The Navy football team has accomplished all of its preseason goals in 2013: the Midshipmen beat both of their service academy rivals to retain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the second straight year and won the requisite number of games to earn a bowl invitation for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons.
With four consecutive wins, Navy (8-4) now wants to do something it hasn't done since 2009 — win a bowl game. The Midshipmen will get that opportunity when they meet Middle Tennessee State (8-4) on Monday in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.
Coming off blowout losses to Arizona State (62-28) in last season's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco and to San Diego State (35-14) in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl, Navy last won a postseason game over Missouri (35-13) in the Texas Bowl in Houston.
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"Last year in California kind of left a bad taste in my mouth," Navy sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds said recently. "For the seniors, you want to send them out on top. We haven't had a bowl win in a while here, we're definitely eager to get back on track. What happened last year, we don't want to feel that way again."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose six-year record (48-30) is the best in school history, knows that his postseason record isn't very good. Since taking over for Paul Johnson at the end of the 2007 season and starting his head coaching career with a 35-32 loss to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl that year, Niumatalolo is 1-4 in bowl games.
Asked if he changed his team's preparation or routine going into this year's bowl game, Niumatalolo said, "Maybe eat a little bit more, but that's about it. If you look at my bowl record, I have a horrible bowl record, so I'm still trying to figure it out."
The Midshipmen had some light workouts after their Dec. 14 win over Army in Philadelphia because of conflicts with final exams. Niumatalolo allowed his players to go home for a few days to celebrate Christmas with their families before flying down to Texas on Friday morning.
"We're just trying to make sure our preparation is as pure as it can be, but I want our guys to have fun, too," Niumatalolo said. "We don't want to practice nine hours a day or anything like that. We just want to make sure our preparation is pure and clean, and when it's time to have fun, it's time to have fun. And we'll see what happens."
Since Ricky Dobbs led the Midshipmen to victory at Reliant Stadium four years ago over heavily-favored Missouri, Navy has struggled with how to balance enjoying the bowl trip with playing in the game.
If the sloppy field in San Diego three years ago was partially to blame for Navy's loss, last season's embarassment was mostly due to Arizona State's advantage in size and athleticism.
"You just try your best," Niumatalolo said. "You just try to do the best you can with the time allotment. We didn't play very well, but last year was last year. Hopefully, we can play better."
Middle Tennessee State finished the 2013 season on a similar roll to Navy, winning five straight games. The Blue Raiders are also looking to make up for last year, when Rick Stockstill and his players felt they were snubbed by the bowls after losing the regular season finale, 45-0, at Arkansas State to finish with the same 8-4 record.
"We got shafted out of going to a bowl by the Sun Belt because we were switching leagues to Conference USA," said Stockstill, who has led the Blue Raiders to five bowl games in eight seasons. "We're excited about it, especially after what happened last year, [it] just amps it up a little more."
Navy senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said he can sense a bit of urgency about this year's bowl game.
"Before the season, we made it one of our goals not only to go to a bowl game, but to win the bowl game," Peterson said Friday. "It's supposed to be a fun event, but when it's time to work, you have to get to work. We need to get the most out of practice and the most out of film, and be able to focus when it's time to focus."
Freelance writer Andrew Friedlander contributed to this article.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
Navy (8-4) vs. Middle Tennessee State (8-4)
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas
When: Today, 11:45 a.m.
Radio: 1090AM, 1430AM
Series: First meeting
Line: Navy favored by 6 1/2
Navy offense vs. Middle Tennessee defense: Having broken the Football Bowl Subdivision record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season, sophomore Keenan Reynolds will be looking to add to his total of 29. The Blue Raiders might not be familiar with the Midshipmen and their triple-option offense that ranks second in the nation in rushing (322 yards a game), but they have played against Georgia Tech three times in the past four years. Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill also is aware of Reynolds, having recruited him briefly, and said recently that he respects his ability as a passer. Reynolds' strength might be scoring touchdowns, but he also doesn't turn the ball over frequently. Reynolds has just two fumbles in 280 carries (1,260 yards) and two interceptions in 121 passes this season. His ability to make plays opens a lot of space for Navy's deep pool of talent at slotback and fullback, including senior slotbacks Darius Staten (36 carries for 375 yards and 3 TDs) and Marcus Thomas (26 for 266 yards), as well as junior fullback Quinton Singleton (58 for 334 yards and 2 TDs). The Blue Raiders are below-average against the run, giving up over 185 yards per game (85th in the country).
Navy defense vs. Middle Tennessee offense: The Midshipmen will try to take their bend-don't-break philosophy defensively to Texas, as they did five years ago when they beat Missouri in Houston. The Blue Raiders have a balanced offense, but will try to beat Navy behind the arm of senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, who has thrown for over 2,000 yards in each of the past three seasons and also broke the school record for career touchdown passes (53). The Blue Raiders have rotated their running backs due to injury and productivity, listing freshman Shane Tucker as the starter. Tucker had a couple of big games late in the season, but redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Bryson rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in the regular season finale over Texas-El Paso. Bryson is a longtime friend and former teammate of Navy safety Parrish Gaines. The Midshipmen will be going without starting defensive end Paul Quessenberry, who was suspended for the game after violating team rules.