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Navy rallies behind Keenan Reynolds to beat Indiana, 31-30

The blowout defeats the Navy football team suffered early this season are a distant memory, in the record books but no longer embedded in its collective psyche. The struggling offense and a quarterback plagued by turnovers are also no longer part of the game plan.

They have been washed away by a three-game winning streak and an emerging star named Keenan Reynolds.

Reynolds, the first freshman to start at quarterback at Navy in more than two decades, helped the Midshipmen erase an early 10-point deficit and, more significantly, a nine-point deficit in the final 12:18 to beat Indiana on Saturday, 31-30, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium before an announced homecoming crowd of 33,441 that included NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson.

A 4-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds to junior wide receiver Matt Aiken on third down with 2:02 remaining – followed by a point after by freshman placekicker Nick Sloan – put Navy (4-3) ahead. An interception by sophomore cornerback Parrish Gaines 24 seconds later sealed the team's first win over a Big Ten team since 1979 and its first victory over a Big Ten team in Annapolis since 1926.

Navy's winning streak coincides with Reynolds taking over at quarterback. Two weeks ago, Reynolds came off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead the Midshipmen back from an eight-point deficit at Air Force, helping Navy win in overtime. In his first start last week at Central Michigan, he became the first Navy quarterback in 15 years to throw three touchdown passes in a game.

"He was actually missing some reads in the option, but he continued to grind it out," Navy coach Ken Niumatalo said of Reynolds. "He didn't play as well as he did last week, but again to his credit, that last drive he was very composed, he's a true freshman, we're down to a Big Ten team and he just very methodically moved us down and finished the game great."

Reynolds finished the game with fairly modest numbers – completing 8 of 13 passes for 96 yards, while rushing for 78 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries – but he continually made plays to keep drives alive. It was reminiscent of what he did two weeks ago in Colorado Springs when he replaced injured starter Trey Miller with nine minutes remaining in regulation.

"Just the brothers around, when we walk into the huddle, I feel like I can't let them down," Reynolds said. "I can't let my teammates down. I've got to set my personal feelings, I've got to go out and do my job."

Trailing 30-21, Reynolds led the Midshipmen on a nine-play drive from his team's 25 to the Indiana 1-yard line with 5:30 remaining. But after Reynolds failed to get Navy in the end zone, Niumatalolo had to choose between going for it on fourth down or kicking a field goal. He chose the field goal, and Sloan, who has not missed this season in eight attempts, barely snuck an 18-yarder inside the upright.

Asked if there was any discussion on the sideline, Niumatalolo said with a laugh, "Yeah, but I'm discussing it with myself. If you don't get [the field goal], the game is over with. If you kick it, you're at least still in the game and you give yourself a chance. … I just wanted to give our kids a chance. …There's nothing scientific about it. You've got to go with your gut feeling."

Niumatalolo credited a defense that had been shredded by Indiana's offense for most of the game -- the Hoosiers had scored on six of their first eight possessions and racked up 417 yards -- with making "two huge stops" at the end. The first ended with a three-and-out, only the second of the game for Indiana (2-5).

The second ended with the interception by Gaines off Hoosiers quarterback Cameron Coffman, who had a pass in the second quarter intercepted and returned 24 yards for a touchdown by sophomore linebacker Jordan Drake to cut into Indiana's early 17-7 lead. The interception by Gaines touched off a wild celebration on the sideline.

It might have even curtailed what Gaines had planned to do.

"We knew they had to pass the ball," Gaines said. "Coach [Buddy] Green puts us in the right spot. It felt good to get that interception for the team. It was one of the best moments of my life. I wanted to do a little celebration there, but I couldn't because everyone was jumping on me."

The victory over Indiana, which was coming off a 52-49 defeat against Ohio State, put Navy over the .500 mark for the first time since the Midshipmen saw a 2-0 start last season obliterated by a six-game losing streak. The win was also Navy's first on homecoming since beating Wake Forest 13-10 in 2009, and only its second in the past six years.

Senior slotback Bo Snelson traces Navy's resiliency this season – something it didn't have last year when the Midshipmen finished 5-7, their first losing season in nearly a decade – back to last summer when most of the team remained at the academy to train "and run in the heat when nobody else was running."

But Snelson and his teammates know it also has something to do with their freshman quarterback and what he has done in the past three weeks.

"His understanding of the playbook allowed him to play confident," Snelson said. "On that last drive, he knew pretty much what [Indiana] would do. Other than making a few great plays himself, he just stayed true to the system."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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