The impressive numbers keep piling up for Navy freshman Keenan Reynolds. The winning streak that corresponds with Reynolds' insertion at quarterback last month remains intact. The recent string of bowl appearances, following a year's hiatus, has been revived.
After a slow start by Navy and its emerging star, the Midshipmen overcame an early 10-point deficit to Florida Atlantic on Saturday, roaring back behind Reynolds to take a 14-10 lead at halftime and holding on for a nervewracking 24-17 victory before a chilled crowd of 29,326 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Led by Reynolds — who accounted for three touchdowns and compiled a career-high 306 yards of offense despite leaving briefly with a fourth-quarter elbow injury — Navy (6-3) won its fifth straight game and became bowl eligible for the ninth time in the past 10 years.
“It's big. I know the guys worked hard throughout camp and throughout the summer. It's good to see it paying off, but we can't stop now, we've got to keep rolling,” Reynolds said. “We've got three games left. We want to get another goal, the CIC [Commander in Chief's Trophy], and then follow up with the last goal of winning a bowl game. We've got to keep grinding, keep working.”
Navy became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to accept a postseason invitation. The Midshipmen will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29 at AT&T; Park in San Francisco against a Pac-12 team. That comes a year after Navy finished 5-7, the team's first losing season in nine years.
“We started off with a goal to get back to a bowl game, to play for the Commander In Chief's Trophy, and to this point they've done both of them,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said after his team equalled its longest winning streak since 2009. “It was a battle today. It was a struggle today. I thought those guys played hard.”
Again, the difference was Reynolds and a defense that seemed to make plays at the most opportune moments.
Making his fourth straight start, Reynolds rushed for a career-high 159 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries and threw for 147 yards on a 8-of-15 passing, including a pair of touchdowns to senior wide receiver Brandon Turner.
But the victory didn't come as easily as the recent road wins at Central Michigan (31-13) and East Carolina (56-28). The Midshipmen fell behind 10-0, and Niumatalolo said he was “concerned” about his team's sluggish start.
“It's always your worst nightmare as a coach that you're going to be flat,” Niumatalolo said. “We had a short week. Obviously there were some things that happened this week [with Hurricane Sandy] that were way more important than a football game. Things we had done in the past, we couldn't do. We shanked a punt, we missed a field goal, we couldn't move the ball on offense.”
It took a 48-yard run by Reynolds with a little over eight minutes left in the second quarter — the longest run from scrimmage by a Navy player this season — to jumpstart the Midshipmen. Reynolds helped Navy turn the early deficit into a 14-point halftime lead with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Turner and his own 1-yard touchdown run in the final seconds of the first half.
“The long run was big, it kind of got some momentum going, but it wasn't done by myself,” Reynolds said. “I had some help on the perimeter and it all worked out.”
After a 31-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds to Turner that the receiver called “the most perfect pass I've ever seen” and a 20-yard field goal by freshman Nick Sloan, Navy led 24-10 early in the fourth quarter and seemed in control.
But Florida Atlantic took advantage when Reynolds had to go back to the dressing room with an elbow injury.
It forced Navy to go back to junior Trey Miller, whom Reynolds had replaced in the fourth quarter of a comeback win at Air Force on Oct 6. On Miller's first snap, fullback Prentice Christian fumbled after a botched handoff — something that happened regularly when Navy committed 12 turnovers the first four weeks, with Miller committing 10 of them.
Florida Atlantic (2-7) immediately converted the turnover into a touchdown, cutting Navy's lead to seven. The Owls had a another chance after Sloan, who hadn't missed a field goal in seven attempts all season before missing a 45-yarder in the first quarter Saturday, saw his 51-yard field goal attempt sail wide left. But after Florida Atlantic reached Navy's 17, the Owls were penalized for a false start, and Navy sophomore defensive end Paul Quessenberry forced quarterback Graham Wilbert into a couple of rushed throws and a turnover on downs.
“We just knew that we needed had to come up with a big stop. Obviously we couldn't let them back in the end zone,” said Quessenberry.
Reynolds, who had returned earlier, did the rest by getting three straight first downs and running out the clock.
“The kid's a tough kid,” Niumatalolo said. “His elbow was hurt, but he found a way to dig it out. The game was definitely not over yet, and he made some big plays at the end to give us a chance to get a ‘W.' He hung onto the ball.”
Asked if his performance so far — including passing for eight touchdowns in his four starts and accounting for 14 touchdowns in the past five games, with only one turnover — has added some pressure, Reynolds was as unflappable with the press as he is in the pocket.
“I just try to come to practice every day and work hard and get better,” he said. “I'm not sure I played as well as I could today, especially in the first half. I have a lot to improve on. That's what I think about. Not what I did in the past, but what I can do to make my team better.”