ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After staging a feel-good comeback to force overtime against Air Force, Navy took the lead for the first time on a touchdown run by Kriss Proctor.
Then came a penalty that Proctor, his teammates and coach Ken Niumatalolo may not ever forget.
Proctor was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing a long conversion kick that was blocked, and Air Force used a touchdown run by Tim Jefferson and an extra point by Parker Herrington to pull out a 35-34 victory Saturday.
Despite rallying from an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Midshipmen walked off the field angry and disappointed.
"The game should not come down to a call like that," said Navy's Alexander Teich, who ran 148 yards. "We worked so hard. To have a call like that was pitiful. It was horrible."
Referee Mike Defee later explained the penalty by saying, "The Navy player got in the face of an Air Force player right after the play."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and Proctor were furious.
"Everything was going our way until the penalty." Niumatalolo said. "That is an unfortunate call to make in a hard-fought game. It is a service academy game with two teams who will be serving their country. It was a huge penalty; it changed everything. I hope those guys can sleep well tonight."
Proctor said, "I got up and started to head to our sideline. Some guy got in my way and I said, 'Move.' Then referee made the call."
The penalty forced Navy to kick from 35 yards out, and Jon Teague's conversion struck the left hand of Air Force linebacker Alex Means.
After the blocked kick, the Falcons (3-1) moved quickly into position for the game-winning score. Air Force has beaten Navy (2-2) twice in a row following seven straight defeats, but this one was unlike all the rest.
"We were thankful that we blocked that kick," Jefferson said. "That set up a huge opportunity for us."
Air Force led 21-3 at halftime and 28-10 with 14:55 left, but Navy used an 18-point run fueled by a successful onside kick to force overtime.
"I think we got a little too excited after the first half, and then I think we were looking down the road for after the game," Means said. "You can't do that, especially against Navy."
Air Force needs only to beat Army on Nov. 5 to keep the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which represents superiority among the three service academies. If the teams all finish 1-1 in the round-robin competition, the previous winner holds onto the prize.
There was a point when Jefferson wasn't too sure if Air Force could hold on.
"I definitely did think about if we would have lost that game," he said. "I don't know how I would have reacted. I might have just been completely stunned."
Navy closed to 28-26 with 19 seconds left after recovering an onside kick and getting a 5-yard touchdown pass from Proctor to Gee Gee Greene. Needing a 2-point conversion to force overtime, Proctor rolled left and pitched it to Alexander Teich, who scooted into the corner of the end zone.
The comeback began with a 7-yard touchdown run by Proctor, and the Midshipmen got the ball back at their own 7 with 7:04 left. Navy's methodical offense needed five minutes to get a field goal, and the Mids got one final chance after recovering the onside kick.
Proctor shook several tackles on a 27-yard run, setting the stage for the hectic last minute of regulation and an even crazier overtime.
"We did all we could to keep it interesting, that's for sure," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Navy went ahead in the extra session on a 1-yard touchdown run by Proctor, but the blocked extra point proved to be the difference.
Jefferson ran for two scores and threw a touchdown pass, and the Falcons got 23 tackles from senior linebacker Brady Amack.
Proctor scored three touchdowns and ran for 134 yards, and Teich rushed for 148 yards.
Coming off a 63-24 rout of Tennessee State, the Falcons kept their offense humming against Navy by opening with touchdown drives of 63 yards, 80 yards and 75 yards for a 21-3 lead with 12:26 left in the second quarter.
Navy put together two long marches after that, but one ended with a missed field goal and the other was cut short by an interception on the final play before halftime.
A 2-yard touchdown run by Proctor made it 21-10, and a fumble by Falcons fullback Wes Cobb gave the ball back to the Midshipmen at the Air Force 38. But Bo Snelson was called for intentional grounding on an ill-fated halfback pass, and after a punt, the Falcons' offense jumped into action.
Asher Clark launched an 89-yard drive with a 46-yard run and finished it off with a 6-yarder, making it 28-10.
That's when Navy began its comeback.
"Unfortunately," Niumatalolo said, "we came up one point short."