Indiana did all it could to embrace the Navy tradition before the Hoosiers and Midshipmen kicked off Saturday night.
A prow from the U.S.S. Indiana had been installed in front of Memorial Stadium, dedicated in a pregame ceremony at which Indiana's president, the state's two senators and its congressman did their best to brag on the their naval prowess with the Secretary of the Navy in attendance. Twenty veterans of the World War II-era warship were given a standing ovation, as Sen. Joe Donnelly said it was only because of them that this game could be played.
What none of those figureheads could have expected, not even after Navy's upset win over Indiana last year, was that the Midshipmen beating a Big Ten team would become a yearly tradition.
Continuing to puzzle Indiana with a triple-option attack, Navy left with more than an old prow anchored in Bloomington, Ind., as the Midshipmen won, 41-35, in their season opener.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was hobbled during the week, but he didn't show it Saturday, rushing for 127 yards and three touchdowns — his third career game with three scores and more than 100 yards.
All of this came after the passing of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's mother, Lamala, on Thursday night, with the Midshipmen wearing a heart-shaped decal with her initials on their shoulder pads.
“That was a battle, a heavyweight slugfest. They punched us, we'd punch them, back and forth,” Niumatalolo said. “We were just lucky to come out with the win.”
Navy didn't punt during the game, converting three fourth-down attempts, including a drive-sustaining, 2-yard gain by Reynolds that kept the ball in the Midshipmen's hands and helped Navy hold onto a 7-point lead with 2:30 to play.
From the first series, the Midshipmen had the Hoosiers on their heels.
The defense harassed Hoosiers quarterback Tre Roberson, who was flushed out of the pocket on two passing plays on an eventual three-and-out. The Midshipmen, meanwhile, went 88 yards on their first series, mixing in runs by five different ball carriers, including a 30-yard carry by slotback Geoffrey Whiteside on the first play of the drive. Reynolds capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Little was asked of Reynolds as a passer, with so many seams available for keepers and option pitches in the first half.
Gliding past the Hoosiers defense, the Midshipmen rushed for 255 yards on 35 carries in the first half, including 50 yards for Reynolds, 57 for slot back Darius Staten and a team-leading 88 for Whiteside on their way to a 24-14 first-half lead. The team finished with 444 yards on the ground.
The Midshipmen needed their running game late to hold off a rally from the Hoosiers, who were down 41-28 midway through the fourth quarter but cut it down to six.
“When they cut it, I was like, this is what we train for,” said Darius Staten, who finished with 106 yards. “When we are done with conditioning and heading into the locker room, it might be three more sprints. Then we think it's going to be three more sprints and [Niumatalolo] gives us four more.”
By running the ball with success, the Midshipmen were able to keep one of the Big Ten's most explosive offenses — a team that scored 73 points against Indiana State last week — off the field.
Navy defensive tackle Bernard Sarra clogged the middle and forced a negative gain on one fourth-down attempt by the Hoosiers in the first quarter. When the Hoosiers switched from Roberson to sophomore quarterback Nate Sudfeld, seemingly gaining some momentum in a drive down to the Navy 12, linebacker Chris Johnson stunted Indiana's push with a first-down interception in the flat.
It didn't take long, however, for Sudfeld to display why the Hoosiers offense had high expectations coming into the 2013 season. He brought Indiana back to within 10 points, at 17-7, with a 45-yard touchdown pass on the second play of a 79-yard drive.
Even as the Hoosiers crept forward, the Midshipmen continued to sustain long drives.
But Niumatalolo admitted after the game he did overcome some hesitancy in going for fourth down as often as he did, riding Reynolds during key moments in the game.
“Sometimes in coaching, we have all this computer analysis and reports and stuff and the percentages, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling,” Niumatalolo said, referring in particular to Reynolds' last conversion in the fourth quarter. “I didn't want to give up the ball.”
Niumatalolo was presented with one of the heart-shaped decals before the game, and he had no doubt his players could play with any a Big Ten team after Saturday night.
“I coach great kids,” Niumatalolo said. “If anyone tries to tell you differently, or tries to paint a picture about those guys in that locker room, those kids in that locker room are as good of kids in the country. I just feel very fortunate.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun