For much of the first three quarters Saturday against East Carolina, Navy seemed to repeat a month-long struggle with pass defense by turning Pirates quarterback Dominique Davis into a NCAA record-breaker.
For a good chunk of the fourth quarter at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Midshipmen and backup sophomore quarterback Trey Miller — playing for injured senior Kriss Proctor — seemed ready to stop a string of recent heartbreakers.
In the end, though, the final three minutes of what turned out to be a 38-35 loss to the Pirates summed up what has become a frustrating season for Navy.
A potential third touchdown pass in the final quarter by Miller bounced of the hands of Matt Aiken as the sophomore receiver hit the ground, and a potential game-tying 42-yard field goal by senior Jon Teague in the waning seconds bounced off the right upright.
"This one is tough, it is hard. They all have been," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who after watching his team win a majority of close games his first three years has now seen the Midshipmen lose four this season by a total of eight points, including a pair of one-point defeats. "I've been coaching a long time and I can't remember this many heartbreaking defeats in a year."
Said senior co-captain and defensive end Jabaree Tuani, "We are at the lowest of the lows."
While East Carolina (3-4) reversed an embarassing 41-point home defeat last season to the Midshipmen, Navy (2-5) extended its longest losing streak since 2002 to five straight games.
The loss left the Midshipmen in jeopardy of having their string of eight straight winning seasons and bowl appearances end. Navy plays at Notre Dame next Saturday.
It also left Niumatalolo and his players questioning the decision by an ACC replay official to not overturn the call on Aiken's apparent catch, as well as wondering when the team's defense — ranked near or at the bottom of several categories among Football Bowl Subdivision teams — will ever get off the field.
Asked about the pass to Aiken that was ruled a drop — though replays showed he had possession as he crossed the plane of the goal line — Niumatalolo said, "I thought he broke the plane and went down with the ball. But that doesn't matter. They called what they called. We have to make that field goal."
But neither that play, nor Teague having his own streak of misfortune continue, would have mattered had the Navy pass defense been able to stop Davis.
After completing his last 10 passes last week against Memphis, Davis completed all 26 passes he threw in the first half — breaking the record for consecutive completions in a game (23) shared by Aaron Rodgers when he played at California and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, as well as Rodgers' mark of 26 straight passes over two games.
As a result, the Pirates erased Navy's 7-0 lead — the first time in more than a month that the Midshipmen scored first — and took leads of 17-7 into halftime and 31-21 early in the fourth quarter.
"It was like a passing drill," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said of Davis, who finished the game 40 of 45 for 372 yards and two touchdowns. "He was throwing and they were catching, it wasn't a lack of effort from us not trying to get there. It didn't matter what we did …he'd stay in the pocket and hit the open guy."
On what proved to be a crucial play — a fourth-and-5 from the Navy 46 with a little under six minutes left and the Midshipmen ahead 35-31 after Miller's second touchdown pass of the quarter — Davis double-pumped in order to give Danny Webster time to free himself from linebacker Matt Warrick and hit the freshman for an 11 yard gain. Reggie Bullock later scored his third touchdown of the game to give the lead back to East Carolina.
But Miller, who came in when Proctor injured his left (throwing) elbow on a late hit in the second quarter, seemed ready to continue a magical performance reminiscent of when Ricky Dobbs came off the bench to lead Navy past Temple three years ago.
With Dobbs watching from the sideline — the former star is now coaching at the Navy prep school before being deployed later this year — Miller first overthrew a streaking and wide-open Brandon Miller, who had caught a 59-yard touchdown pass with 12:25 to go.
Three plays later, it looked as if Miller had hit Aiken, who had caught a 37-yard touchdown with a little under eight minutes left to put Navy in front. But the Conference USA officiating crew ruled it incomplete, and after Niumatalolo challenged the call, ACC replay official Joe Rider declined to overturn the call. As a result, the Midshipmen had burned their last timeout.
After an 8-yard pass to Aiken gave Navy the ball at the 25, the Midshipmen hurriedly set up for a field goal with about 18 seconds to go. Unlike the recent kicks that Teague had blocked against Rutgers and Air Force, this one seemed to have the right height and distance, but it hit the upright.
"It seems like there are one or two plays that can change a game," Aiken said. "A missed block here, a dropped pass there. We have to work on finishing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times