- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

It looked like it was happening again. Navy had played a stronger opponent into the second half before watching a key mistake potentially turn an upset into another disappointing loss.

Fullback Kyle Eckel’s fumble late in the third quarter against Air Force yesterday appeared to be that play. The Midshipmen led by 11 before that but by only a field goal six minutes later. With nearly a full quarter to play, the Mids needed a sustained drive to kill the Falcons’ momentum.

They got that and more.

Eckel atoned for his fumble by picking up 54 yards on seven carries in a drive that took more than six minutes off the clock. He capped it with a 4-yard rumble into the end zone on fourth-and-1 to give the Mids a 10-point lead and they held on for a 28-25 victory before 30,623 at FedEx Field.

It was Navy’s first win against Air Force since 1996, and Eckel was the biggest reason as he rushed for a career-high 176 yards and produced over half the Mids’ offense.

“One thing goes wrong and everything falls apart — that was the Navy of last year,” Eckel said. “Winning teams make a mistake and they bounce back. Mistakes happen in football.”

Turnovers and penalties against TCU and Rutgers cost the Mids (3-2) opportunities to knock off stronger teams. A combined 82 penalty yards and five turnovers in those games kept Navy from staying with its opponents but yesterday was a different story.

The Mids overcame the bad luck of having a fumble by Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge recovered by tackle Brett Waller in the end zone for a touchdown and didn’t crack down the stretch by recovering an onside kick with 20 seconds to play to seal the win.

“Those are the kinds of things that seemed to happen to Navy before,” coach Paul Johnson said. “To our credit, this time we didn’t let it bother us.”

Navy’s only offensive penalty came early in the first quarter and aside from Eckel’s fumble, the only turnover was an interception late in the first half that did not lead to Air Force points. With Navy’s offense not stopping itself, the Mids matched the Falcons drive for drive, burning time off the clock and making each significant.

With such emphasis on each drive, the Mids’ first-quarter defensive performance turned out to be a major difference in the game. The Falcons (5-1) held the ball for more than 11 minutes in the first quarter, getting 95 yards but only three points.

The biggest stop came by Navy linebacker Bobby McClarin, who played with a wrapped boxing glove over his broken left hand. McClarin used the massive protection to bat down a ball at the goal line, forcing the Falcons into their first-quarter field goal.

“The club came in handy,” McClarin said of his padding. “But I wasn’t gonna make the interception.”

After their first victory over a ranked team since 1985 (Air Force was No.25 in the coaches poll entering the game) and a clear road to their first Commander-In-Chief’s trophy since 1981, the Mids even showed a bit of swagger after the game.

“After last year’s game, they said they wanted to send us a message. We got it. Back at ‘em,” Johnson said.

Later he added, “It was a toughness game, and we toughed ‘em out.”

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