ANNAPOLIS, Md. - A pair of gray-haired couples, clearly the witnesses of countless Saturdays of Navy football, couldn’t stop talking about what they had just seen.
“It doesn’t,” one observed, “get any more exciting than that.”
In this, or any series, it does not.
Navy’s 48-45 victory over Air Force packed every bit of theater one can hope to absorb in 3 hours, 36 minutes of football. The 50th meeting between the schools saw nearly every offensive record in the series fall. It saw the Midshipmen build a 31-10 lead in the third quarter. It saw the Falcons rally back to take a lead in the final two minutes behind the most prolific day for an offensive player in program history. And it saw unbeaten Navy stay that way with a 16-yard touchdown pass into traffic with 15 seconds left.
It saw a grizzled, veteran linebacker leaving in tears one side, and thousands of Midshipmen rushing the field in jubilation on the other.
The game was also contested in front of 38,792 — the most to ever see a game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Nope, it doesn’t get more exciting. Even for the losers.
“It’s awesome. It’s everything they tell us about,” Air Force receiver Ronald Cleveland said. “When you’re on your official visits, they tell you there’s nothing like service academy games. It lived up to the hype.”
Navy (5-0) was on the verge of turning this game into a runaway. The Midshipmen outscored Air Force 21-3 in the second quarter, taking advantage of a short field for all three scoring drives. Two were set up by Falcons turnovers — a fumble by Arion Worthman on a sack and a mishandled pitch between Worthman and tailback Tim McVey — and another resulted when punter Charlie Scott dropped a snap and then rushed a 24-yard punt. Those three scoring drives covered just 126 combined yards.
The Midshipmen then kicked a field goal on the opening drive of the second half to go up by 21. Air Force (1-4), which had already lost three straight, looked out of it.
But then, Worthman took over.
The Falcons’ junior quarterback directed touchdown-scoring drives on Air Force’s first five possessions of the second half. In the process, he threw for 257 yards and two scores, rushed for 139 and two more scores and even caught a 24-yard pass. His 396 yards of total offense (receiving is not calculated in the statistic) set a team record.
“We didn’t quit,” Worthman said. “We kept fighting until the very end. It was just a matter of who was going to get the ball last.”
The Air Force defense, which surrendered 557 yards — including a series-record 471 rushing yards for the Midshipmen — finally sprang to life late in the second half. Over three Navy possessions the Falcons forced a punt, a field goal and another punt, coming with 2 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in the game, that allowed Air Force to finally overcome the deficit.
But the go-ahead score — a 51-yard pass from Worthman to Marcus Bennett — came too quickly.
“In our eyes, we felt we would score,” Navy quarterback Zach Abey said.
Sure enough, Navy took the ball with 1:53 on the clock, converted an early fourth down, and then finished it with 16-yard touchdown pass from Abey to Tyler Carmona with 15 seconds left.
Abey ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns, threw for 86 yards and two more scores and joined Napoleon McCallum as the only Navy players to run for 200-plus against the Falcons.
Air Force could only lateral the ball backward a number of times on its final play before Navy finally put this to an end.
“This is definitely a tough one,” said Falcons senior linebacker Grant Ross, unapologetically fighting off tears. “A tough pill to swallow. I know how much our team put into this. I know what it meant to the seniors, and the underclassmen as well. And we didn’t come out on top.”