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Navy's Aiken making the most of his chances

The initial diagnosis was a sprained right knee. But as the two weeks Matt Aiken expected to miss turned into a month and the 2012 Navy football season began without him, the junior wide receiver made a rare request for an athlete at the academy.

Aiken wanted to know if he could redshirt.

The answer came back quickly, before his knee healed and as Navy got off to its worst start in a decade. Aiken, who would miss the first four games, said he was told that taking a redshirt — sitting out a season without losing a year of eligibility — was done at the academy only when an athlete was unable to attend class because of an injury.

It happened once in recent memory, in 2007 when Navy safety Jeff Deliz had to leave school for a semester to rehabilitate a badly broken foot.

"It was definitely a longshot," Aiken said after practice in Annapolis this week, as Navy (4-3) prepared for Saturday's game at East Carolina (5-3). "It didn't work out. …It was hard not playing, just kind of watching the games from home and stuff like that, that was definitely rough. "

In retrospect, Aiken might be happy that his request to redshirt was turned down. Had he stay sidelined, Aiken would have been a spectator to his team's recent turnaround rather than playing a large part in last Saturday's 31-30 win over Indiana, the third straight victory for the Midshipmen.

On the game-winning drive on Homecoming at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Aiken caught a 4-yard pass from freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds with 2:02 remaining to help put Navy ahead. Aiken also caught a 16-yard pass on the previous drive to help set up an 18-yard field goal by freshman kicker Nick Sloan.

"It was just an incredible feeling, being back out there, making plays, being with my brothers, being able to grind through a win like that," said Aiken, who caught one pass in his first game back, against Air Force three weeks ago.

Aiken said that he saw the touchdown catch against Indiana, on which Reynolds was blitzed, evolve in slow motion.

"That's one of those catches that people drop because you're thinking about it way too much," Aiken said. "I made sure I caught it. I wasn't going to drop that one."

Said Navy offensive coordinator Ivan Jasper, "That's one of the hardest throws to make and one of the hardest catches to make, when you're wide open. He just relaxed, looked the ball in his hands and made a great catch."

Had Aiken redshirted, he also would have also missed a possible chance at what eluded him last year against East Carolina. A year ago in Annapolis, Aiken appeared to have caught the go-ahead touchdown in the waning moments, only to have it ruled that he never had full possession when the ball popped loose as he was tackled in the end zone.

"I wouldn't say it's payback, we're just looking forward to having a chance to play them again, we've kind of built a little rivalry," Aiken said. "I watched it [the tape of his near catch] a couple of times, it's one of those things where you just kind of move on. You can't really look back on that because there are a lot of little things that happened the entire game."

The 38-35 defeat, sealed when placekicker Jon Teague's 42-yard field goal attempt hit an upright, was one of five losses by a total of 11 points that led to a 5-7 record, Navy's first losing season in nine years.

"Last year's loss to them was a synopsis of our season, we did some good things, we did some bad things, but we didn't do find enough ways to win it at the end," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.

It was also typical of how Aiken's sophomore season went. After being Navy's leading receiver through the first nine games with 12 catches for 192 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown pass against East Carolina, Aiken lost his starting position to Casey Bolena and made only one catch for nine yards the rest of the season. Aiken finished second in receiving behind Brandon Turner.

Known for having great hands, Aiken has struggled at times with dropping passes, Jasper said.

"Every now and then you go through a spell and it's not just on him, but you drop some balls and go through a rough spot," Jasper said. "I think his confidence is back up. I'm sure Saturday helped."

Said Aiken, "I just had a couple of drops here and there in practice [before getting injured in a preseason scrimamge this summer]. Sometimes you have months, days, practices like that, it's just going to happen."

The return of Aiken this season has certainly been overshadowed by the heroics of Reynolds, who has helped transform not only Navy's season but potentially its future. Not that the Midshipmen will turn into a passing team, even against an East Carolina defense ranked 102nd against the pass.

"I don't think we're going to change that at all," Aiken said with a laugh. "It's run-based and that's the way it's been. You grind hard and when the pass presents itself, we make our plays. That's all we can do."

But Aiken's value has not been overlooked.

"Getting Matt back definitely gives us more depth," Jasper said. "It gives us a guy with experience who has been in big games, who's not going to flinch, who's not going to fall apart or panic under the big lights."

don.markus@baltsun.com

NAVY (4-3) @ EAST CAROLINA (5-3)

Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Site: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, N.C.

TV: Fox College Sports Radio: 1090 AM 1430 AM

Series: Navy leads 2-1

Last meeting: East Carolina won 38-35 on Oct. 22, 2011

Line: East Carolina by 3.5

Navy offense vs. East Carolina defense: If the Midshipmen can have success early in running the triple-option, freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds could have a career game passing against the Pirates, whose defense is giving up nearly 270 yards in the air compared 123.1 on the ground. East Carolina will likely try to take away Navy's "A" backs, particularly senior Gee Gee Greene (15 carries for 89 yards, two catches for 35 yards against Indiana), on the edge and force the Midshipmen to use either Reynolds or fullback Noah Copeland inside. Reynolds has proven to be more than a capable runner (17 for 66 last week against Indiana) and very accurate passer (24 of 37 for 362 yards and four TDs overall). He is 2-0 as a starter after coming off the bench to replace an injured Trey Miller and lead the Midshipmen to a comeback win in overtime at Air Force. Freshman placekicker Nick Sloan is only one of two kickers in the country to not miss either a field goal (7 for 7) or an extra point (17 of 17).

Navy defense vs. East Carolina offense: The Midshipmen saw Indiana score on six of its first eight possessions last week, but stopped the Hoosiers at the end of the game by forcing a three-and-out and then seeing Parrish Gaines' flying interception to secure the win. The Pirates rank 41st in passing at 265 yards a game, and Shane Carden has completed 48 of 68 passes for 694 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions in his team's recent two-game winning streak. Navy has the memory of being torched a year ago in Annapolis by Dominique Davis, who completed an NCAA record 26 straight passes in the first half and finished 40 of 45 for 372 yards and two touchdowns.

That game marked the first start for then freshman Gaines, who has since become one of Navy's top defensive playmakers. The Midshipmen did a better job putting pressure on Indiana's Cam Coffman in the second half, and will have to do the same with Carden.

Don Markus

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