), whose defense dominated the first half by holding the Falcons to 67 net offensive yards, stumbled in the third quarter, then turned tough again while the offense tried to mount a rally.
Behind 19-14, the Midshipmen launched one final thrust from their 36 with 1: 53 remaining in the game. Broadwater completed five passes to move to the Falcons' 7 where, with no timeouts left, Navy strangely ran the ball. Broadwater was stopped for no gain.
That play and subsequent spiking of the ball consumed 21 seconds, leaving Navy only six seconds and one more play. As the game clock expired, Broadwater threw toward his tallest receiver, Travis Williams, just inside the end line of the end zone. The pass was high and slightly behind him, and Williams would have had to make a circus catch to win the game.
Broadwater admitted, "I made a bad decision" when he tried to get inside the Air Force defense on the running play.
"Our whole staff agreed on that play," coach Charlie Weatherbie said. "You have to run the ball out of bounds, not up inside with it. It doesn't matter if you lose yards with no time left."
That was the most glaring of Navy's inability to convert in crucial situations.
Earlier in the fourth quarter -- after the longest Navy completion of the season, a 54-yard touchdown play to Brandon Rampani, had trimmed the deficit to five -- Air Force (4-1) followed with a fumbled pitch on the next play from scrimmage that gave the Midshipmen the ball at the Air Force 26. It was the second fumble recovery of the day for Navy's Gino Marchetti.
The Midshipmen were snake-bitten twice on this possession. On second down, John Vereen (Severn) was 10 yards behind the nearest defender, with only the end zone in front of him, but failed to handle Broadwater's pass.
"You saw it like I did," Vereen said. "The ball was in my hands and I let it go. And I let the game go."
Two plays later, Navy's Tim Shubzda's 34-yard field-goal attempt struck high on the right upright, preventing the team from closing to within two points.
"We had an opportunity to win several times and didn't seize the moment," Weatherbie said. "I think we are as good as Air Force. We just did not take it."
The first half was telling as well. Navy's inspired defense kept the Falcons from making a first down on four straight possessions and did not permit them into Mids territory until midway in the second quarter. A fumbled pitch recovered by Marchetti stopped Air Force's biggest threat of the half at the Navy 12.
Meanwhile, the Navy offense sputtered and stumbled after a nine-play, 74-yard march to a touchdown the second time it had the ball. Navy's 7-0 halftime lead seemed miniscule considering its defensive domination.
"We challenged our players a bit at the half," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said. "We weren't playing at the level we needed, so we appealed to their pride a little bit, and they made up their minds they were going to come out a more determined team."
"We realized how hard they were playing, and we decided to pick it up," said quarterback Mike Thiessen, who subbed for injured starter Cale Bonds and produced his second straight 100-yard rushing game with 108 yards. "We started running over people instead of finessing them."
Air Force mounted a 15-play drive to a Jackson Whiting field goal after the second-half kickoff, got David Adams' first field goal of the year from 49 yards out on its next offensive series and took the lead on a 53-yard touchdown run by Thiessen on its third possession.
After a Navy fumble, the Falcons increased their advantage to 19-7 by scoring again on their fourth series of the half on a 1-yard plunge by fullback Jeremy Laster.
"They just started running a few counters and reverses, and it took us awhile to get adjusted," Marchetti said.
Next for Navy
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Oct. 23, noon
Yesterday: Beat Ohio, 41-28.