COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Shades of 1984 haunted the game until its final minute.
The Midshipmen embarked on what could have been a game-winning drive with 5:34 to play in the fourth quarter, after No. 11 South Carolina turned over the ball on Navy's 6-yard line. A few plays later, undaunted by an overwhelming fourth-and-15, Kriss Proctor completed a 16-yard pass to Matt Aiken to breathe new hope into his team.
But Proctor followed up his extraordinary play with two incomplete passes, and USC's Antonio Allen intercepted a throw with one minute on the clock to put an end to the Midshipmen's rally. With the 24-21 loss, Navy fell just short of its biggest upset since a 38-21 win over then-No. 2 USC in 1984.
"We still had two timeouts, so we felt like we had plenty of time. We didn't execute," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We didn't come here for a moral victory. Our guys are heartbroken right now. This is a hard pill to swallow. We're not coming out of here saying we played South Carolina close. We came here to win."
The Midshipmen, who entered Saturday's game as the top rushing team in the nation, finished the day with 274 rushing yards despite the speed of the Gamecock linebackers.
"We've faced some good teams, but the SEC is quick," Proctor said. "Those linebackers are sideline to sideline in a heartbeat. It's hard to get tackles up on them, but we thought we had a good game plan, and it just didn't work out."
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore paced his team's offense, collecting a career-high 246 rushing yards on 37 carries. Navy struggled to contain Lattimore, who was responsible for all three USC touchdowns.
"He's got great vision," Niumatulolo said. "The guy is a very powerful runner. You try to stay back, try to have some lane integrity, and he kills you inside. He gets hit at the line of scrimmage, then he drags us for four more yards. He's everything he was billed to be. We knew he was a great back coming into this game, but he's better than advertised."
Navy got on the board halfway through the first quarter, advancing 65 yards on just four plays and scoring on a 27-yard run by John Howell. After USC tied the game, Navy reclaimed the lead early in the second quarter on Proctor's fourth rushing touchdown of the season — this one from 5 yards out.
The Midshipmen had lost an opportunity to score in the closing minutes of the second quarter when they tried to run a play on fourth-and-2 at USC's 39-yard line. But after Howell failed to convert the first down, the Gamecocks closed the half with a field goal to take a 17-14 lead.
"We missed a big play," Niumatalolo said. "We felt like we had a wide-open play action, and we weren't able to convert there. We feel like we had a chance to get settled there, and to me that was a huge play because they come right back and get three after that. I feel like we had a chance to get a touchdown there."
The Mids grabbed the lead back on a 2-yard touchdown run by Alexander Teich in the third quarter after Kwesi Mitchell came up with a critical interception to set up a 91-yard scoring drive. Even though Navy began the fourth quarter with the advantage, a South Carolina touchdown with 12:45 to play proved to be the game-winner.
"We came here with great respect for this program, but we didn't fear them," Niumatulolo said. "We came here to win, and that was our only goal. We tried to prepare the best we could, and I thought our guys were ready. We just came up a little short."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.