One of the quirks about Navy fans is that there aren’t very many that have been Navy fans all their lives. A lot of teams have fans that have no affiliation with the school outside of geographical proximity or just general bandwagon-ness; Navy’s sphere of influence doesn’t extend much farther than Anne Arundel County. Most people came to USNA dragging the allegiances of their youth with them, and unless you grew up in a Navy family, that allegiance wasn’t to the Mids. Because so many Navy fans spent the first 18 years of their lives cheering for someone else, they aren’t always familiar with the team’s history. So for the next long-overdue installment of the Hall of Awesome, I thought I’d go old school. We’re all looking forward to the South Carolina game this year, so it seems fitting to look back to the Mids’ colossal 38-21 win over the #2 Gamecocks in 1984, and the star of that game, defensive tackle Eric Rutherford.
By 1984, Navy’s spiral into the abyss was already well underway. George Welsh had left for Virginia after the 1981 season. The Mids were able to put together a 6-5 campaign in their first year under Gary Tranquill, but fell to 3-8 in 1983. Nevertheless, there was still some optimism heading into the 1984 season. 1983 had ended with a 42-13 mauling of Army in Pasadena, Napoleon McCallum was emerging as a legitimate star, and sophomore Bill Byrne showed great promise at quarterback. With a thrilling 33-30 win over North Carolina to start the season, the optimism seemed justified. Sadly, it all fell apart the following week against Virginia when McCallum was lost for the year. Byrne would go down as well later in the year, and the Mids limped into their home finale with a disappointing 3-5-1 record and seemingly little hope against the #2 team in the nation. South Carolina, on the other hand, was in the middle of the best season in school history. Joe Morrison had the Gamecocks sitting at 9-0 with wins over Georgia, Notre Dame, and Florida State. Their split-back veer offense was averaging 35 points per game. Orange Bowl officials were in attendance at the game, giddy at the thought of matching up #2 South Carolina with #1 Nebraska. A national championship was within reach.
Unfortunately for South Carolina, Navy had one last great performance left in them. What followed was the greatest win by a service academy in the modern age.
What was so remarkable about that game wasn’t just that Navy dominated, but that they dominated despite playing a game that was far from perfect. The offense turned the ball over 3 times, including giving South Carolina the ball in Navy territory on each of their first two possessions. Yet the Gamecocks came away with no points off of those turnovers thanks almost entirely to Eric Rutherford, who blocked a FG attempt on Carolina’s first possession, then had a 3rd-down sack on their second possession to set up 4th & a nautical mile and force the Gamecocks to punt. By game’s end, Rutherford had 11 tackles, 4 sacks, one forced fumble, one blocked field goal, and one halftime interview filled with enough swagger to make the hair on your chest grow half an inch. He barely missed out on a 5th sack when the quarterback was able to stumble forward for half a yard, and the pressure brought by Rutherford and others led to one of Mike Taylor’s two interceptions.
(I’m sure Stan White was provided with copious quantities of media notes by Tom Bates before the game, but he apparently didn’t find any of it nearly as interesting as the fact that this was the seniors’ last home game that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.)
It was 7-7 in the second quarter when Navy went on to score 31 straight points to take a 38-7 lead before South Carolina made a late run in garbage time. Despite the Mids’ scoring outburst, the defense was the story of the game, led by Chad Van Hulzen, Mike Taylor, and Rutherford. It was a performance for the ages, and one that clearly deserves to be remembered here.