That, and the Navy defense just ran out of answers in stopping Heisman trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore, who propelled 10th ranked South Carolina (3-0, 1-0) past the Midshipmen Saturday night in a thrilling 24-21 finish before nearly 79,000 edge-of-your-seat fans at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.
For Navy, it was a disappointing finish to an otherwise hard-fought contest with the Gamecocks, who needed an Antonio Allen interception with one minute to play to escape a furious comeback attempt by Proctor and the Navy offense.
That Navy (2-1) was even able to get into position to drive the length of the field to tie or possibly win the game was no small victory for Buddy Green’s Navy defense; especially considering it took a fourth down stop of Lattimore deep inside the redzone to get them there. Lattimore, who finished the evening with a career high 246 yards and three touchdowns, scored the go-ahead touchdown with 12:45 left in the fourth quarter to put the Gamecocks ahead 24-21. But Navy fans will long remember the game for its final drive, which was set up after Lattimore was stuffed in the backfield on a fourth and two with 5:34 left to play.
Taking over their own six yard line, Navy’s offense was able to overcome a 4th and 15 from their own fifteen yard line when Kriss Proctor found Matt Aiken for a 16-yard completion with just over two minutes left in the game. The completion kept Navy’s hopes alive, but an interception four plays later secured the victory for the Gamecocks, who improved to 3-0 for the third time in Steve Spurrier’s seven seasons at the helm.
Despite going toe-to-toe with the SEC East favorite, Navy’s players and coaches weren’t reveling in any moral victories after the game, saying that they not only expected to compete with South Carolina, but expected to win the game.
“We play some good folks here,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose Navy team suffered its first loss in his tenure while leading after three quarters.
“South Carolina is a great football program and they have a great defense, but we’ve gone to a few places, and we’ve played people,” he added. “We came here with great respect for this program, but we came here to win, and that was our only goal – to win.”
Proctor, who finished with 68 yards on 17 carries, echoed his coach.
“We came down here to win. We fell short, and it’s a heartbreaker. That’s just what it is,” said the senior quarterback.
Proctor’s fourth quarter interception was a disappointing culmination to an otherwise stellar night for the Midshipmen offense, which got the scoring starting at the 7:43 mark in the first quarter when slotback John Howell took an option pitch 27-yards for a touchdown. The Midshipmen offense, which amassed 335 yards on the evening, paced Lattimore and the Gamecock offense through the game’s first three quarters, managing to subdue both the boisterous crowd and the Gamecock defensive line despite being held under 300 yards rushing for the first time all season. In addition to Howell’s touchdown, Navy got rushing touchdowns from Proctor and fullback Alex Teich. Teich led all Midshipmen rushers with 93 yards on 15 carries, but the stat line was little consolation in the lockeroom after the game.
“It’s unacceptable,” said the senior fullback, who said he didn’t think South Carolina’s defense was “any more impressive” than Navy’s previous two opponents’ defenses. Instead, Teich put the blame on himself and Navy’s offense, saying the team missed its opportunity to win the game on the final drive.
“We didn’t execute there,” Teich said. “Towards the end of the game, I just can’t get over how pitiful we were at the end of the game. When you need bigtime plays, and nobody stepped up, it’s pretty sad.”
Yet while the Navy offense looked in near-perfect form for much of the game, Buddy Green’s Navy defense had no solution for Lattimore, who only appeared to pick up steam as the game continued. And despite a valiant fourth quarter defensive stop, the Mids were unable to make good on a final possession late in the game, failing to convert of a fourth and 15. Attempting to hit slotback John Howell down the middle of the field, Proctor was instead picked off by Allen. From there, South Carolina ran out the clock.
“It’s just a play you wish you had back,” Proctor said of the interception. “The safety was coming down in the final play and I just didn’t make a good throw.”
While Proctor and the offense were unable to complete the comeback, Navy’s defenders weren’t laying the blame on their counterparts. Surrendering 458 yards and allowing South Carolina’s offense to complete several key third and fourth downs (including a fourth and twelve which allowed the Gamecocks to kick a half-expiring field goal to go up 17-14), the Navy defenders said they didn’t do enough to contain coach Steve Spurrier’s offense.
“As a defense we’re pretty disappointed in ourselves,” said Navy defensive back Kwesi Mitchell, who finished with four tackles and an interception on the night. “We made some big plays, but we gave up some big plays. We didn’t make them punt one time. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to go back and look at. I know we’re disappointed – I’m really disappointed in myself.”
Outside linebacker Brye French, starting in place of an injured Mason Graham, paced the Navy defense with 13 total tackles (7 solo, 1.0 for a loss), while Tra’Ves Bush finished with 12 stops and Matt Brewer contributed nine tackles. Many of those tackles came several yards downfield however, as Lattimore appeared to gain steam as the game continued. Battering ram performance by a Heisman trophy favorite or not, Mitchell said that Navy’s defense had no excuse for allowing the career high rushing night from Lattimore.
“As a defense we shouldn’t have been getting either. We only had 30 snaps since halftime. He wasn’t tired, but we shouldn’t have been getting tired either, and that doesn’t give us an excuse for why we couldn’t get him down.”
Mitchell and his teammates were adamant that Navy would regroup from this game and not be content to view it as a moral victory. While ESPN and the rest of the nation may be inclined to give the proverbial pat-on-the-back for sticking tough for the 10th ranked team in the country, Navy’s players and coaches were left with a bitter taste in their mouths Saturday night.
“We didn’t come down here for a moral victory,” Mitchell said. “If we came down here for a moral victory we probably wouldn’t even worry about the score – they would be smiles on every ones faces. We came down here expecting to win.”
That expectation is unlikely to change even with a bye week next Saturday, as Navy returns to action October 1st when the Mids welcome in rival Air Force to Annapolis is the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy race.
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South Carolina Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore (21) is tackled by Navy Midshipmen safety Shawn Lynch (6) and Navy Midshipmen linebacker Matt Warrick (51) in the first half at Williams-Brice Stadium. (Jeff Blake-US PRESSWIRE)