Coach Ken Niumatalolo said Navy had to play perfectly in order to have a chance to beat fifth-ranked Ohio State.
The Midshipmen put forth a valiant effort against a powerhouse opponent, but one that was far from perfect.
Navy was in the game the whole way and even led on two occasions, but costly mistakes spoiled hopes for an upset.
An 80-yard scoring strike from quarterback J.T. Barrett to wide receiver Devin Smith and a 61-yard fumble return for touchdown by linebacker Darron Lee were the big plays as Ohio State pulled away for a 34-17 victory over Navy in front of 57,579 fans at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I'm super proud of our kids because they really battled. We just had some uncharacteristic mistakes, and you can't do that against a team like Ohio State,” Niumatalolo said. “We knew coming into this game that we had to play perfect. We couldn't turn the ball over and couldn't give up big plays. We had to play immaculate and we didn't.”
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds was responsible for the fumble, delivering an errant pitch while being hit by defensive end Joey Bosa. Safety Kwazel Bertrand got beat for the long touchdown pass, getting caught looking into the backfield and allowing Smith to get behind him.
Bertrand also missed an opportunity to trip Smith, who raced the final 30 yards untouched into the end zone to give Ohio State the lead for good at 20-14 with 4:10 remaining in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes flexed their muscle in the fourth quarter with a pair of punishing drives. Navy's defensive front clearly wore down on a hot day going against a massive offensive line and Ohio State did most of its damage on the ground, mounting 70- and 80-yard drives that took a total of 9:48 off the clock.
“Hats off to Ohio State. They did a great job of finishing us off there at the end,” Niumatalolo said. “We got worn down a little bit and guys got out of their gaps. They started to mash us and eventually wore us down.”
Barrett completed 12 of 15 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns for Ohio State, which extended the nation's longest regular-season winning streak to 25 games and improved to 34-2 in its last 36 season openers. Barrett, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, also rushed for 50 yards as the Buckeyes totaled 194 yards on the ground.
Slotback Ryan Williams-Jenkins ran for 118 yards to lead Navy, which won the time of possession battle 27:14 to 17:46. Reynolds (42 yards) along with slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside (44) and Demond Brown (41) also contributed as the Midshipmen rolled up 370 rushing yards.
The Mids missed several opportunities on offense. Navy drove to the Ohio State 18-yard-line late in the second quarter, but Williams-Jenkins committed a mental error by not getting out of bounds. That forced Niumatalolo to call timeout with nine seconds left.
Rather than take a shot at the end zone and risk running out of time, Niumatalolo elected to attempt a field goal and Nick Sloan missed a 36-yarder wide right — forcing Navy to settle for a 7-6 lead at halftime.
The Midshipmen got the ball to start the second half and quickly moved into enemy territory, but that is when the first big play occurred. Reynolds waited until the last possible moment to deliver a pitch and tossed behind slotback Demond Brown after being drilled by the 6-foot-5, 278-pound Bosa. Lee scooped the ball and scored, finding nothing but open turf between himself and the end zone
“It was a bad pitch and that is clearly on me,” Reynolds said. “It turned out to be a critical mistake, a huge swing in momentum. I probably should have handed the ball off anyway.”
Navy responded with a quick touchdown march that was jump-started by a 67-yard run by Williams-Jenkins on an inside handoff. Four plays later, Reynolds dove over from 1 yard out to put the Midshipmen back ahead, 14-13 at the 11:15 mark of the third period.
A big defensive stop on the ensuing possession gave Navy even more momentum. Defensive end Will Anthony exploded off the edge to throw tailback Ezekiel Elliott for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 and the Mids took over just shy of midfield.
However, that proved another empty possession as a promising drive that reached the Ohio State 32-yard line stalled when Reynolds was sacked for an 11-yard loss on second down, forcing a punt.
Ohio State needed just one play to retake the lead as a blown coverage enabled the speedy Smith to get wide open. Bertrand realized his mistake too late and tried to recover, but his diving attempt just missed tripping up Smith, who covered the final 30 yards with ease to give the visitors a 20-14 lead.
It appeared the Midshipmen would answer again as Reynolds directed an efficient 11-play drive deep into Buckeyes territory. Brown ripped off a 16-yard run while fullback Chris Swain rumbled for 14 yards — two of five gains of 10 yards or more on the possession — before things suddenly stalled and Navy had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Sloan that cut the deficit to 20-17 with 13:54 remaining.
“Any time you get in the red zone you want to score points. We had several drives when we should have put points up and kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” Reynolds said. “We were in the red zone a few times when we should have scored, on their side of the field and kind of lost momentum.”
Ohio State put the game away with the consecutive long drives, picking up huge chunks of yardage straight up the gut against a Navy defense that wilted in the afternoon sun.
“That's a good team that won nine games a year ago and will win that many or more this year. I have a lot of respect for who they are, I always have,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “The best thing about this game is that it's in the rearview mirror and we won.”