SAN FRANCISCO — A little more than a month into the season, the Navy football team had lost to all three FBS opponents it had played, and the closest result in any of those beatings was 12-0 at home to San Jose State.
Then came a road game against Air Force, which had won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for two straight years and appeared on the way to another when it carried an eight-point lead late into the fourth quarter.
So when Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo recently reflected on the state of the team these days, he paused at some length to come up with an appropriate narrative of just how the Midshipmen qualified for a ninth bowl appearance in 10 years.
“I don’t know what the word is,” Niumatalolo said a few days before Navy’s game against heavily favored Arizona State in Saturday’s Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park. “If we find a way to eke this one out, it could be one of the most satisfying seasons for our team.”
The turnaround began with a rousing comeback victory over Air Force, 28-21 in overtime, in which Keenan Reynolds crafted the first signature moment of his potentially record-setting career at Navy. Playing his first meaningful minutes, the freshman came off the bench for injured starter Trey Miller and directed the Midshipmen to 15 straight points amid inhospitable conditions at Falcon Stadium.
Reynolds’s 15-yard rushing touchdown with 6 minutes 35 seconds left in regulation followed by Noah Copeland’s two-point conversion run forced overtime, and guard Jake Zuzek’s fumble recovery in the end zone gave Navy the lead. The defense preserved the improbable outcome by holding Air Force to six yards on the Falcons’ only possession of overtime.
Navy (8-4) proceeded to win its next four games, including rallying for 10 points in the final 5:30 for a 31-30 homecoming victory over Indiana. It was the first win by the Midshipmen against a team from the Big Ten since they won at Illinois in 1979 and their first home victory against a Big Ten opponent since Purdue in 1926.
Another victory in the Midshipmen’s surge was 56-28 over East Carolina, which finished the regular season 8-4 and played in the New Orleans Bowl. Navy amassed 563 yards, 512 of which came via the run, and beat the Pirates for a second straight time on the road. Reynolds rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another, and senior slot back Gee Gee Greene ran for a career-high 131 yards.
“You could see our team coming together,” senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said. “After Penn State [a 34-7 loss on Sept. 15], a lot of people were like, ‘Wow, this Navy team is going to have a down year.’ But I don’t think anybody in the locker room really felt that. It was just a slow process of learning how to play with each other and to build as a team. Coach always talks about just getting better every week, and I feel that’s really what we’ve done.”
The culmination of the regular season came, not surprisingly, with drama. Navy was trailing Army by three points late in the fourth quarter of a 17-13 triumph at Lincoln Financial Field when Reynolds scored the winning touchdown on an eight-yard run. The Midshipmen had gained possession several minutes earlier after a poor exchange between Army quarterback Trent Steelman and running back Larry Dixon led to a lost fumble.
Navy extended its series record to 11 straight wins against Army and claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2009 and a service-academy record 13th time overall.
“It’s just an amazing experience,” senior slot back Bo Snelson said. “I think this one, this season, is definitely one I’m going to be the most proud of just because I’ve been with these guys for so long and been able to see how much they’ve poured into this program.”