AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colorado — Kale Pearson has Air Force halfway to the White House by taking it to the house three times.
Well, not him, per se, but his receivers after catching his pinpoint passes. Still, why quibble when meeting the President is within reach.
Pearson's short TD pass to Garrett Brown sealed the game with 35 seconds remaining as Air Force held off Navy 30-21 on Saturday, a significant step in the Falcons' bid to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2011.
The Falcons (4-1) just need to beat Army on Nov. 1 to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which represents superiority among the three service academies. If the teams all finish 1-1 in the annual round-robin competition, Navy, the two-time reigning champion, retains the prize.
This was a big first step, though, considering the winner of the contest has gone on to capture the last 17 trophies.
Air Force even has a trophy case in the locker room that holds nothing but that prize. The recent emptiness has served as motivation.
"It's something that we've been talking about since the season ended last year," cornerback Jordan Mays said of the service academy competition which comes with a trip to Washington, D.C., for the seniors.
Pearson put Air Force ahead for good on a 3-yard TD pass to Garrett Griffin in the third quarter. But Navy (2-4) rallied late and pulled to within a field goal. Air Force recovered the onside kick, and Pearson found Brown on fourth-and-2 from the 13 to clinch the win.
It's the second straight big win for the Falcons, who knocked off Boise State a week ago.
"There are still some doubters, saying maybe we got lucky last week," Pearson said. "We're an all-around good team."
The defense did its part, bottling up the nation's top rushing offense in the second half. Navy gained just 36 of its 251 yards on the ground over the final 30 minutes. The Midshipmen entered the contest averaging 358 yards.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo was trying to make sense of what transpired as his team dropped their third straight.
"Very disappointed," he said. "Disappointing because of how we've been playing."
Navy's Keenan Reynolds had a late TD pass, along with a 10-yard TD run in the second quarter. His run gave him 49 career scores, tying him with Ricky Dobbs for most in school history.
Pearson finished with 112 yards passing, while receiver Jalen Robinette threw for 54 more on a trick play. Pearson threw a lateral to Robinette, who then tossed a long pass to Brown to give Air Force a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.
It was a flashback to Robinette's high school days, when he was a quarterback.
"When we put that play in, I was pretty excited about it," Robinette said. "It looked good in practice."
Will Conant added a 22-yard field goal with 4:27 remaining, giving the Falcons a 24-14 lead.
That proved big, because the Midshipmen climbed back into the game when Reynolds found a wide-open DeBrandon Sanders, who broke out of a tackle and sprinted 40 yards into the end zone with 2:14 remaining. But the onside kick was snared out of the air by Robinette.
Reynolds was shaken up on one of the last plays of the game, but later said he was feeling "OK."
The loss? Now that left Reynolds smarting.
"The story was our inability to take care of the ball," Reynolds said. "You've got to take care of the ball."
The Falcons' opportunistic defense came up big time after time. They created seven turnovers against Boise State and two more against Navy, including an interception by Christian Spears in the end zone early in the second quarter.
In the first half, the Midshipmen were mistake-prone as they turned the ball over twice — and almost two more times, if not for Air Force penalties. The Falcons had an interception by Justin DeCoud negated by a defensive holding call and later a 21-yard fumble return for a score by DeCoud called back after the senior cornerback was whistled for a targeting hit on Reynolds after the option QB pitched the ball.
DeCoud was ejected from the game for his hit on Reynolds.
Navy tied the game at 14 on Reynolds' 10-yard run with 6:35 left in the second quarter. The Midshipmen had a chance to take the lead at halftime, but Nick Sloan pushed a 38-yard field goal attempt to the right with no time remaining.
"We didn't play well enough," Niumatalolo said.