Quarterback Trent Steelman limped into the postgame interview room following Army's 31-17 loss to Navy on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, but his heart was aching a lot more than his left leg.

Indeed, a long gray line of heartbroken Cadets has formed during the course of the nine consecutive defeats they have suffered against the Middies. Steelman moved to the front of that line with the game-turning mistake he made at the end of the first half.

Steelman was 2 yards from bringing underdog Army within 17-14 as he strained to make it into the end zone on first and goal. But Navy linebacker Tyler Simmons popped the ball loose, and Wyatt Middleton plucked it out of the air and motored 98 yards in the other direction for the longest run with a fumble in Navy history.

In a blink, Army went from coming oh so close to cutting its deficit to three, to trailing by 24-7. It was easy to see Steelman knew the magnitude of his turnover as he untangled himself from teammate Jason Johnson, rolled on his side, and watched the No. 8 on the back of Middleton's jersey get smaller and smaller.

Steelman slowly walked to the sideline, pulled off his helmet, and knelt down on one knee, a picture of complete dejection as teammates walked by and tried to console him with pats on the back.

"I value that ball more than anything in the world," said Steelman, who had guided an offense that had lost only nine fumbles in the previous 11 games. "And to see that slip out like that and turn it around for a touchdown, I mean, it was a heartbreaker."

Steelman wasn't sure how he lost the ball.

"I think maybe somebody got in there and punched the ball out," he said. "Regardless, we had three plays to get the ball in the end zone, and I've got to be able to protect it. And like I said, that's just not part of my game. I value the ball more than anything. I don't really fumble the ball. Like I said, it was a heartbreaker for me and for the team."

Army coach Rich Ellerson didn't want to single out Steelman's mistake but when asked about it, he covered his face with his right hand.

"Give the defender credit. When a hat goes on the football - I mean, Trent needs to be a little bit lower," he said. "It's first and goal at the 3. We think we're being conservative and when a helmet goes on a football, funny things happen, although that wasn't such a funny thing."

As if the costly fumble wasn't enough to test his resolve, Steelman took two big hits on the final two plays of the half and was accompanied by a trainer to the locker room. But he came out for the second half and played his aching heart out. He finished with 74 yards rushing and two TD passes. And, true to the spirit of West Point, he did all in his power to lead his teammates to a third TD in the closing minutes.

"We keep fighting and fighting until the end, and that's our mentality," he said.

A sophomore, Steelman is likely to get two more chances to end Navy's current domination of the series. But that seemed to be little consolation for him as he thought of the seniors.

"They've done a heck of a job going through all the adversity," he said. "We did everything we could to send them off the right way, and it breaks my heart to let them down like we did."

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.