Knights by a point on Saturday.
On the first play of the game, Rutgers freshman quarterback Gary Nova threw the ball right into the hands of the waiting hands of Navy's Matt Warrick; however, instead of intercepting the ball, the middle linebacker merely redirected into the waiting hands of Scarlet Knights' star receiver Mohamed Sanu. What should have been Navy's good fortune turned into an 18-yard gain and first down for the home team. Was it a bad play by Warrick? Sure. But the ball managing to find its way after being tipped right into the hands of Sanu is nothing more than just bad karma. If it's 2008, a Navy linebacker not only intercepts the pass, he probably runs it back for a touchdown. But this is 2011 and the Mids can't get a break or worse, take advantage of one when it is gift wrapped for them.
After the Sanu completion, Navy's defense stiffened and forced Rutgers to attempt a 52-yard field goal with a brisk 30-mph wind at their back. The kick was just short and the Mids offense went to work as the Navy coaching staff pulled out a copy of my column last week and immediately put the ball into Gee Gee Greene's hands. The result of course was positive as the junior slot back ran for a first down. And then just six plays later, they did another thing I asked for in this same column and went to the trickeration early with senior Kriss Proctor taking a snap from the shotgun. For those non-Navy fans reading this, for the Mids, taking a snap out the shotgun qualifies for trickeration because it's something the team hasn't done since at least 2001. Unfortunately this wrinkle, which the Mids had been tinkering with in practice for a while, resulted in a pass that the wind held up just enough to result in an interception by Brandon James. (Blaming the wind is being a bit kind to Proctor for sure.)
Rutgers took advantage of the Navy turnover as well as some suspect pass coverage to march down the field and on the doorstep of a score when the Mids welcomed back their bend-but-don't break defense – at least for a play. Freshman safety Chris Ferguson, making his first career start delivered a solid hit Rutgers' Savon Huggins who fumbled the ball into Wes Henderson's waiting hands.
However, the same karma that bit the Mids on the first play of the game was about to rear its ugly head again. After six plays, Navy freshman Pablo Beltran was forced to punt the ball into that strong wind and the result was a 23-yard effort. At the time, I didn't really think it was a bad break for Navy, but if you look at every other punt in the game, this was the only one that didn't feature a good bounce for the kicking team. For the most part, other than this kick and perhaps the Proctor interception, the wind wasn't much of a factor.
With the ball at Navy's 40 yard line, it took Rutgers just six plays to maneuver past the Mids' over- pursuing linebackers and score the first touchdown of the game.
The Mids would respond though with a classic 12-play drive highlighted by a 40-yard pass to John Howell. But after going 62 yards in 8 plays, Navy couldn't go 8 yards in the next four. The first two plays featured outside runs by their two fastest players (Gee Gee Greene and Mike Stukel) but the next two went up the middle…and went nowhere. The fourth down call, which was the all-familiar ‘quarterback follow' play almost didn't happen because right before the snap, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo sprinted down the sideline as if he was going to call a timeout. He didn't and Proctor was easily corralled by the Rutgers defense for a two-yard loss. I guess you could say that the Scarlet Knights made a good play there, but it surely didn't look like the Navy offense was on the same page – and I think Niumatalolo sensed it.
Fortunately for the Mids, Gary Nova was not channeling Peyton Manning on this day and the second play after Navy was halted on the goal line, the Rutgers quarterback gift wrapped an interception to Chris Ferguson. Not only did the Navy plebe not drop it, he high-stepped his way into the end zone to tie the game.
After another appearance by the Mids' bend-but-don't-break defense, Navy only needed two plays to take its first lead in regulation since the third quarter of the South Carolina game. Proctor's nifty 54-yard touchdown scamper would be the last time though the Mids would find the end zone on Saturday.
Navy's defense stopped Rutgers again just before the half which gave the Mids the ball at their own 9-yard line with 45 seconds to go in the half. After a Alexander Teich rush for 3 yards, Navy didn't need to snap the ball again. They could have just gone to the locker room with the lead. However, for some reason they decided to run another play from inside their own 15-yard line with 7 seconds on the clock. In what could have been the worst decision of the year, Rutgers gang tackled Proctor for a two yard loss and more importantly, Navy's senior quarterback was shaken up on the play. In the grand scheme of things on Saturday, this one play was insignificant, but even hours after the game it sticks in my mind as a real head scratcher.
After halftime, Navy marched down the field once again and once again Gee Gee Greene made a significant contribution – a 27 yard reception which led to a Jon Teague 31-yard field goal. After two games of having kicks blocked, Teague seemed to be back on track on Saturday. Speaking of back on track, Navy's defense also was putting forth their best effort in weeks. Rutgers was able to move the ball, but Navy was actually stopping an opponent on third down. In fact for the game, the Scarlet Knights were 7-14, which is a vast improvement for the Mids.
With a 17-7 lead and the ball, that karma I talked about earlier was about to rear its ugly head. On a second and ten from their own 35 yard line, Proctor threw a perfect pass to Doug Furman, who bobbled the ball on every single part of his body, as well as a defender's and the result was a crazy play that ended in an interception. Just like the first play of the game, a Navy player's inability to make a pretty simple catch should have resulted in a harmless incompletion. These kinds of freakish plays always seemed to go the other way in the recent past.
Now the momentum was once again in Rutgers' corner and Navy's bend-but-don't-break defense was about to fall apart on consecutive series. Gary Nova went 10-11 passing on the Scarlet Knights' next two drives which both ended in touchdowns.
Now trailing 21-17, Navy's offense got a boost from another trick play. This time it was Teich throwing a pass to Proctor for a 37-yard gain. However, Navy's drive would stall at the Rutgers' 23-yard line. Teague was once again summoned to boot a field goal to bring the Mids within a point. With the wind in his face, the senior split the uprights from 41-yards out. And with 7:52 left in the game, Navy was a field goal away from beating Rutgers by two points (and thrilling fashion) – just like in 2009…when karma was on their side. All they needed was a break!
Three plays later, they got it.
Nova gift wrapped another interception – this time to Navy's Caleb King who returned the errant pass to the Rutgers 23 yard line. And with that play, it was as if it was 2007 or 2008, or just pick the year since 2002 when Navy always seemed to rise to the occasion in a close game. All they needed was to close the deal.
Three plays later, they didn't.
On a 34-yard field goal attempt, Rutgers' Khaseem Greene came off the edge to block the Teague kick. It was the third blocked kick in three weeks against the Mids.
Navy has now lost three games by a total of five points and will have to win four of its next six games to keep its eight-year steak of going to bowl games and winning seasons alive.