Navy made just about every mistake imaginable and still somehow won a football game.
The Midshipmen lost four fumbles, committed silly penalties and were atrocious on special teams. Fortunately for Navy, the defense bailed out the struggling offense time and time again while favored San Diego State was just as mistake-prone.
Austin Grebe kicked a 24-yard field goal with 1:27 remaining in the game as Navy somehow squeaked out a 17-16 victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl before an announced 33,077 at Qualcomm Stadium on Tuesday night.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to pull it out somehow,” said Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was limited to 9 rushing yards and was responsible for two fumbles. “That’s football sometimes. A win is a win, and we’ll take it.”
Grebe’s clutch kick capped a wild fourth quarter in which both teams tried to give the game away. San Diego State blew a golden opportunity to win the game in the final seconds as Donny Hageman missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 24 seconds left.
Hageman, who already had made three field goals in the game, pushed the ball right – setting off a wild celebration on the Navy sideline.
“I have no idea how we won this game,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We pride ourselves on not turning the ball over. We pride ourselves on not taking penalties. This win was because of the defense. They kept us in the game.”
A failure to finish in the red zone along with the missed field-goal try at the end spoiled an outstanding effort by the San Diego State defense, which held Navy to 271 total yards. The Mids managed only 254 rushing yards, 91 below their nation-leading average.
“It was a hard-fought game and they made one more play than we did. They made a field goal and we missed a field goal,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “If we had scored more points on all the chances we got, it wouldn’t have come down to a field goal.”
Trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter, Navy got one last opportunity to pull out the win when outside linebacker Chris Johnson forced and recovered a fumble. Johnson ripped the ball away from San Diego State tailback Donnel Pumphrey, then fell on the ball near midfield to give the Mids life.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the San Diego State 44-yard line with 3:43 remaining, Navy converted when fullback Chris Swain burst through a big hole up the middle and gained 13 yards. That produced a critical first down, but the Mids wound up losing 2 yards as a result of a dead-ball face mask penalty called on wide receiver Jamir Tillman.
That personal foul sent the Midshipmen back to the 46-yard line and took them out of field-goal territory. Not to worry, slotback Ryan Williams-Jenkins caught a pitchout and raced 28 yards down the sideline to put Navy right back into Grebe’s range.
Grebe, a junior from Stafford, Va., came on and drilled the biggest kick of his career between the uprights.
“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking I would have to kick it because usually when we get that close Keenan scores,” Grebe said. “I just wanted to go out there and make it and send all our seniors out on a positive note.”
Grebe, who replaced Nick Sloan as Navy’s kicker in early October, did not miss a kick this season – finishing 6-for-6 on field goals and 33-for-33 on extra points.
“I asked Nick where he wanted the ball and he said it didn’t matter, which shows what kind of kid he is,” Niumatalolo said. “Nick said put it on either hash and he’d kick the ball in.”
Swain rushed for 72 yards while fellow fullback Noah Copeland added 63 for Navy, which won six of its last seven games to close an up-and-down season with an 8-5 record. Williams-Jenkins finished with 67 rushing yards for the Midshipmen, who overcame three fumbles deep in their territory and four offensive penalties.
“We put our defense in bad spots with the turnovers,” Niumatalolo said. “But the defense didn’t flinch. They were able to make some big plays, get some stops and keep them out of the end zone. We played really, really well on defense, and that’s what gave us a chance at the end.”
San Diego started four drives in Navy territory and managed just the three field goals by Hageman. Inside linebacker Jordan Drake recorded 13 tackles to earn Defensive Most Valuable Player honors as the Mids got stops at their 12-, 13-, 20- and 26-yard lines. None was bigger than a fourth-down stand midway through the fourth quarter that forced a turnover on downs.
“Defense came up huge for us,” Reynolds said. “They got clutch stops and got some turnovers.”
Pumphrey finished with 112 rushing yards to lead San Diego State (7-6), which committed three turnovers of its own. Quarterback Quinn Kaehler had a tough day throwing the ball, completing only 11 of 27 passes for 141 yards and throwing two interceptions.
“We turned the ball over in crucial situations, and that’s why we lost,” San Diego State offensive lineman Terry Poole said.
Navy could not have asked for a better start as inside linebacker Daniel Gonzales thwarted a promising game-opening drive by intercepting an errant pass over the middle by Kaehler. Gonzales returned the pick 29 yards to the opposing 36-yard line and give the Mids great field position for their first possession.
Geoffrey Whiteside gained 5 yards on a pitch to convert a fourth-and-4 while fellow slotback Williams-Jenkins picked up 14 yards on third-and-3. The latter run gave Navy first-and-goal from the 4 and Reynolds dived over from a yard out to make it 7-0 midway through the first period.
Rashaad Penny returned the ensuing kickoff 57 yards to give San Diego State a short field. The Aztecs needed just five plays to reach the end zone with Pumphrey scoring from 5 yards out to tie the score. Pumphrey, who set the single-season school record for rushing yardage in the game, ran into a wall up the middle but simply bounced outside and waltzed into the end zone as the Mids lost containment.
Reynolds made a bad decision on the second play of the ensuing possession, flinging the ball toward Whiteside to avoid being tackled for a loss. The errant pitch skidded toward the sideline and was scooped up by San Diego State linebacker Cody Galea at the Navy 29-yard line.
Navy’s defense rose to the occasion and forced San Diego State to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Hageman that made the score 10-7 with 2:51 remaining in the first period.
Navy’s defense, which was on the field for 15½ minutes in the first half, stiffened deep in its territory again and forced another field goal by Hageman, this time from 37 yards out as the Aztecs moved ahead 13-10 going into halftime.
It appeared that Reynolds missed numerous reads as the Midshipmen managed just 82 yards of total offense in the first half. Navy gained 42 yards on its opening drive, then totaled just 40 more yards on three subsequent possessions.
Navy found something with the fullback dive on the opening possession of the second half. Swain broke loose up the middle for gains of 24 and 19 yards while Copeland added a 15-yard run as the Mids made the Aztecs pay for their aggressive outside pursuit.
“We tried to go right at them, tried to run north-south,” Niumatalolo said. “Our fullbacks ran really hard. We needed some yards after contact and they got them.”
Reynolds scored from 6 yards out on a keeper to cap the 13-play, 92-yard march that took 6:32 off the clock and gave Navy a 14-13 lead. The Mids had 10 yards more on that one drive than they did in the entire first half.
“That was a huge drive, and we really needed it,” Niumatalolo said.
San Diego State was forced to punt for just the second time in the game after picking up just one first down on its first possession of the third period. However, the Aztecs got the ball right back as returner DeBrandon Sanders muffed the catch and the ball was recovered by linebacker Devante Davis at the Mids’ 18-yard line.
For the third time in the game, Navy’s defense responded on a short field, not allowing a first down and forcing a third field-goal attempt. Hageman converted from 31 yards as San Diego State retook the lead, 16-14, with 6:32 remaining in the third.
The score would stay that way for a while as the teams traded punts and turnovers. Williams-Jenkins was bailed out for fumbling at his 41-yard line by safety George Jamison, who intercepted an overthrown pass by Kaehler and returned it just shy of midfield to put Navy back in business.
Consecutive 5-yard runs by Copeland gave Navy a first down at the San Diego State 44-yard line, but then the fumble bug struck again. Reynolds mishandled the snap from center and this time the ball was recovered by linebacker Derek Largent.
“It was a lot of self-inflicted wounds, guys not being on the same page,” Reynolds said of the offensive woes. “As far as the turnovers, a lot of that falls back on me. I’m the guy that handles the ball.”
A 24-yard run by backup tailback Kalan Montgomery set up San Diego State with first down at the Navy 17-yard line and it appeared the home team was prepared to put the game away. However, the drive stalled and an incomplete pass on fourth-and-5 produced a turnover on downs and kept the Midshipmen’s hopes alive.
It was a curious decision by Long as a field goal at that point would have given San Diego State a five-point lead and forced Navy to score a touchdown.