By Matthew Postins
For three-quarters the Middle Tennessee defense did a solid job of slowing down Navy’s triple option offense. But it’s the fourth quarter when an offense like Navy’s can wear a team down, and that’s exactly what the Midshipmen did to the Blue Raiders.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds led an 11-play scoring drive to start the fourth quarter, a drive that ultimately led the Midshipmen to a 24-6 victory over Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl on Monday at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Reynolds, the game’s Most Valuable Player for Navy, bounced back from an injury that sidelined him briefly in the third quarter to lead the drive, which culminated with his 1-yard rushing score with 10:48 left in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 86 yards rushing and two scores, along with 19 passing yards.
Reynolds fueled a day in which Navy used nine different rushers and gained a whopping 366 yards rushing and an Armed Forces Bowl record for rushing first downs.
“That’s a great testament to who we are,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’re unselfish. We’re going to take what people give us and that’s been our thing all year. We have a lot of guys that carry the ball. We’re an unselfish team. If it’s your turn to carry the ball you do your best. If it’s your turn to block, you block.”
But that scoring drive didn’t start as a typical Navy (9-4) drive. Starting from their own 20-yard line after a Blue Raiders punt, Reynolds threw two incomplete passes, setting up 3rd-and-10. Running back Demond Brown rushed for 14 yards to convert the third down, and then things got back to normal.
Brown rushed for another 9 yards, followed by a 5-yard gain by Reynolds for a first down. Darius Staten gained 10 yards on the next play, but fumbled. Fortunately his teammate, Sean Reaver, recovered the fumble out-of-bounds and the Midshipmen retained possession.
But on that play Middle Tennessee’s Roderic Blunt was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for hitting Staten late. It was Blunt’s second unsportsmanlike penalty of the day and led to his ejection.
The penalty moved the ball to the Blue Raiders 27 and four running plays later Reynolds had his second touchdown of the game and 31st rushing touchdown of the season, which tied him for the FBS lead with Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs.
Then the floodgates opened. On the ensuing drive Middle Tennessee (8-5) quarterback Logan Kilgore threw an interception to Navy’s George Jamison. Two plays later Navy running back DeBrandon Sanders rushed for a 41-yard touchdown to give Navy a comfortable 24-6 lead with 9:16 remaining.
“We knew there would be a limited amount of possessions,” Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill said. “They (Navy) only average 9.9 per game. We knew once it was a two-score game we knew it was going to be hard to come back.”
Middle Tennessee never seemed comfortable offensively, and part of that was due to Navy’s defense. Kilgore, playing his final game for Middle Tennessee, threw two interceptions. Navy held the Blue Raiders to 91 yards rushing, led by Jeremiah Bryson’s 43 yards. Leading rusher Jordan Parker had just one carry for four yards.
“The last two games our defense has been phenomenal,” Niumatalolo said. “Army has moved the ball well and we played well against hem. Middle has been moving the ball. Our guys played really well, physical and we knew we had to do that coming in.”
Plus, the Blue Raiders were their own worst enemy when it came to penalties.
The Blue Raiders entered the game ranked No. 10 in the nation in penalties per game with four. On Monday the Blue Raiders committed only six penalties, but four of them were personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, something Stockstill defended after the game, implying that two of the penalties probably shouldn’t have been called.
“I’m not going to back down one bit,” Stockstill said. “We had something to prove. We were physical and tough and I loved how they played.”
Navy started the game by marching down the field and scoring on its opening drive, rushing 10 straight plays and leading to Reynolds’ 3-yard touchdown run.
Middle Tennessee answered on the ensuing drive with a field goal after reaching the Navy 26. Cody Clark did the honors from 43 yards out, but the drive came to a halt after Navy’s Drake Jordan sacked Kilgore for an 8-yard loss and Kilgore’s third-down attempt to Kyle Griswould fell incomplete.
Up 7-3, Navy added a field goal early in the second quarter, a 32-yarder by Nick Sloan to make it 10-3 Midshipmen. Later in the second quarter Middle Tennessee kicked a 24-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-6 with 6:38 left before halftime.
Middle Tennessee had the ball to start the third quarter and drove the length of the field, facing 4th-and-goal at the Navy 2. The Blue Raiders went for it, but Navy’s Travis Bridges and Jamison stopped fullback Corey Carmichael 1 yard short of a score.
“We knew we weren’t going to get it done kicking field goals, that’s why we went for it on fourth down,” Stockstill said.