The beleaguered Black Knights of Army finally seemed poised to escape their recent past when freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds gave them a deflating glimpse of Navy's brightening future.
Reynolds, who picked the Midshipmen off the deck nine weeks ago and led them back to bowl eligibility, picked them up again on Saturday when it looked like the Commander-in-Chief's trophy was about to slip through their fingers. He accounted for all but two yards in the decisive 80-yard drive that carried the Mids to their 11th straight victory in the legendary Army-Navy rivalry.
The Cadets could have been forgiven — after watching the kid put a 49-yard pass right on the money to wide receiver Brandon Turner to set up his own game-winning 8-yard touchdown run — for wondering if Robert Griffin III had suddenly parachuted into Lincoln Financial Field to send them home hungry yet again.
There was a lot more to Navy's 17-13 victory than that. There were some huge plays by the defense. There were enough Army turnovers to make Army coach Rich Ellerson toss and turn until spring practice. The game couldn't have been much more dramatic, basically ending on an Army fumble in the red zone.
But the thing that everyone at Navy will take away from the game — other than that giant trophy that means so much to all three of the service academies — was the performance of the youthful and diminutive quarterback who came up so big in front of a national television audience and was named the the game's MVP by a vote of the local and national media.
It's a little too early for real comparisons, of course. Reynolds isn't RGIII or Michael Vick or Roger Staubach, for that matter. He's just a very exciting athlete with a big tool box who might just keep this winning streak against Army going for a few more years as he continues to grow at his position.
"The kid is a very, very good football player,'' Navy coach Ken Niumatololo said. "He listens. He's well coachable. His legacy will be, will he stay hungry and stay humble? If he does those two things, the kid has a chance to go down as one of the best quarterbacks we have ever had."
That wasn't the original plan, of course. Reynolds was just waiting his turn when Niumatololo called his number after junior QB Trey Miller went down with an ankle injury late in what was shaping up as a loss to Air Force in early October. Instead, Reynolds led the Mids on a late touchdown drive to tie the game and and another to defeat the Falcons in overtime.
The Mids were on their way to being 1-4. Instead, they are now 8-4 and Reynolds is 7-1 as their starting quarterback.
That's why Niumatalolo claims he felt very confident that this 19-year-old with just six college games and change under his belt would be able to handle all that comes along with being the starting quarterback in the 113th Army-Navy Game.
"If he can come into the Air Force game down by eight in the fourth quarter with eight minutes left at their place and have clear eyes, and not miss a beat and not seem nervous, I don't know if he can be in a tougher situation,'' Niumatalolo said.
Maybe not, but the Midshipmen were in a pretty tough spot when they got the ball following a missed Army field goal with less than seven minutes left in the game and Army up by three. The Knights had done a very good job of containing Reynolds and the Navy triple option offense, perhaps because they run a similar offensive scheme. Army also had proven they could move the ball, so it looked like the CIC Trophy was going to be won or lost on that possession.
Navy is known for grinding out first downs, but it all happened pretty fast. The Mids managed just two yards on their first two plays, but Reynolds completed a clutch third-down pass to slotback Geoffrey Whiteside and ran 11 yards for another first down before hitting Turner down the sideline to set up his touchdown run.
"Before the drive started, I told the guys, 'This is the one. We're going to go down and we're going to score,' " Reynolds said, "and they all looked at me and said 'Let's go!' I couldn't have done it without the other guys on the squad. Brandon came up with a huge catch. Big play for us. He had been hungry for the ball the whole game. I could just see in his eyes that he wanted it. I knew that when he got his opportunity, he was going to make it count."
Though Reynolds was the only freshman starter in the huddle, his teammates have had no trouble accepting his leadership. That's what happens when you let your performance do most of the talking.
"There's something about the kid," Turner said. "Just the way he led us on that last drive was unbelievable. In one of the biggest games, a freshman came in and beat one of the better Army teams there's been in these last few years. That's incredible, that's remarkable."
No doubt, Navy fans are looking forward to many more remarkable performances by Reynolds over the next three years, but he hasn't had time to look beyond this season, which will end on Dec. 29 against Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
"Coming in, I really didn't think about the future,'' Reynolds said. "I'm aware that we have three more years to keep this trophy in Annapolis, but I knew it all started here. We had to make it happen today."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app