PHILADELPHIA — Last year at this time, Keenan Reynolds was in a restaurant not far from his home town of Antioch, Tenn., watching the Army-Navy game. Then a senior in high school, Reynolds had not formally announced his college choice, but Navy was among the finalists for the two-time all-state football player.
On Saturday, Reynolds will walk onto Lincoln Financial Field as the starting quarterback for the Midshipmen, who have leaned heavily on the freshman during a season in which his performance has belied his years.
Since coming off the bench to direct an overtime victory at Air Force on Oct. 6, Reynolds has gone 5-1 as a starter and been the central figure in Navy’s revival after a 1-3 beginning. He has accounted for a team-high 17 touchdowns, using his strong and accurate arm to make the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense that much more of a headache for defensive coordinators.
“The kid’s special, but we’ve seen a lot of guys get there and can’t remember their name,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the pressure created by the Army-Navy game. “We just hope that he just keeps doing what he’s done this whole season. That’s all you can hope.”
While Reynolds is a newcomer to one of college football’s most storied rivalries, Army quarterback Trent Steelman will be playing Navy for the fourth and final time. Steelman is the only player in Black Knights history who has run and passed for 2,000 yards each, and his 44 rushing touchdowns are the most all-time at West Point.
Steelman is tops or is the runner-up in just about every meaningful offensive category at Army, but despite prolific statistics that include 16 wins as a starter, the second most in program history, the senior is 0-3 against the Midshipmen. Last season’s 27-21 loss at FedEx Field was especially disheartening given the Black Knights had advanced to the Navy 28-yard line in the closing minutes only to turn over the ball on downs before the Midshipmen ran out the clock.
Navy thus celebrated its 10th consecutive win against Army, the longest streak by either side in series history. This year’s installment is all the more consequential because for the first time since 2005, the winner will be able to hoist the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Navy relinquished the trophy to Air Force in 2010 after keeping it in Annapolis a CIC-record seven straight years. Army has not won it since 1996.
“I can only imagine what he’s going to go through just because going out there and playing in a game like this, there’s so much riding on the line,” Steelman said of Reynolds. “It’s hard to stay calm. It’s hard to go out there and perform the way you can just because of all the emotions.”
The closest Reynolds has come to such an environment was against Air Force, when the Midshipmen trailed by eight with nine minutes to play. Reynolds was in the game at the time in part because then-starter Trey Miller hurt his ankle after rushing for 110 yards on 18 carries.
Reynolds began the series by completing consecutive passes to wide receiver Brandon Turner and slotback Gee Gee Greene. On the sixth play, Reynolds scored on a 15-yard run, and fullback Noah Copeland’s two-point conversion run tied the game with 6 minutes 35 seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, Reynolds scored on a one-yard run on the opening possession, and Navy’s defense forced an incomplete pass on fourth and six to preserve the 28-21 result at Falcon Stadium.
One month later, the Black Knights, behind 101 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Steelman, routed Air Force, 41-21, at Michie Stadium to ensure the winner of the 113th Army-Navy game would be visiting President Obama next year at the White House.
“You know what they always say, ‘Beat Army,’ ” Reynolds said of the encouragement he’s received from fellow midshipmen. “The first thing I learned when I showed up was beat Army. They just said: ‘It’s a big game. We don’t lose to Army. Go out and handle business.’ ”
When: 3 p.m. Where: Lincoln Financial Field
TV: WUSA (Channel 9), WJZ (Channel 13).
Radio: WFED (820, 1500 AM), WNAV (1430 AM).
Run, run, run: The Midshipmen (7-4) are ranked sixth nationally in rushing at 285.5 yards per game, while Army (2-9) gives up an average of 238.3 rushing yards per game, which is 118th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Watch for Navy to try to get the ball to the outside on pitches against the Black Knights’ defense, which is designed to clog the middle and prevent its opponent from establishing the fullback. That means senior slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and Bo Snelson figure to be in line for plenty of touches in their final Army-Navy game.
Go play-action: Navy has been able to get wide receivers and slotbacks open on play-action fakes thanks to its deliberate rushing attack, and freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds has made opponents pay with eight passing touchdowns and just one interception. Army ranks 116th in pass efficiency defense, so wide receivers Brandon Turner and Matt Aiken may find some soft spots in the secondary if the Midshipmen can establish a strong running game early.
Ball security: Winning the turnover battle has been among the primary reasons for Navy’s resurgence since opening the season 1-3. During their first four games, the Midshipmen committed 12 turnovers. But since a 28-21 overtime victory over Air Force on Oct. 6, Navy has just five turnovers and won six of seven games to secure a winning season for the ninth time in 10 years. Army-Navy games often come down to which team commits the fewest mistakes, so the Midshipmen have focused heavily on protecting the football heading into Saturday.