How did Navy turn a potentially disastrous season into one in which it reached a bowl game and won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy? Saturday’s 17-13 win over Army was the season in microcosm as the Mids demonstrated many of their championship qualities.
Unflappability. The playmaking of freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds (10 of 17, 130 yards) was a revelation from his first significant appearance of his career — leading a rally at Air Force — to his last of the regular season on Saturday, leading a drive that will live in Army-Navy lore. “I would say the feeling for me is minimal,” Reynolds said. “I feel more for these guys around me.”
On the winning march, Reynolds turned a potential sack into an 11-yard gain and a first down. He followed with a perfectly-placed 49-yard strike to senior Brandon Turner. Reynolds then capped it off with an eight-yard option carry touchdown.
“He made some huge scrambles there at the end. Things broke down. He has composure. He got the sticks,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “He does things well, well beyond his years. We don’t work on those situations. That’s just him finding a way to make plays.”
Tenacity. The senior wideout made one catch on Saturday. It was one of the biggest in Navy history, a 49-yarder that set up the winning touchdown run by Reynolds. “Brandon kept saying, just throw me the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “I finally listened to him.”
It was a trying year for Turner, who was suspended for the first game in Ireland against Notre Dame as he failed to pass at physical readiness test (running endurance), required of all Midshipmen, including non-athletes. For perhaps the most fun-loving Mid, staying home while the team travelled to Ireland was crushing. He disagreed with Niumatalolo’s decision to keep him home, but came to appreciate the fifth-year coach. “Before the game I told coach Niumat I loved him,” Turner said. “It’s kind of a Cinderella story, kinda mushy.”
Elasticity. Navy surrendered 418 yards and had no answer for running back Raymond Maples (27 carries, 156 yards) and quarterback Trent Steelman (17 carries, 96 yards). But the Mids limited the Black Knights to one touchdown, forcing three field goal tries and three fumbles. “They’ve moved the ball against everybody,” Niumatalolo said. “We kind of bent there, but we didn’t break. We just continued to make them line up and snap the ball.” Inside linebackers Cody Peterson (14 tackles) and Matt Warrick (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL) were stalwarts along with senior outside linebacker Keegan Wetzel (11 tackles).
Anonymity. Navy also got several clutch plays from their anonymous defensive linemen. The Mids rotate eight, several of whom made big plays, none more important than the fumble recovery to clinch by junior Barry Dabney, the Mids’ third-string nose guard. On Army’s first possession, sophomore Danny Ring, making his first start at nose guard, stuffed two inside runs helping stop a drive that reached the Navy 28. Junior defensive end Evan Palelei had six tackles and contributed a forced fumble. Senior defensive end Wes Henderson (six tackles) and freshman nose guard Bernard Sarra (five tackles) also played well.
Comeback ability. Navy won perhaps the most hotly contested Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in history, needing fourth quarter comebacks to squeak by Air Force and Army. Navy has gone 4-0 in games decided by seven or fewer points. “Our motto is keep playing, keep scratching, keep fighting, keep doing whatever you need to do to win,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s us. All of our games are close.”