LANDOVER - Navy coach Paul Johnson has talked so much about dragging this football program out of its doldrums and taking a huge leap forward.
Yesterday, after he watched the Midshipmen drop heavily favored rival Air Force at FedEx Field with a grinding performance, after he watched junior fullback Kyle Eckel bowl over the Falcons with the game of his life, after he watched his team make so many crucial plays, Johnson stuck out his chest while he talked some more.
By upsetting the Falcons, 28-25, before 30,623, Navy served notice that its recovery is accelerating at a rapid clip. The Midshipmen (3-2), who have won as many games as they had in their previous three seasons combined, had not beaten Air Force (5-1) since 1996, and were a year removed from losing to the Falcons by 41 points.
"Last year after the game, [Air Force] said they wanted to send us a message. We got it. Back at 'em," Johnson said.
"We still made some mistakes, but to our credit, we found a way to get it done. We sealed the deal this time. Football is all about emotion, but it's about controlled emotion. We held our composure. I was really proud of our guys."
After putting together perhaps its most inspired effort since its Aloha Bowl victory seven years ago, Navy suddenly is in position to win its first Commander In Chief's Trophy since 1981. The trophy goes to the team (Army, Navy or Air Force) with the best record in games between the three major service academies.
After taking down an undefeated service academy rival that nearly cracked the Top 25 last week and has won the previous six CIC trophies, the Midshipmen are now seriously contemplating their first winning season in six years and their first bowl game trip in seven seasons.
On a day when two potent option offenses slugged it out in a game devoid of passing and marked by long drives, Navy played its trump card in the form of Eckel. The South Philadelphia native looked exhausted and content in his grime-covered uniform after rushing 33 times for 176 yards, both career highs, and scoring the game-clinching touchdown.
"I feel good. It's a good sore, a winning sore," said Eckel, who also overcame his own lost fumble, which led to an Air Force touchdown that cut Navy's lead to 21-18 early in the fourth quarter.
"One thing goes wrong and everything falls apart. That's the Navy of last year," Eckel added. "Winning teams make a mistake, bounce back and play through it. I just tried to do my thing and play hard."
Air Force was determined to take away the outside threats presented by slot backs Tony Lane and Eric Roberts - each of whom touched the ball once in the first half - and that was fine by Eckel and Navy quarterback Craig Candeto. They turned the offense into a battering ram between the tackles, and the Falcons could not keep Navy from moving the chains after the first quarter.
The nation's top rushing team, Navy produced 294 yards on the ground and just 32 yards passing. Eckel carried the ball 20 times for 109 yards in the second half, and his 4-yard burst up the middle on a fourth-and-one gave the Midshipmen a 28-18 lead with 7:35 left in the contest.
Air Force, which squandered two early trips inside Navy's 20-yard line by coming away with just three points, could not play catch-up fast enough. Quarterback Chance Harridge completed a late 73-yard drive with a 1-yard run to pull the Falcons to within three points with 20 seconds left, but Navy safety Josh Smith recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the victory.
The Midshipmen won this game with equal doses of effort, smarts and attitude. They committed just two penalties, consumed 42 plays on their three touchdown drives and smacked the Falcons early by erasing a 3-0 deficit with a 14-point response.
Candeto (65 yards rushing) and Eckel ran the ball exclusively during the first drive, a 15-play, 70-yard march that ended with Candeto's 2-yard run with 9:19 left in the half, giving Navy a 7-3 lead.
On the next play from scrimmage, Navy cornerback Shalimar Brazier (eight tackles, two pass deflections) intercepted Harridge and returned the ball 28 yards to the Air Force 4. Two plays later, backup fullback Michael Brimage made it 14-3 with a 3-yard run.
The Falcons closed to within 14-10 at halftime, but Navy opened the second half with a 14-play, 82-yard drive that featured Eckel and Candeto. It ended with Candeto's first pass completion of the day, a 10-yard toss to a wide-open Lane in the end zone with 8:56 left in the third quarter.
And after Air Force cut its deficit to 21-18 after Eckel's fumble, Johnson rejected the idea of kicking a chip-shot field goal by calling on Eckel, who completed a 71-yard drive for the game's telling score on fourth-and-one.
"I was going for it. It was just a matter of what we were going to do and in what formation," Johnson said. "I felt if we got up by two scores, it was going to take some time [for Air Force] to drive the field. I didn't want to lose by one."
Next for Navy
Matchup: Navy (3-2) vs. Vanderbilt (1-5)
Site: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Yesterday: Vanderbilt lost to Mississippi State, 30-21.