ANNAPOLIS, Md. • Air Force spent most of the game desperately swimming out of a hole.
It finally burst out of the water, filled its lungs with the sweetness of a lead …
And then Navy pushed it right back under.
The final score of the Midshipmen’s victory was 34-25, but those numbers only hint at what took place at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
“Everyone’s hurt, but that’s football,” said Air Force senior Ben Waters, who caught four passes for 128 yards and set up what looked, for a few minutes, like it would be winning touchdown. “We didn’t do what we needed to do to win, and that’s part of it.”
The Falcons (3-2) overcame a 21-9 fourth-quarter lead when Taven Birdow scored with 3:15 remaining to make it 25-21.
But Navy (3-1) went 75 yards in 11 players, converting a second-and-20 situation and a fourth down, to move back ahead with 23 seconds left.
“I tell you what, they made a few plays and really some fine plays, too,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “And the quarterback made some, too. He really did all day long.”
The Falcons then fumbled on a desperation play with no time on the clock and the Midshipmen picked it up for a tack-on touchdown as their classmates stormed onto the field.
“We didn’t play well on that last drive,” said Air Force defensive end Jordan Jackson, who drew the holding penalty that set up the second-and-20. “We needed a stop and didn’t get it. But we also didn’t want to be in that spot to begin with where it came down to one drive.”
Here’s the condensed version of how it got there: These disciplined, ground-based teams started out unable to hold onto the ball and unable to run the ball. They turned it over four times in a six-play span, and went into halftime with neither team beyond 70 rushing yards.
The turnover issue was corrected, but the sequence of turnovers on Navy’s side of the field likely cost the Falcons at least three points. And those three would turn up huge.
The ground games never really came to life, and Navy was the first team to successfully integrate a passing attack to get there.
Midshipmen quarterback Malcolm Perry went 4-for-4 passing for 112 yards in the second quarter, setting up a pair of short touchdown runs from Nelson Smith.
Air Force became stuck in a pattern of putting up field goals to match Navy’s touchdowns and the deficit soon grew to 21-9.
But the Falcons also began supplanting the passing game effectively and Donald Hammond III hit Ben Waters for 47 yards to set up a touchdown.
Then sophomore tailback Chance Stevenson, a converted quarterback, checked in and threw a halfback pass to Waters for 41 yards to set up the go-ahead score.
Hammond finished 10 of 25 for 205 yards with an interception. He also had several balls dropped by receivers. He was also the only effective element in Air Force’s rushing attack, gaining 77 yards on 12 carries.
Air Force’s running backs combined for just 31 yards on 33 carries.
“(Air Force) pulled out everything in the second half,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That’s a good team. They are hard to hold down. Our defense played well.”
The Commander-in-Chief’s trophy will elude Air Force for a third consecutive year, as the remaining scenarios are only outright wins for Army or Navy or a three-way tie at 1-1 that would allow Army to retain it.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” Waters said. “Any loss is disappointing. This is a big one.
“This one sucks. But we’re going to come back.”