Despite having lost two in a row and three of four at the season’s midpoint, the Navy football team gave no hint of desperation during practice this week. Coach Ken Niumatalolo didn’t deliver a pointed diatribe as he did earlier this season after the Midshipmen’s 2-0 start, and the players spoke purposefully about moving past Saturday’s gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to Toledo.
The even-handed demeanor in Annapolis underscores players’ resolve to reverse their current situation, recalling how they overcame a similar predicament last year to advance to a bowl game. Plus, Navy’s coaching staff and players are well aware of mitigating circumstances surrounding each of their losses this season.
Starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds was knocked out of the Mids’ 19-7 loss to Western Kentucky on Sept. 28 after a helmet-to-helmet collision. Navy’s second loss, 35-7 at Duke, came a week after an emotionally draining 28-10 victory over Air Force in which the federal government shutdown served as the backdrop.
Then, in last week’s 45-44 heartbreaker to Toledo, a missed extra point in the second overtime doomed the Midshipmen.
“That’s kind of us,” Niumatalolo said. “Our games are always close games, tough games. My feeling of the season is just kind of where we’re at right now, three games we’re happy about, three games not so happy about, but the encouraging thing is we’ve still got a ton of games to play.”
The second half of the season commences Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh (4-2) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy (3-3) has won five straight home games — two this season — and three of its next four are in Annapolis.
“Halfway, obviously we wanted to be undefeated,” Reynolds said. “Things didn’t go our way, but we still have a lot to play for. Coach talks about it all the time. We’ve still got an opportunity to accomplish all of our goals.”
Each season that list comprises beating Army, winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bowl game. The win against Air Force moved Navy one step closer to winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy outright for a second straight year and for a ninth time in 11 seasons.
But last week’s result left players stunned after they stormed back from a 10-point deficit with 12 minutes 10 seconds to play to force overtime.
Reynolds, playing with severe stomach discomfort, scored on a three-yard run to draw Navy within 31-28 with 4:57 to play before Nick Sloan’s 40-yard field goal closed the scoring as regulation expired.
The Midshipmen moved ahead 44-38 on slotback Geoffrey Whiteside’s six-yard run in the second overtime, but Sloan missed the extra point wide right. Two plays later, Rockets quarterback Terrance Owens completed a 20-yard scoring pass to Bernard Reedy, and Jeremiah Detmer’s extra point ended the game.
“Just keep playing and keep having fun playing the game,” senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said about how the team is putting the loss well in its rearview mirror. “We can’t dwell in the past, because we’ve just got to focus on the next game.”
Recent history does suggest an upswing may be in store for the Midshipmen. Last season, Navy won five of six during the second half of the season, going 3-0 during that stretch in games decided by seven points of fewer.
Of Navy’s final six opponents, only two have winning records.
“We’re still a confident team,” Reynolds said. “I think on Saturday we saw it. We had plenty of opportunities where we could have quit, but we kept fighting, and we kept scrapping to the very last whistle. Couldn’t be more proud of my teammates at this point.”