Considering what Keenan Reynolds had accomplished since taking over at quarterback for Navy more than a month ago, it was only a matter of time before an opposing defense was mostly designed to stop the talented freshman.
Despite his least productive performance to date, Reynolds took advantage of the extra attention Saturday against Texas State, pitching to a slew of slotbacks and handing off to sophomore fullback Noah Copeland en route to a 21-10 victory on senior day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Copeland rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns — the first on a 15-yard run in the opening quarter, the second on a 16-yard run after the Midshipmen forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half — to help Navy (7-4) win for the sixth time in the last seven weeks.
The Midshipmen had already become bowl-eligible and accepted a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco Dec. 29. They will be off until they play Army (2-9) for the Commander In Chief's Trophy in Philadelphia on Dec. 8.
Reynolds — who had averaged nearly 300 yards of offense the past two weeks and more than 215 yards while accounting for 16 touchdowns since becoming the first freshman to start for Navy in quarterback in 21 years — was held to 50 yards rushing and 35 passing, completing just 3 of 8 attempts.
"We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times in the red zone," Reynolds said after the Midshipmen clinched their ninth winning season in the last 10 years. "Luckily our defense played a great game. Every single drive they were ready to go. Without them, we would have lost the game."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo looked past what was Reynolds' shakiest performance by pointing to the final score.
"The bottom line, he led us to the victory," Niumatalolo said of Reynolds, who is now 5-1 as a starter. "He took care of the football, did some good things. He obviously has to get ready for the big games coming up in a couple of weeks."
Niumatalolo was uncharacteristically testy when a question was raised about Navy's offensive struggles, which included a fumble by senior slotback Bo Snelson in the open field as the Midshipmen were driving on the opening possession of the game, a few poorly executed third and fourth-down plays by Reynolds and a rare holding penalty after a 37-yard run by Reynolds put the ball at the Bobcats' 2.
It didn't matter, as the Midshipmen never trailed and built a 7-0 halftime lead to 21-3 early in the fourth quarter. Along with Copeland, slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and Darius Staten combined for 139 yards on 21 carries, with Greene, one of 27 seniors honored, scoring a touchdown in his last home game.
"You guys are making like this is a sad part. We're 7-4, we're going to a bowl game, we're getting ready for Army ... why do you want to dwell on the negatives?," Niumatalolo said, his voice raised slightly. "We had some huge defensive stops, no questions asked about that. I guess that's the way the media operates."
The Navy defense, which had been torched for 415 yards in the air by a pair of Troy quarterbacks in a 41-31 road defeat last Saturday, slowed down the Bobcats for most of the first three quarters and former teammate Marcus Curry for most of the game. Curry finished with 67 yards on 11 carries, and didn't have a run longer than 11 yards until the fourth quarter.
The Midshipmen stopped Texas State (3-7) on four fourth-down plays, including a fake field goal try that resulted in a sack by freshman cornerback Kwazel Bertrand in the first half and twice on passes in the fourth quarter. Senior linebackers Matt Warrick and Brye French led Navy with nine and eight tackles, respectively, while Bertrand and junior linebacker Cody Peterson each had seven.
Having watched the Bobcats amass 577 yards of offense in a 62-55 shootout loss to then-No. 18 Louisiana Tech last Saturday, Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said, "They scare you to death. Our kids, give them a lot of credit, they made plays when they needed to make them."
After Texas State finally made a big play when quarterback Shaun Jefferson hit a wide-open Isaiah Battle for a 62-yard touchdown to help close the deficit to 21-10, the Navy defense was tested as the offense continued to struggle to sustain drives. But the Midshipmen kept making stops.
On successive Texas State drives in the fourth quarter — the first after the Bobcats recovered an onside kick following Battle's touchdown — Navy either knocked down passes or forced Rutherford into tough throws on third and fourth downs.
Texas State finally ran out of time — and downs — after driving from its own 19 to the Navy 3 in the waning seconds before a fourth-down pass was batted away as time expired.
"I thought our defense played great," Niumatalolo said. "The first half of last week, our defense got pushed around, but they came back and worked hard. Our defense played great, but nobody wants to talk about defense. ...
"Our seniors have worked so hard to get back. A lot of our wins have been grind-it-out games. It's hard to win. We're not Alabama or LSU, we've got to grind out all our wins."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun