Navy's gutsy, hard-fought overtime victory against Air Force on Saturday is the type that can turn around a season.
Pulling out a close win over a service academy rival on its home field is a very uplifting experience. Navy went toe-to-toe with a good Air Force team and made all the plays necessary to come out on top.
Navy entered the game with a 1-3 record and plenty of question marks. A shutout loss to San Jose State had shaken the offense's confidence. With two straight road games looming, the pressure was on the coaching staff to get things turned around. That this once proud program could suffer two straight losing seasons was looking like a distinct possibility.
"It feels good to win any time, but to beat a great program like Air Force, our rival, has got to be huge. It's been a tough year for us so to have something positive happen… I'm just happy for our guys," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Last season, a heartbreaking 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force was the catalyst to a six-game losing streak that Navy could not overcome. That dismal stretch was the reason why the Mids' streak of winning seasons capped by bowl berths ended at eight. Now Niumatalolo is hopeful that an emotional, come-from-behind victory over Air Force will help Navy get on a roll.
"Last year, I thought our loss (to Air Force) kind of put us in a tailspin. I'm hoping this is the reverse. I'm hoping this game will propel us to some good things the rest of the year.
Heroes abounded for Navy on Saturday, beginning with backup quarterback Keenan Reynolds. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound plebe showed remarkable poise and playmaking ability in directing the tying and winning touchdown drives.
Reynolds is the real deal, combining a strong, accurate throwing arm with dangerous running ability. The Tennessee native completed all three of his passes on the six-play, 75-yard drive that produced the tying touchdown. He showed great speed and quickness on the 15-yard run that capped the march.
Blessed with natural leadership qualities and confidence, Reynolds acted like his performance was no big deal when speaking to reporters afterward. "It's just football. Nothing's changed. The guys are a little faster, a little bigger. At the end of the day, I had to be there for my brothers," he said.
Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have a tough decision to make this week with regard to the starting quarterback. Fans will be clamoring for Reynolds after what he did on Saturday, but there is a reason the freshman is the backup. Starter Trey Miller, who suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, probably played his best game of the season against Air Force — rushing for 110 yards on 18 carries while completing all three passes he attempted.
Fullback Noah Copeland also had a strong game on Saturday, gaining 84 yards on 21 totes. Navy's offensive line had a good outing and the inside success of Miller and Copeland is particularly a credit to center Tanner Fleming along with guards Josh Cabral and Jake Zuzek.
Speaking of Zuzek, the baby-faced sophomore saved the day by falling on a fumble in the end zone in overtime. Reynolds did not handle the snap from center and the football squirted ahead into the end zone. Zuzek spotted the loose pigskin and smothered it with his 318-pound body.
Asked after the game if Air Force defenders were trying to rip the ball away from him, Zuzek responded "There was, but I wasn't letting it go for anything."
Senior safety Tra'ves Bush started the game one week after suffering a concussion and delivered a team-high 12 tackles and a big fumble recovery. Senior inside linebacker Matt Warrick was an absolute beast in making 11 tackles, including two for losses.
It was Warrick who beat a block and broke into the backfield to drop standout running back Cody Getz for a 1-yard loss on third down of Air Force's overtime possession. That set up fourth-and-six and forced the Falcons to throw. Senior defensive end Wes Henderson was the final hero of the afternoon, alertly batting down quarterback Connor Dietz's pass that was headed for the flat.
It was an especially sweet win for the Navy seniors, who had not tasted victory over Air Force since they were freshmen. Winning in such dramatic fashion was an ideal way to avenge last year's gut-wrenching loss to the Falcons.
"When I first hit that ball, I really didn't know what to think," Henderson said. "Last year was so painful. To see the seniors go out like that really hurt. To win like this, it really is indescribable. It's probably one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life."
As the Midshipmen stormed the field in wild celebration, reporters in the press box looked at the final numbers and wondered how they had pulled it off. Air Force dominated the game statistically, piling up 507 total yards as compared to 359 for Navy. However, as head coach Troy Calhoun pointed out afterward, there were two critical areas that were won by the Mids — turnovers and placekicking.
Air Force lost three fumbles while Navy did not commit a turnover for the first time this season. Untested freshman Nick Sloan was cool as a cucumber in booting field goals of 39 and 41 yards while Air Force's Parker Herrington, a Lou Groza Award candidate, was wide left on attempts from 27 and 51 yards.
An emotional Niumatalolo still had tears in his eyes when he emerged from the visiting locker room at Falcon Stadium to speak with the assembled media. Nobody understood more than the fifth-year head coach how huge this win was for Navy (2-3), which can even its record by winning at Central Michigan on Friday.
"Things were bleak in this game, just like things were bleak in this season, but our guys continued to battle," Niumatalolo said. "Air Force is a good program. Coach Calhoun has done a great job. For us to be able to beat them here, it's a great win for us."