Sunday, September 30, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — All week long, Navy players and coaches emphasized the value of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to the academy. Yesterday, their performance backed up the talk.

A solid all-around effort by the Midshipmen propelled them past Air Force 31-20 in front of a record crowd of 37,615 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Photo Gallery: Navy vs Air Force

More important than lifting Navy (3-2) back above .500 on the season, the win gave the Mids a leg up in the race for the coveted trophy, awarded annually to the winner of round-robin play between the three major service academies.

“It’s a big deal to us,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “It’s important to us and I think it’s important to our alumni. It’s one of our big goals.”

Through three quarters, the Mids and the Falcons appeared to be evenly matched. Each team’s offense moved the ball efficiently and the two sides exchanged scores. A 5-yard touchdown run on a reverse by Air Force wide receiver Chad Hall gave the Falcons a 20-17 lead with 1:56 left in the third quarter.

After that the game belonged to Navy.

Air Force crowded the box all game with six and sometimes seven defenders, looking to stop the Mids’ powerful fullbacks. Last year, Adam Ballard was the game’s MVP with 134 yards on 27 carries.

On the first play of the Mids’ ensuing drive, quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada took advantage, connecting downfield with receiver O.J. Washington for 53 yards. Eight plays later, Kaheaku-Enhada scored on a 2-yard option keeper to give Navy a 24-20 lead.

“Kaipo really understands the offense,” Johnson said. “He’s got a good feel for it, especially the option part.”

That proved even more evident on the Mids’ next possession, when Kaheaku-Enhada again took advantage of the Falcons’ intention to stop the fullback. With the middle of the field crowded by Air Force defenders, he kept the ball on an option play to the left, running 78 yards untouched into the end zone.

“Air Force just messed up on their defense,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “They had been playing disciplined all game, but I just came through and it was wide open.”

The Falcons attempt at a comeback was stalled by several key fourth-quarter mistakes. After a completed pass brought them inside the Navy 10-yard line, left tackle Keith Williams committed a 15-yard personal foul. On the next play, an illegal procedure penalty lost five more yards. The backward march continued with a holding penalty on the following play, leaving the Falcons with a third-and-31. Quarterback Shaun Carney’s pass fell incomplete in the end zone, and Air Force had to punt.

“That was huge,” outside linebacker Matt Wimsatt said. “They kind of shot themselves in the foot.”

Kaheaku-Enhada’s 78-yard dash came on the Mids’ next drive, pushing the Navy lead to 31-20 with 9:18 left. Badly needing a score, Air Force fell victim to its own mistake again. Tailback Jim Ollis fumbled a handoff that Navy cornerback Blake Carter recovered to give the Mids the ball back.

“We’ve been talking all week that we would have to play with emotion to go out and win,” Carter said. “In all of the games versus the academies, there is a lot of emotion involved. You have to come out and play with heart and effort to make big plays.”

Air Force blocked Joey Bullen’s 42-yard field goal to keep hope alive. But again, the Falcons’ mistakes cost them. After driving the ball down to the Mids’ 12, blitzing inside linebacker Tony Haberer sacked Carney on first down. Three plays later, Jesse Iwuji blocked Ryan Harrison’s 32-yard field goal, ending any chance of an Air Force comeback.

“When you get inside the 10 three or four times and come away with three points, it’s frustrating,” Carney said.

Navy has now won 10 straight service academy games, and five straight against Air Force. The Mids can win the trophy outright for the fifth consecutive season with a win over Army when the teams play Dec. 1 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

“Coming into the game, we said this is the first step to reaching the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “We’ve made that step and it’s in our hands. It’s up to us if we want to beat Army or not.”

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