Instead of climaxing a spectacular fourth-quarter comeback after spotting Army a 16-point lead, the Mids suffered the agony of a 16-14 defeat that kept the crowd of 67,852 riveted until the final gun.
"It was a miracle," Army quarterback Rick Roper said. "I felt there was no way he could miss it."
But he did, and Bucchianeri, 18, who did not become Navy's place-kicker until facing Notre Dame eight games into the
season, was big enough to face the media after the game.
"I've kicked that ball right through the uprights 1,000 times in my head," said Bucchianeri, a native of Monongahela, the western Pennsylvania town that produced quarterback Joe Montana. "I'll go to sleep tonight believing I did my best. It all happened so fast, I can't say what went wrong. I just missed it."
The wild finish began after senior tailback Billy James, who had fumbled on Army's 2-yard line in the opening quarter, sparked Navy's final drive with brilliant runs of 21 and 22 yards. James' second sprint produced a first down on the Army 14. The Mids would move against the clock for another first down on the 2 with 34 seconds left. But two runs by fullback Brad Stramanak sandwiched around a deliberate throwaway by quarterback Jim Kubiak failed to advance the ball. Stramanak's last run left the ball 9 yards right of center, an angle that might have proved difficult.
"We were near the pro hash mark. We tried to keep the ball in the middle of the field as much as possible, but that was as close as we could get," Navy coach George Chaump said.
Both teams called timeouts before the field-goal attempt, but Bucchianeri insisted it had no effect on his kick. "Once you come off the sidelines, it shouldn't matter if you waited 10 minutes or 10 seconds."
Chaump, who has lost three of his four meetings with Army, did his best to deflect blame from his freshman kicker.
"We had many opportunities to win this game, and they come back to haunt you," said Chaump, referring to Navy's turnovers in the first half. "Unfortunately, the game came down to putting all the weight on a freshman's shoulders. But no game is really won or lost on a single play."
The week leading to the traditional season-ending game with Army had started on a positive note for Chaump, who was given a contract extension despite four losing seasons (11-33). But the Naval Academy was stunned Wednesday by deaths of former quarterback Alton Grizzard and two other Academy graduates in a double murder-suicide in California.
"It's been a very emotional week," Chaump said. "But you need to put things in perspective and learn to take adversity like a man."
By losing its last five games, the Mids finished a once-promising season 4-7. Army, which spoiled Navy's attempt to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1981, finished 6-5 and took a 44-43-7 lead in the rivalry.
The first half was typical of Navy's sloppy play that led to trouncings by Vanderbilt and Southern Methodist in their previous games.
The Mids' first botched opportunity occurred early in the first quarter after a short punt gave them possession at midfield. Led by tailback Jason Van Matre's running and catching, Navy advanced to Army's 11. But two plays produced 1 yard, and, on third down, Jim Screen missed Kubiak's pass in the end zone.
Bucchianeri was called on to attempt a 27-yard field goal, but Chaump had actually called a trick play designed to have the upback flip to Stramanak. Snapper Brad Soper, however, said he thought he heard a signal called and centered the ball prematurely, while the holder, Tony Solliday, was still marking a spot on the field for Bucchianeri.
The snap sailed over Solliday's head and was retrieved by Army linebacker Bob Heckathorne on the Cadets' 45.
Army reciprocated when Wicks' 38-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left.