Navy senior safety Jeremy McGown is no fan of moral victories. But after Saturday's heartbreaking 25-24 loss to Boston College in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, McGown talked of a message the Midshipmen had delivered.
"I think the program may have taken a step forward [in defeat]," McGown said. "I'm glad for the guys coming back next year. They should have the confidence, knowing we can go out and play with an ACC team and dominate in a lot of aspects of the game."
Trying to beat a ranked team in a bowl game for the first time since 1958, the Midshipmen fell short when a fumble by normally sure-handed slotback Reggie Campbell set up a last-second, 37-yard field goal by BC's sophomore kicker, Steve Aponavicius.
Despite losing that way, confidence is not lacking among the Midshipmen, who will say goodbye to possibly their best senior class ever.
Besides going 35-15 and winning two of four bowl games, it became the first class to play in four straight bowls and run the table against Army and Air Force. It also set the modern-day record for wins by a Navy class and came within one victory of tying the all-time record set by the Class of 1908.
Although the departing seniors will leave a hole - 12 starters, including eight on defense, led by remarkably versatile linebacker David Mahoney - the program looks too established to stumble.
The Navy offense lost three starters during the year, but it still won its third NCAA rushing title in the past four seasons and averaged 28.4 points.
Senior quarterback Brian Hampton and junior right tackle Josh Meek went down with knee injuries in midseason, and junior fullback Adam Ballard broke his lower leg a month ago against Army. That allowed sophomore quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, sophomore tackle Andrew McGinn and sophomore fullback Eric Kettani to emerge.
Campbell and fellow slotbacks Shun White and Zerbin Singleton will return, as will Antron Harper, who is expected to move from right guard to center. Sophomore receiver Tyree Barnes should fill the shoes of Jason Tomlinson. Senior offensive line starters James Rossi, Zach Gallion and Matt Pritchett will move on and make way for already-productive players such as sophomore tackle Anthony Gaskins and junior guard Ben Gabbard.
Defensively, the front seven will be extremely young, yet don't underestimate the potential of freshman nose tackles Nate Frazier and Andy Lark, who missed the season with a broken leg. They are two of the bigger and more promising recruits under fifth-year coach Paul Johnson. Junior Irv Spencer and sophomore Clint Sovie are proven and will anchor the linebacker unit.
The secondary will miss McGown and cornerback Keenan Little, but sophomore cornerback Rashawn King and freshman safety Jeromy Miles started most of the year, and freshman Blake Carter looks like a future force at cornerback, as does sophomore safety Ketric Buffin.
"I'm proud of the last four years for [the seniors]. Hopefully, they've laid a foundation for the program," said Johnson, who was denied his 100th career victory on Saturday and figures to collect it in the 2007 season opener at Temple.
"I wanted them to win. I'm going to have other games [to coach]. They deserved to go out winning this game."
Navy's defense forced five punts and picked off All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team quarterback Matt Ryan twice. Its triple option countered the Eagles' massive size inside by exploiting the perimeter. It threw the ball downfield effectively enough to lead for nearly the final 50 minutes. Despite all that, Navy (9-4) could not overcome its errors.
During the second half, when the Mids bogged down and punted four straight times, two holding penalties stalled drives, including one right before the fateful fumble. The Eagles, led by Ryan, made Navy pay, and not just at the end. First, they turned an early fumble by senior fullback Matt Hall into the game's first touchdown.
Boston College later turned a failed onside kick attempt into a touchdown drive that cut Navy's second-quarter lead to 14-13. The Eagles then drove quickly down the field for a field goal at the end of the first half - cutting the margin to 21-16 - after Johnson went for a first down on fourth-and-one at the BC 19, instead of trying for a field goal that could have put the Midshipmen up by 11 points.
The Eagles overcame their mistakes, which included a missed extra point early by Aponavicius and a two-point conversion pass dropped by Tony Gonzalez after Ryan had completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ryan Purvis to pull the Eagles to within 24-22 with 7:27 left.
"We're not going to hang our heads and sulk about it," Navy senior linebacker Tyler Tidwell said. "We've done a lot of great things for the last four years, and we're going to take pride in that for the rest of our lives."