- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Navy’s kickers have been so inconsistent this season that coach Ken Niumatalolo has held a competition each week to see who would kick come the weekend. He has even said the uncertainty has kept him awake some nights.

The second-year coach can rest easier this week because his chief worry was resolved in the Midshipmen’s biggest game of the season to date. Junior Joe Buckley hit field goals of 47 and 37 yards in regulation and a 38-yarder in overtime to propel Navy to a 16-13 victory over rival Air Force in the first overtime game between service academies.

It was the seventh straight win for Navy (3-2) against Air Force (3-2), and it gives the Mids a leg up in the race for the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

“When I got back to the spot, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really similar to the one I hit in the fourth quarter. All right, just do the same thing,’ ” Buckley said of his mindset before the overtime kick. “I just kept my head down like [former kicker Matt] Harmon told me to do this week, and it’s just comforting to know that I could do it.”

Buckley won the kicking job out of fall camp but missed two of his first three field goal attempts. So Niumatalolo called on Jon Teague last week against Western Kentucky, but the sophomore looked shaky in going 1-for-2. Niumatalolo opened up the competition again this week; Buckley won it and finally asserted himself against the Falcons.

“Those kick-offs are over,” Niumatalolo said with a sigh of relief. “He will be our field goal guy for the rest of the season.”

Navy had the ball first in overtime and was stuffed on its first two carries. A third-down screen pass to fullback Vince Murray was sniffed out, but Buckley split the uprights for his third field goal.

Similarly, the Falcons tried to run on their overtime possession, and Navy’s defense was up to the task. But Air Force coach Troy Calhoun decided to go for it on fourth-and-1, and tailback Savier Stephens earned the first down. Three more runs netted no gain and, more important, the Falcons didn’t get the ball in the middle of the field. Erik Soderberg pulled a 31-yard field goal attempt from the right hash wide left.

“I thought I hit it pretty solid. It felt good,” Soderberg said. “I looked up and it started trailing off to the left. I just pulled it.”

The Mids appeared to have the game locked up when safety Wyatt Middleton picked off Falcons quarterback Tim Jefferson with just over a minute left. But linebacker Tony Haberer was flagged for roughing the passer, extending the Falcons’ drive.

The penalty advanced Air Force to the Navy 29, but it failed to get a first down. Soderberg’s 39-yard try was wobbly, but it floated through the uprights as time expired to force overtime.

It capped off a wild fourth quarter in which the teams traded momentum. The Mids appeared to gain the upper hand when Falcons fullback Jared Tew dropped a handoff on fourth-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter. But on the second play of the ensuing drive, Air Force nose tackle Ben Garland popped the ball loose from Mids quarterback Ricky Dobbs while he was fighting for extra yardage.

However, the Navy defense forced a three-and-out to temporarily preserve Navy’s advantage.

“Our defense played great against a great offense right there,” Niumatalolo said. “We were put in some bad situations, and our defense responded every time. We had our stars step up and make some plays that were critical.”

Both defenses were stout the entire game. Air Force entered with the No. 1 rushing offense in the country but only managed 183 yards on the ground and 240 total. The Falcons’ only touchdown was on a 67-yard interception return by cornerback Anthony Wright in the second quarter.

Coming off their best offensive game of the season against the Hilltoppers last week, the Mids could muster only 173 rushing yards and 209 overall. Their only touchdown was on a 13-yard Dobbs run in the first quarter on a drive that started at the Air Force 35.

But both sides knew special teams would play a big role going into the game. Although Navy won the previous six meetings, five of them were decided by a touchdown or less. And Saturday it was Buckley who proved to be the difference to extend Navy’s streak.

“Me and Teague battle every practice, and it’s made me a better kicker and it’s made him a better kicker,” Buckley said. “As much as the situation isn’t ideal, it’s made us both better and it showed today.”

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