Colorado Springs, Colo. - Navy hadn't returned a blocked punt for a touchdown since 1999. Nor had one of its kickers made four field goals in a game since then.
But on a day when the offense struggled and the defense was stretched, the Midshipmen got to celebrate, if not party, as if it were 1999 all over again.
Navy blocked two punts for touchdowns and used a 4-for-4 performance by senior kicker Matt Harmon to beat rival Air Force, 33-27, yesterday before a disappointed announced crowd of 46,339 at Falcon Stadium.
"That was heck of a football game. That was a hard-fought game," said Ken Niumatalolo, who became the first Navy coach to win his first service academy game since George Welsh in 1973. "I take my hat off to Air Force. We got lucky. We'll take it, but we got lucky today."
Said senior fullback Eric Kettani: "It feels great. It's unbelievable. I didn't want to be the class that lost. That was one of our goals."
The victory was the sixth straight for the Midshipmen over Air Force (3-2) and 12th in a row over service academy teams. More importantly, it gave Navy (4-2) a significant first step in retaining the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the sixth straight year.
Playing without quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada because of a hamstring injury for the third game this season, Navy never got into sync with senior Jarod Bryant, who, despite rushing for 101 yards, fumbled three times and completed only one pass. The defense allowed the Falcons to amass 411 yards to 244 for the Midshipmen, a season low.
Yet it was Navy's special teams, never considered one of its strengths, that carried the Midshipmen to their third straight win after a 1-2 start.
"Whoever it is, special teams, offense, defense - we're a team," Niumatalolo said. "Somebody's stepping up and making plays. Some guys did."
Blake Carter, a reserve cornerback, made two of the biggest.
After Navy took a 3-0 lead on Harmon's first field goal, Carter returned a blocked punt by Greg Shinego 25 yards for a touchdown. With Navy leading 26-20 with a little more than 10 minutes left in the game, Carter blocked Ryan Harrison's rugby-style punt attempt deep in Air Force territory, and Bobby Doyle fell on the ball in the end zone.
But Carter had company. Junior linebacker Ross Pospisil, who intercepted a pass in each of the past two games, recovered a fumble deep in Air Force territory early in the second half that led to Bryant's 3-yard touchdown to put Navy ahead 20-13. Then there was Kettani.
After rushing for career highs in each of the past two games, Kettani was held to 75 yards on 22 carries. But he showed his athleticism on two plays late in the game, grabbing an onside kick out of the air and then hurtling for a first down on fourth-and-one from the Air Force 34-yard line in the final minute.
Asked about his decision to go for first down, Niumatalolo said: "I didn't want to give them the ball back. I wanted it to be in our hands and decide it. Either we were going to finish it or they were going to get the ball back."
It seemed as if the Falcons didn't want the game to end, twice jumping offside to swipe at a kneeling Bryant in the closing seconds. Kettani and his teammates enjoyed seeing their frustration and knowing that the Commander in Chief's Trophy was not coming back here for at least another year.
"That's nice. That's all I really want to say about that," Kettani said with a wide grin.
Said Niumatalolo: "We're moving on. I'm not thinking that far."
What also pleased the Midshipmen was the way they were able to silence the Falcons, who talked boldly about beating Navy.
"A lot of people don't give us any credit," said Navy sophomore safety Wyatt Middleton, who forced a fumble and had eight tackles. "We don't pay any attention to that. We know the only way to get respect is with our [shoulder] pads, not with our mouths."
When the final gun sounded, the Air Force team and its fans fell silent, and the only thing that could be heard was the Navy band playing "Anchors Aweigh." The Navy players and coaches congregated in the far corner, where their fans, including 700 midshipmen who traveled for the game, were cheering.
Oct. 18, 3:30 p.m.
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