- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

Four weeks into the season, Navy was still a team searching for an identity. Lacking consistency on offense and in search of answers to early-game woes on defense, the Midshipmen were fighting frustration with their lack of inspired play.

But that all changed with Saturday’s performance against Air Force. The hard-fought, 16-13 overtime win, in which the Mids needed contributions from a host of players, was exactly the type of landmark game they were seeking.

“It sets the tone for the rest of our season because we knew this was definitely going to be a fight,” quarterback Ricky Dobbs said. “It was the biggest game of our season. It was either go big or go home, and I think we took advantage of that opportunity.”

The emotional lift the Mids received from beating their rival cannot be understated. It gave them the advantage in the race for the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and extended their winning streak over Air Force to seven games.

When Falcons kicker Erik Soderberg’s 31-yard attempt in overtime sailed wide left, the Mids dashed onto the field in jubilation. Later, the sound of the team singing its fight song boomed through Navy’s locker room walls.

“I’m just so humbled and thankful to be a part of this team and to play with these guys,” defensive captain Ross Pospisil said. “Each game we play is one step closer to us seniors never playing again. I could speak on and on about the resilience, the selflessness, the sacrifices of each and every one of these guys in the locker room. Everybody made a play tonight when they had to.”

No player stepped up bigger for the Mids than junior kicker Joe Buckley, who made all three of his field goal attempts, including the decisive one in overtime. That was in stark contrast to the way the Navy kicking game had been going throughout the year.

Buckley and sophomore Jon Teague entered the season without a collegiate field goal attempt, and their inexperience showed in Navy’s first four games. Buckley missed two of his first three kicks, and Teague looked shaky, going 1-for-2 against Western Kentucky.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo had grown visibly frustrated with the inconsistency and gave the kicking job each week to the winner of an end-of-practice kickoff. Needless to say, Buckley secured the job Saturday.

“I’m on cloud nine right now,” Buckley said after the game. “For me to hit one against Air Force to win the game is a dream come true.”

Buckley was put into position to be Navy’s hero because of a strong defensive performance, easily Navy’s best of the season. Pospisil led the way with 12 tackles as the Mids held the nation’s strongest rushing attack to 183 yards on the ground and no touchdowns. The Falcons’ lone trip to the end zone came on a 67-yard interception return by cornerback Anthony Wright.

Navy’s defense got a lift from an early stop. The opposition had scored a touchdown on its opening drive in Navy’s first three games, and Western Kentucky had second-and-goal at the Navy 1-yard line before the Mids fell on a botched snap. But Navy forced the Falcons to punt out of their own end zone on the opening drive Saturday and remained stout throughout the afternoon.

“The last couple games, obviously we’ve been in trouble in the first series,” defensive end Jabaree Tuani said. “We wanted to come out hard and strong. Then we just picked it up. It’s a team effort. We just played hard and helped the offense out.”

After scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, the Navy attack found little running room against a disciplined Air Force defense. The Mids averaged just 3.1 yards a carry but were effective enough to put Buckley in a manageable situations.

“I think we did what great teams do,” Dobbs said. “When one phase of the team is lacking, they pick it up in the others. The special teams and defense carried us when the offense, we were kind of struggling today.”

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