MEMPHIS — Keenan Reynolds will have to wait for another shot a setting the major-college football record for career rushing touchdowns, but Navy’s quarterback hardly minded. The senior co-captain was too busy celebrating with his teammates in the wake of Saturday night’s 45-20 win against Memphis, ranked 13th in the College Football Playoff poll, to care.
In fact, Coach Ken Niumatalolo tried to give Reynolds, playing his first college game in his home state, a chance to set the record late in a game that was all but decided. But Reynolds checked out of a quarterback sneak after seeing nine defenders crowding the line of scrimmage, instead pitching to slotback Demond Brown for a one-yard touchdown to cap the scoring.
“We were trying to give the ball to Keenan there at the end, get him the record at home, or I was trying to,” Niumatalolo said of his quarterback, a native of Antioch, Tenn., outside Nashville. “Let the kid get this record at home. He’s got so many family [members] and friends in his home state, but he got us into a better play. That just shows you the type of kid he is, the leader he is. It was just about the ‘W.’ It wasn’t about the record.”
In front of an announced crowd of 55,212 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, fullback Chris Swain ran for 108 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries, as Navy amassed 374 rushing yards and the defense forced three turnovers to end the Tigers’ 15-game winning streak and their hopes of securing a berth in the playoff.
The Midshipmen (7-1, 5-0), meanwhile, moved into a tie with unbeaten, 25th-ranked Houston for first place in the American Athletic Conference West Division. Navy continued its best start under Niumatalolo and has won 13 of 15 games dating from last season. Its only loss this year has been to fifth-ranked Notre Dame, 41-24.
Navy toppled a ranked opponent for the first time since 2009, when it upset then-No. 19 Notre Dame, 23-21, and defeated a top-15 opponent for the first time since stunning No. 2 South Carolina, 38-21, in 1984.
“I think a win is more important” than the record, said Reynolds, who finished with 38 yards on 17 carries and remains tied with former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball with 77 rushing touchdowns. “I’ve said that since the beginning of the season if takes me not getting a touchdown rushing for us to win, I’ll take a win every day.”
An eight-yard touchdown run by slotback Calvin Cass Jr. with 10 minutes left in the game made the score 38-20 and all but secured the outcome for Navy. The Midshipmen added Brown’s one-yard run with 5 minutes 56 seconds to play following a forced fumble by junior linebacker Ted Coburn Jr.
The Midshipmen took a 31-20 lead with 3:28 to go in the third quarter on Swain’s 40-yard run, his last touchdown of the game, through a hole on the right side. It was the first time since slotback Reggie Campbell rushed for three touchdowns and caught another in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl that a Navy player other than a quarterback had at least three touchdowns in a game.
Navy forced a turnover on the Tigers’ ensuing possession. Coburn had the strip, and cornerback Quincy Adams recovered at the Navy 49, but the Midshipmen went three plays and punted.
It took just one play late in the third quarter for Navy to move in front for good, 24-17, when Reynolds found slotback DeBrandon Sanders wide open along the right sideline for a 75-yard touchdown pass. The scoring throw was the longest completion of Reynolds’s career, surpassing a 70-yarder he had his freshman year. Reynolds has 28 career touchdown passes, one short of Bill Byrne’s school record.
Memphis (8-1, 4-1) came right back, though, trimming the margin to 24-20 on junior place kicker Jake Elliott’s 38-yard field goal with 5:25 to play in the third quarter.
The Tigers had tied the score at 17 coming out of halftime with a drive more suited for Navy’s triple-option offense, going 84 yards in 15 plays. Wide receiver Anthony Miller took the handoff for a one-yard touchdown on first and goal, aided by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Midshipmen linebacker Brandon Jones.
Memphis would never be level again.
“I think it feeds the program,” said Midshipmen junior linebacker Daniel Gonzales, who had an interception late in the second quarter that led to a field goal. “I think just the excitement of the game, the magnitude of the game, everything that came into it, it shows where Navy football is at.”