After opening the season with two lopsided losses to traditional BCS powers, the Navy football team overcame early turnovers in its home opener against FCS opponent Virginia Military Institute for a 41-3 victory on Saturday. The win included a measure of redemption for quarterback Trey Miller and a swarming defense that scored a touchdown and yielded no points in the second half.
Before an announced crowd of 35,671, Miller ran for three touchdowns and amassed a career-high 116 yards on 17 carries, but he also lost two fumbles in the first half to raise his turnover total to eight through three games. The junior’s final touchdown covered 40 yards and included a leap over cornerback James Fruehan at the 20 before he reached the end zone for a 27-3 advantage with 13 minutes 40 seconds to play.
Sophomore fullback Noah Copeland added a career-high 126 yards on 20 carries, and Navy (1-2) limited the Keydets to 222 yards and 5 of 15 on third-down attempts. The Midshipmen also knocked starting quarterback Eric Kordenbrock out of the game during the first half in front of the largest crowd to witness a home opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“This feels a lot better than the last two weeks,” said Coach Ken Niumatalolo, referring to losses of 50-10 to Notre Dame on Sept. 1 and 34-7 to Penn State last weekend. “It’s not to say we’re perfect or we’re the New York Giants or anything like that, but just proud of the way our young men fought back.”
Navy’s penultimate touchdown came when linebacker Matt Warrick returned an interception seven yards for a touchdown, and reserve fullback Maika Polamalu completed the scoring with a 21-yard run with 3:08 to play.
The Midshipmen compiled 403 rushing yards to surpass their combined total over the first two games, went 4 of 5 in red zone chances and logged three sacks, although they committed seven penalties for a second straight game, their first such streak since 2000.
With 10 giveaways through two games, Navy’s careless ball security resurfaced when Miller lost the ball during the exchange from junior center Thomas Stone and the Keydets (1-3) recovered at their 34-yard line. VMI turned that miscue into a 3-0 lead on Jeff Sexton’s 42-yard field goal with 8:49 left in the first quarter.
The Midshipmen countered with a 10-play drive over 82 yards to tie the score courtesy of freshman Nick Sloan’s 19-yard field goal with 2:37 to play. Navy had first and goal at the 3, but an illegal procedure charged to Copeland pushed the Midshipmen back to the 8, and on third down, Miller came up two yards short of the goal line.
A second Miller fumble sabotaged another scoring chance after Shawn Lynch’s 40-yard punt return was enhanced by a VMI holding penalty that set up Navy at the Keydets 14. On second down from the 13, Miller (7-for-14 passing, 107 yards) absorbed a blow from linebacker William Hyman that jarred loose the ball, and linebacker Logan Staib recovered at the 15.
Navy’s defense forced a punt, but disaster almost struck again when Miller got hit dropping back to pass and lost the ball. Senior left guard Josh Cabral was able to recover, and Navy changed centers on its next possession. Junior Thomas Stone had started, making him the fourth center in Miller’s four career starts, but Tanner Fleming took over after starting last week at Beaver Stadium.
The move to Fleming yielded Navy’s first touchdown when Miller, whom Niumatalolo said was nearly replaced by freshman Keenan Reynolds, scored from seven yards on an inside run with 3:12 left until intermission. One play before that, senior slotback Gee Gee Greene broke loose for a 36-yard gain on third and five for Navy’s second straight third-down conversion, and the Midshipmen coasted the rest of the way.
“I still don’t think I played really good,” Miller said. “We had too many turnovers once again. We’ve just got to keep working on that and come to practice ready to work hard.”