Reynolds leads Midshipmen to their fifth straight win
After rallying in the fourth quarter for wins over Air Force and Indiana, Navy had established a pattern for success, however nerve-racking.
So when the Midshipmen fell behind Florida Atlantic by 10 points in the second quarter Saturday, there was no panic, especially with the newfound trust the Mids have in sensational freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
Throwing for 147 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 159 yards and another score, Reynolds guided Navy past FAU 24-17 for its fifth straight victory, clinching a bowl berth before 29,326 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
On Dec. 29, Navy (6-3) will face a team from the Pac-12 in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. After last year's 5-7 season of frustration and a 1-3 start this year, there was nothing routine about getting back to a bowl game for the ninth time in the last 10 years.
"I'm really proud of our players, our seniors especially," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "In January they set a goal for themselves to get back to a bowl game and win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. They have given us a chance to do both."
Reynolds ignited Saturday's comeback with a 48-yard run. Four plays later on third-and-13, Reynolds threaded a 14-yard touchdown pass to tightly covered wideout Brandon Turner to bring Navy within three.
"I was like, I really hope he doesn't throw this ball," Turner said. "And he fits it straight through perfect. If it was five yards off or five yards under, it probably would have been picked. It was probably the most perfect pass I've ever seen."
Since it adopted the triple-option in 2002, Navy has had a high-powered offense. But the Mids have often lacked the ability to score quickly. With Reynolds, however, that's beginning to change; he directed an 85-yard scoring march in the final 2:10 of the half.
Reynolds got Navy past midfield with a 28-yard pass to Shawn Lynch. A cleverly called screen pass to Noah Copeland on third-and-10 produced 25 yards with 14 seconds left. Two plays later, Reynolds scored the go-ahead touchdown.
In the third quarter, Reynolds was clutch again, delivering on fourth-and-8 with a big assist from Turner. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior adjusted on an underthrown pass, splitting two defenders near the goal line on a 31-yard touchdown reception for a 21-10 lead.
"Going into the huddle I told Keenan don't be afraid to throw it up," Turner said. "Coach [Mick] Yokitis always talks about, 'Stop running and come back to the ball.' So I stopped running and came back the ball. Felt the ball in my hands. It was the best feeling ever."
There were some anxious moments in the fourth quarter as Reynolds left briefly with an injury. On the first play for his replacement, Trey Miller, fullback Prentice Christian fumbled a handoff, and the Owls (2-7) recovered and scored a touchdown. FAU threatened again, reaching the Navy 22, but on a fourth-down play, defensive end Paul Quessenberry pressured Owls quarterback Graham Wilbert into an incompletion.
Quessenberry wasn't the only defensive end who made a big play for the opportunistic unit. Senior Wes Henderson forced a fumble that was recovered by freshman safety Kwazel Bertrand, setting up the final Navy touchdown.
"I thought there were times today when we were able to rise up," senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said. "But we have to get better as a football team. There's a lot of football left to play."
With three teams left on the schedule with a combined record of 9-17, Navy has a chance to keep its streak alive all the way to the bowl game. The 2-7 record of Army, however, includes a 41-21 victory Saturday over Air Force that ended the Black Knights' 13-game losing streak against service academy teams, upping the ante for the Dec. 8 clash with Navy.
This might be the most inspired Army team Navy's seniors have faced. In the Mids' favor, however, Reynolds is likely the best Navy quarterback the Army seniors have ever seen.
"He beat Central Michigan all by himself," Florida Atlantic coach Carl Pelini said. "We've seen signs of that. It's hard. You get your DBs all geared up for the option, and then you get in long yardage, and it's hard to change gears."