LANDOVER - As a Gilda Radner character once declared on the original Saturday Night Live: "`If it isn't one thing, it's another."
That was the most valid summation for yet another Naval Academy defeat to intraservice rival Air Force yesterday, the 18th in their past 20 meetings and the fifth in a row.
A disappointing FedEx Field crowd of 36,251 watched the winless Midshipmen commit one crucial error after another to drop a 24-18 decision in what was an eminently winnable game.
"A lot of it has to do with making plays when you have the opportunity to make them," Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie said. "Not beating yourself. Air Force is a good team that will take advantage of your mistakes. We've got to get to the point where we know we're going to win."
Navy (0-4) compiled more yardage, punted better on a field where the wind was a factor and held its own in virtually every statistical department.
Quarterback Brian Madden passed for a career-high 189 yards and broke the school record by surpassing 100 rushing yards for the seventh straight game. The defense forced an opportune turnover early in the fourth period that kept Navy's chances alive.
Still, the productive things weren't enough to prevent Air Force (3-1) from taking the first major step toward retention of the Commander in Chief's Trophy it has held since 1997 with a ninth straight win over Navy and Army.
"I saw a team out there today that I thought would win the game," said Navy defensive lineman Michael Wagoner, who returned to the lineup after a three-game suspension.
"There are a lot of guys with wet eyes in the locker room right now."
The cumulative effect of the mistakes reared on the game's final drive when the Midshipmen were required to score a touchdown to win instead of needing only a field goal.
Starting from their 9, they reached midfield before Madden's pass to Dominic Bailey caromed off the receiver's fingertips and was intercepted by Adam Hanes.
"The ball was a little behind him," Madden said. "He made a great effort, but tipped it up in the air and they got it. It was very frustrating."
Navy might not have been in that position had some occurrences changed in the first half.
Madden made a 72-yard run to the end zone, only to have it called back when lineman John Jeffrey clipped the Falcons' Jeff Overstreet, who was 10 yards behind Madden.
The Midshipmen had to settle for a field goal after Tony Lane couldn't hold a potential touchdown pass.
They also had an extra point blocked following a 54-yard touchdown pass from Madden to Lane.
Navy also fumbled away a second-quarter opportunity inside the Air Force 25 and later had to settle for another field goal after penetrating the 10.`They really didn't stop us all day," Madden said. "But it was frustrating once again. It goes back to discipline and who wants it more. We are a discipline school; we ought to be disciplined on the football field, reflect what we stand for."
After cutting the lead to six points in the fourth quarter, Navy's ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Falcons the ball at their 35. "We had a miscommunication there," Weatherbie said. "That ball was supposed to go deep."
Nevertheless, the Midshipmen stiffened on defense and forced Air Force to punt. Electing to try to block the ball, Navy had no receiver deep on the attempt and John Cortney's punt rolled to the Navy 9.
Air Force hung on to continue its domination.
"I was very impressed with our effort," Weatherbie said. "I thought we played our hearts out."
In the first intraservice game since the terrorist attacks, this victory was achieved in a game sprinkled with patriotic displays.
Air Force's team entertained four firefighters who were at the Pentagon Friday night.
"They shared dinner with us and showed us real-life heroes," said Air Force defensive tackle Justin Pendry. `This game was different than the last two years because you know the guys on the other side could be fighting side by side with you the next few years."
Air Force 15 3 6 0 - 24
Navy 9 0 3 6 - 18
Next for Navy
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, noon
Yesterday: Played Boise State