FORT WORTH, TEXAS — As the fourth quarter began in the Armed Forces Bowl, things looked a bit ugly for Navy.
Locked in a tight, ugly, chippy game with Middle Tennessee State, the Midshipmen hadn't moved the ball well since the first quarter. And they had uncharacteristically hurt themselves with four fumbles, including two that were lost. Not to mention that they had lost their starting center and top two strong safeties to injuries and an ejection.
As it turns out, Navy (9-4) had everything under control.
The Mids dominated the fourth quarter, scoring two quick touchdowns — including the second of the day by quarterback Keenan Reynolds — and completing their defensive mastery of the Blue Raiders to pull away for a 24-6 victory Monday at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
"It's just the toughness of our group, the resilience," Navy linebacker Cody Peterson said. "We just focused on the goal the whole time, just focused on our job and everything in our control. That's kind of how we've been all season. We've kept our mouth shut, we've worked and we've taken care of everything that's in our power."
The Midshipmen certainly took care of a Middle Tennessee State offense that had entered the game on a roll. The Blue Raiders (8-5) had won their previous five games, averaging 42.6 points and 273.2 rushing yards per game during the streak.
But Navy's undersized front seven held Middle Tennessee State to a mere 91 yards on the ground and 3.4 yards per rush, and the Midshipmen stiffened in the red zone to hold one of its opponents out of the end zone for the first time all season.
"It just feels great," Peterson said. "It's just a testament to our determination, guys stepping up and making plays when we need it, just like [Navy reserve safety] George [Jamison] did today. Just a totally selfless group. It's huge to finish like this."
The defense's biggest play came on the opening possession of the third quarter.
With the Midshipmen leading, 10-6, Middle Tennessee State had driven to the Navy 7-yard line, where it faced fourth-and-2. The Blue Raiders chose to go for it instead of kicking a field goal, but Jamison, playing because starting safety Wave Ryder had been ejected and backup Lonnie Richardson was injured, shot the gap inside and tripped up Middle Tennessee State fullback Corey Carmichael, who was stopped a yard short of the first down.
"We were running a coverage, and I knew I had that gap, so as soon as I saw it open up, I knew I had to fill in," Jamison said. "I just did my job and my responsibility, and everyone else on defense did theirs. I was just doing my job."
Then it was Reynolds' turn to take over.
Through three quarters, Navy's star had a rocky outing, fumbling three times and losing two of them — the Mids' first turnovers since an Oct. 26 victory over Pittsburgh. But he began the fourth quarter by directing an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run to give Navy a 17-6 lead.
Less than two minutes later, after Jamison's interception set up the Midshipmen at the Middle Tennessee State 43, Reynolds pitched the ball on an option to DeBrandon Sanders, who took it 41 yards for the final touchdown.
Reynolds led the Midshipmen with 86 yards rushing. Nine Navy players combined to rush for 366 yards.
"This guy gets us in good plays," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said about Reynolds. "It's a very unselfish offense, so just proud of the way we've been able to execute. Things didn't always look great, but we just continued to battle."
The victory carried some extra weight given the Mids' recent history in bowls.
Under Niumatalolo, Navy had lost four of five bowls before Monday's win. The Midshipmen ended last season with a 62-28 loss to Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl, a game in which they allowed 648 yards of total offense.
And to be able to hoist the 60-pound Armed Forces Bowl trophy, which is made from pieces of vehicles and artillery used by all branches of the military, was extra special.
"There was a lot of celebrating going on," Niumatalolo said. "First and foremost, very happy for our team, all of our players, all of these young men, our seniors. It's just a special way to send them out.
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"These young men who are going to go out and serve our country, I couldn't think of a better way to send our seniors out. I'm happy for our players and just grateful for them."