SAN FRANCISCO — After weathering early-season travails to close with seven wins in eight games, the Navy football team stalled in its finale, falling behind quickly by three touchdowns and proving no match for Arizona State, 62-28, on Saturday in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park.
The look of utter disbelief on the face of Coach Ken Niumatalolo as he stood on the sideline framed the story of Navy’s fifth loss in its past six bowl appearances and second straight in lopsided fashion. In 2010, the Midshipmen lost to San Diego State, 35-14, in the Poinsettia Bowl, and this one didn’t take long to get more out of hand before an announced crowd of 34,172 on a crisp and clear afternoon in the Bay Area.
Navy (8-5) was especially helpless defensively.
Arizona State scored touchdowns on its first nine possessions and rolled up 648 yards, including 314 in the first half, during which none of its drives required more than nine plays or lasted longer than 2 minutes 30 seconds. In winning its third straight game, Arizona State accumulated the most points in the Fight Hunger Bowl’s 10-year history and set a school record for most points in a bowl appearance.
“We couldn’t stop them,” Navy senior linebacker Brye French said. “Everything that we tried, they just dominated us in basically every aspect of the game. It was very frustrating, but you’ve got to give them credit. They had a great game plan. They executed on everything.”
The Sun Devils’ opening series covered 75 yards and concluded with wide receiver Rashad Ross’s 16-yard catch in the end zone on a pass from quarterback Taylor Kelly (Kelly finished 17 for 19 for 272 yards and four touchdowns). Running back Marion Grice, the game’s MVP, ran for 35 yards during the drive, with his nine-yard jaunt on second and two setting up the touchdown.
Grice (159 yards, two touchdowns) was featured prominently again on the team’s ensuing possession when he scored on a 10-yard run with 8:22 left in the first quarter.
And by the time Kelly capped a nine-play, 69-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run, Navy was well on its way to allowing its most points in any bowl game in program history.
The Midshipmen scored their lone touchdown of the first half on freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds’s three-yard completion to junior wide receiver Matt Aiken to trim the margin to 21-7 early in the second quarter. But Arizona State (8-5) needed less than two minutes to score twice more, including a 52-yard pass from Kelly to Ross (139 yards and three touchdowns on four catches) followed by a missed extra point to make the score 34-7.
Navy’s first half also included freshman place kicker Nick Sloan missing a 33-yard field goal attempt wide right and senior slotback Gee Gee Greene dropping a pass in the end zone. It was the second straight game in which Greene (team-high 111 yards on 12 carries) was unable to hold onto a pass that would have resulted in a touchdown, but he did provide one of the few Navy highlights by scoring on a 95-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter.
In spite of the sloppy ending to the season, the Midshipmen were able to check off their three most important objectives despite opening with a 1-3 record. They beat Army, 17-13, for a series record 11th consecutive time; reclaimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy following a two-year hiatus; and went to a ninth bowl game in 10 years.
The program appears in good hands for the foreseeable future as well thanks to the emergence of Reynolds, who took over for injured starter Trey Miller in the fourth quarter against Air Force on Oct. 6 and orchestrated a come-from-behind win in overtime, 28-21, to jump-start the season.
“It’s a low right now for us,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re pretty emotional right now in the locker room, just a sadness knowing it’s an end. But eventually we look forward in the spring sometime to be able to go to the White House and to have a little bit more positive ending with all of our seniors together and our football team together.”