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Special teams play helps Navy sink Air Force

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Navy noticed a tiny nick in Air Force's punting game when poring over film, a crack the Midshipmen felt they could exploit.

They succeeded -- not once, but twice.

The Midshipmen blocked two punts for touchdowns as they beat Air Force for a sixth straight time with a 33-27 win on Saturday.

"We haven't been the greatest of special teams," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose team hadn't blocked a punt for a score in nearly nine years. "I told them to go after it."

The crack the Midshipman saw on film was the back wall shifting out of sync once the ball was snapping, leaving a tiny gap.

That itty-bitty flaw had big consequences.

"It allowed us to get in there," Blake Carter said.

Carter had a hand in both blocked punts. He scooped up one for a 25-yard touchdown early in the game, and then reached his hand in to block another in the fourth quarter, deflecting it into the end zone, where teammate Bobby Doyle pounced on it.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Carter said with a grin. "That's the type of thing you dream about."

The victory gives the Midshipmen (4-2) a leg up in their quest for a sixth straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, an annual competition between Army, Navy and Air Force for service academy supremacy. They play Army in the last game of the season.

"We don't want to be the class that loses to Air Force or Army," senior fullback Eric Kettani said. "We want to keep the tradition going. People who had graduated were telling me, 'Don't lose, don't lose."

Matt Harmon made sure they didn't. The senior kicker tied a school record by connecting on four field goals.

"His leg needs to be gold plated," Carter said.

Or soaked in ice.

Harmon had a sore leg coming in, not to mention a less-than-ideal week of practice.

"I came in here a little worried," Harmon said. "But they made it easy on me, giving me shorter field goals."

He considers 48 and 44 yarders short?

"Up here in Colorado Springs, yeah," Harmon said. "You don't have to kick it that hard up here."

Falcons coach Troy Calhoun doesn't have to stare at the stat sheet to figure out what went wrong. Air Force (3-2) outgained Navy in total offense, 411-244, but the Midshipmen scored 14 points off the two blocked punts and 10 more on two turnovers.

"We didn't play well enough to win," Calhoun said. "Navy just played better."

Even with a backup quarterback.

Jarod Bryant filled in nicely for an injured Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown.

Kettani didn't notice much of a difference in Bryant as Kaheaku-Enhada shouted instructions from the sideline, unable to play due to an ailing hamstring.

"Jarod is quicker, he gets more in the holes," Kettani said. "Kaipo has that extra gear to break long runs. I feel comfortable with both of them in there."

Shea Smith scored on a 2-yard run for the Falcons in the first quarter, and later found Kyle Halderman wide open over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown.

But Smith left early in the fourth quarter after being sick on the sideline. Tim Jefferson took his place, leading the Falcons down the field for a late touchdown run by Asher Clark to make it 33-27 with 2:32 remaining.

Kettani gobbled up the ensuing on-side kick and then converted a fourth-and-short play at the Air Force 34 by leaping over the pile to allow the Midshipmen to run out the clock.

A little risky going for it?

Not in Niumatalolo's mind.

"I wanted it to be in our hands," he said. "I wanted to finish the game right there. I didn't want to give them the ball back."

Jefferson thought the Midshipmen's decision to go for it was a good move. They didn't want to give the ball back to Air Force.

"I would have led us to a touchdown and a win," the freshman boldly predicted.