Navy football faces a tough task this Saturday with unbeaten and second-ranked Cincinnati coming to town.
The struggling Midshipmen (1-5) are more than three-touchdown underdogs going into the noon matchup at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, the powerful Bearcats (6-0) are on a mission to become the first Group of Five program to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff and have been steamrolling all comers.
As the Midshipmen get ready for the greatest challenge of the season, they can take encouragement from the knowledge it has happened before.
On Nov. 17, 1984, a Navy squad in the midst of a disappointing losing season rose to the occasion and stunned second-ranked South Carolina, 38-21. It ranks as one of the greatest upsets in program history and continues to serve as a lesson to future teams that proper preparation combined with an innovate game plan can produce a surprising result.
Back in 1984, there was one other factor involved. South Carolina, which came into the contest with a 9-0 record and under consideration for a berth in the prestigious Orange Bowl, overlooked 3-5-1 Navy, which had just been beaten 29-0 by Syracuse.
“I don’t think South Carolina came here to play. They were expecting a walkover,” Navy linebacker Mike Taylor said afterward.
Navy coach Gary Tranquil agreed with that assessment and thinks South Carolina was looking ahead to its showdown with in-state rival Clemson the following week.
“South Carolina probably came in a little overconfident,” Tranquill said.
Tranquill served as an assistant under former Navy head coach George Welsh from 1973 to 1976. He moved on to Ohio State, then served as defensive coordinator at West Virginia before being brought back to Annapolis to succeed Welsh, who was lured away by Virginia.
Tranquill became the second head coach to lead Navy to a winning record in his first season on the job, going 6-5 in 1982. The Midshipmen slipped to 3-8 the following season, although a commanding 42-13 walloping of archrival Army at the Rose Bowl provided hope.
Welsh’s staff had recruited well toward the end of his successful nine-year tenure and Tranquill inherited some good players. However, Navy suffered a big blow early in the 1984 campaign when star tailback Napoleon McCallum, who was being promoted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, suffered a broken ankle and was lost for the season.
An impressive 33-30 season-opening victory over North Carolina on the road was followed by losses to Virginia, Arkansas and service academy rival Air Force. Navy briefly righted the ship with back-to-back blowout wins over Lehigh and Princeton, then tied Pittsburgh, 28-28.
Tranquill and many players point toward a controversial defeat at Notre Dame as a missed opportunity to change the course of the season. The Midshipmen led the Fighting Irish by two points late, but had a punt blocked. That enabled the Fighting Irish to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired and escape with an 18-17 win.
To this day, Tranquill and every member of the 1984 squad insists the snap for the field goal came after the clock ran out. Tranquill described the players as being “deflated” by the sudden turn of events, and the Midshipmen did not bounce back.
One week later, Navy was pretty much a no-show in the shutout loss at Syracuse. Starting quarterback Bill Byrne sustained a broken leg against Notre Dame and was replaced by backup Bob Misch, who was sacked six times and knocked down many more by the Orangemen.
“That Notre Dame loss kind of took the wind out of our sails,” Navy defensive captain Eric Rutherford said. “Syracuse was easily the worst game we played all season.”
Rising to the occasion
Rutherford described the Midshipmen as being “angry and upset” about the way the 1984 season had progressed and were determined to make amends. That squad featured a large contingent of seniors and they wanted to go out the right way in their final home game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“We were so disappointed about not living up to expectations,” Rutherford said. “We wanted to give the Brigade of Midshipmen a great win.”
Tranquill and the coaching staff sowed the seeds for success by installing sound game plans and getting the scout team to accurately mimic South Carolina on both sides of the ball. Whenever Navy went good on good during practice, play got chippy with lots of pushing, shoving and woofing.
“I remember that being one of the best weeks of practice in my four years. It seemed like everybody was dialed in and it was personal,” Navy starting center Gregg Sears said.
Also, all the returning players remembered what happened the previous season during a 31-7 loss at South Carolina. The Gamecocks disrespected the Midshipmen in many ways, such as standing over fallen players and trash-talking.
“I think we thought they were going to try to come in and embarrass us like they had the year before,” Sears said. “Everyone brought their ‘A’ game because we were committed to showing we had pride and were going to defend our home turf.”
Defensive coordinator Bobby Morrison installed a scheme Navy had not used all season and had his troops well prepared for the option running plays South Carolina employed. Tranquill, who served as his own offensive coordinator, devised some running schemes designed to take advantage of the Gamecocks’ aggressive “fire ants” defense, so nicknamed because they swarmed the ball.
South Carolina, which had beaten two ranked teams in Georgia and Florida State, was in contention for the national championship. Representatives of the Orange Bowl committee came to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to scout the Gamecocks, who had a large contingent of their rabid fans in attendance.
Offensive captain Mark Stevens got a feeling the game was going to go Navy’s way following the pregame coin flip. Tranquill had instructed Stevens to defer if the Midshipmen won the toss and that’s exactly what he did.
However, the South Carolina captain wasn’t paying attention and told the referee the visitors would defend the south end zone. As a result, Navy got the ball to start both the first and second halves.
None that it mattered initially since Misch tossed an interception on the first play from scrimmage. He threw behind Stevens and the ball was picked off by a linebacker, who had a clear path to the end zone and inexplicably ran out of bounds at the 25-yard line.
“That was a stupid mistake and the first indication that maybe South Carolina wasn’t focused,” Misch said.
Navy’s defense thwarted that opportunity, forcing a three-and-out with Rutherford breaking into the backfield to block a 35-yard field goal attempt.
“Blocking the field goal was a major turning point,” said Rutherford, who hailed from Boulder, Colorado.
Navy’s offense would have no more slip-ups with Misch directing two first-half touchdown drives. He threw a 15-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Chris Weiler, who made a spectacular leaping catch in the end zone. Mike Smith, arguably the most undersized fullback in college football history at 5-foot-8, had the first of two touchdown runs to make it 14-7 at halftime.
“At halftime, I knew we were going to win. Their gameplan was totally wrong and their heads weren’t in the game,” Rutherford recalled.
Navy blew open the game in the third quarter with tailback Rich Clouse breaking loose for a 53-yard touchdown run on the very first play from scrimmage. It came on a play known as “36 wham” to the weak side with the fullback delivering the lead block on the linebacker.
“I’ll always remember that long run. Clouse hit the hole and was gone,” Tranquill said. “That’s when South Carolina really got worried.”
Stevens recalled the coaching staff changed the entire blocking scheme for that play, a halftime adjustment that paid major dividends.
“Whenever we got a certain defensive look, we ran that play with the different blocking assignments and Rich picked up at least eight yards every time,” he said.
Navy’s offensive line of Sears, right tackle Rich Coombs, right guard Doug Rhodes, left guard Mark Long and left tackle Bill Gable dominated the trenches. Misch was on target throughout with Weiler amassing 108 yards on six receptions.
“I was really impressed with Bobby Misch, who did a great job of running the offense that day,” Tranquill said.
Navy did not respect the passing ability of South Carolina quarterbacks Mike Hold and Alan Mitchell and therefore loaded the box to take away the run. After having little success on the ground, the Gamecocks got desperate and started throwing the ball downfield in the second half.
Strong safety Joey Papetti picked off a pass to set up a field goal by Todd Solomon that made it 24-7. One play later, Taylor notched the first of two interceptions, which led to an 11-yard touchdown toss from Misch to Weiler.
“South Carolina started taking some deep shots and our linebackers and defensive backs were always in good position,” said Rutherford, praising the likes of Papetti, Taylor, cornerback Tom Metzger and safety Mark Firlie.
Tranquill had devised a “check with me” strategy that enabled Misch to audible out of one play into another depending on the look he got from the defense.
“We had a blitz package, and that second touchdown pass came after I audibled because I realized a blitz would leave Stevens wide open,” Misch said.
Rutherford played the greatest game of his career, repeatedly overpowering South Carolina offensive lineman Del Wilkes – a consensus All-American in 1984. He was personally responsible for losses of 57 yards with the four sacks and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“Everything was moving in slow motion that day,” said Rutherford, who served in the Marine Corps and was later employed by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.
Chad Van Hulzen, Navy’s other defensive tackle, was all over the field and finished with 17 tackles. Taylor piled up 16 tackles, while Firlie was credited with 13. Papetti, a South River High product, had a fumble recovery to go along with his interception as the Midshipmen forced five turnovers.
“Our defense played lights out and just kept giving the offense the ball back,” Misch said.
Misch remembers being carried off the field by his two older brothers, who came from their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. In the locker room, he was given the game ball by Rutherford.
“I was extremely honored and humbled because so many other players were more deserving of the game ball,” he said.
Stevens, who hailed from Hialeah, Florida, particularly enjoyed the shocking upset because he had originally signed with South Carolina. “That win took the sting out of a very frustrating season,” he said.
Normally mild-mannered Tranquill smiled broadly and puffed on a victory cigar in the locker room afterward. “Coach Tranquill was beside himself with happiness. I’d never seen coach so excited,” Papetti said.
Of course, the seniors were in tears after earning the biggest victory of their careers in their final game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“We really came from nowhere to win that game. It was just a magical moment for our team,” Rutherford said.
Navy could not maintain the momentum and lost 28-11 to a resurgent Army squad that wound up winning the Cherry Bowl over Michigan State. South Carolina, which dropped to seventh in the Associated Press poll, beat Clemson in the regular season finale but had to settle for playing in the Gator Bowl, losing to No. 9 Oklahoma State to finish 10-2.
Tranquill ran into the South Carolina athletic director Bob Marcum at a coaches’ convention and got an earful. “You bastards cost us a lot of money,” Marcum said.
Many years later, whenever Navy football faces a Top 10 opponent, memories of the 1984 upset of No. 2 South Carolina are revived.
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“Whenever we get together, we certainly talk about that game. That memory will live on in our minds and hearts forever,” Rutherford said.