Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo wouldn't use the early week uncertainty surrounding Saturday's game against service academy rival Air Force as an excuse for the way the Midshipmen played for much of the first half. Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds didn't blame his own shaky start on the mild concussion he sustained in the previous game at Western Kentucky.
In a week when many adjustments were made just to play the game in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown, Navy's coach and quarterback kept making them before a record sellout crowd of 38,225 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Trailing at halftime by three points but getting badly outplayed, the Midshipmen turned a rather lackluster performance into a rout.
In fact, Navy's 28-10 victory was its most one-sided since 1978 in what had become an annual down-to-the-wire series. Reynolds finished with 126 yards (101 in the second half) and three touchdowns on 28 carries. The defense did its part by forcing three second-half turnovers — including two interceptions by junior linebacker Chris Johnson — and holding Air Force (1-5) to its lowest point total of the season.
It gave Navy (3-1) the inside track on the path to a second straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and what would be its ninth in the past 11 years. Given that the winner of this game has taken the coveted trophy for the past 16 years and that the Midshipmen have beaten Army 11 straight years, the Dec. 14 matchup against the Black Knights in Philadelphia could be a formality.
“We just showed resiliency, we showed fight, down at half, but our guys came back in the second half, and I thought we made some great plays,” Niumatalolo said. “Just super proud of the way we played. To start the season off, this is always our No. 1 goal: try to get ready for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, try to defend it. It feels great to get the first leg.”
As with much of Navy's success the past year, a lot had to do with Reynolds. Nearly one year after leading the Midshipmen on a fourth-quarter comeback and eventual overtime win in Colorado Springs after coming off the bench, Reynolds looked uncharacteristically out of sync to start the game.
“That wasn't Keenan's best first half,” Niumatalolo said, with a rare hint of sarcasm.
Said Reynolds: “We didn't execute like we should have. I made a few dumb plays, a few mistakes. But we went back into the locker room, regrouped and we were able to get it going in the second half. We knew we had some crucial points, some crucial possessions when we had to score. The defense had been on the field for most of the first half and we had to put a drive, some kind of string of first downs going.”
With his team trailing 10-7 at the start of the second half, Reynolds led the Midshipmen on an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended when he made a perfect pitch to sophomore slotback Demond Brown (Old Mill), who raced 38 yards for his first career touchdown.
That gave Navy a lead it wouldn't relinquish and seemed to relax Reynolds, who admitted that he pressed a little in the first half.
“I think I tried to do too much instead of just worrying about doing my job and letting the rest take care of itself,” Reynolds said. “And that was just something Coach [Ivin] Jasper told me at half. He said, ‘Hey, just relax, don't do too much, just go with it and let the game take you where you need to go.'
“That's what I did in the second half. I tried to calm down and not let the atmosphere get to me and not try to overplay.”
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green sent a similar message to the Navy defense, which had given up 202 yards in the first half and allowed sophomore quarterback Karson Roberts to look more like Reynolds than Reynolds did himself. The Falcons kept possession for nearly 21 minutes in the half and converted seven of 11 third-down chances.
But after seeing Air Force take the lead on a nine-play, 79-yard drive right before halftime, Navy stiffened defensively in the second half.
It started with a key fourth-down stop by sophomore cornerback Kwazel Bertrand, who returned Saturday after missing more than a month with a knee injury.
After Reynolds looked like a modern-day Roger Staubach by getting 61 of the 66 yards needed for Navy's final touchdown — delighting the former Heisman Trophy winner and some teammates from the 1963 Cotton Bowl team who attended the game — Navy forced turnovers on three straight possessions.
“All the guys on defense were running around trying to make plays,” said junior reserve safety Lonnie Richardson, who recovered a fumble. “That's what we have to do in order to get the stops and to get our offense onto the field. It was the pressure from the defensive line. They were coming like dogs. Once we got the momentum, there was no stopping us.”