COLORADO SPRINGS — In each of its previous five games against a service academy opponent, the Navy football team was second to sing, an honor reserved for only the victors. That streak came to a disheartening end Saturday afternoon in a 30-21 loss to Air Force amid a continued pattern of self-inflicted mistakes at Falcon Stadium.
The Midshipmen endured a grueling wait while Air Force players stood in front of their fans and belted out a rousing rendition of the school song. Some Navy players struggled to keep from crying. Others didn’t bother, knowing full well their outright hold on the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is certain to end.
The best Navy can finish in the competition among the three service academies is to retain the trophy, with that scenario unfolding only if the Falcons lose to Army and the Midshipmen beat their arch rival for a 13th straight time. Navy had claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy outright the past two years.
“I mean all the things we talked about not doing, turnovers, penalties, making field goals, it’s almost like déjà vu, and that hasn’t been us,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’ve been a program that takes care of the football. We don’t kill ourselves, but give them credit, too. They beat us, but we’ve got to cut down on our mistakes.”
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds was responsible for a lost fumble and interception in a season where he’s regressed. The junior rushed 21 times for 27 yards before leaving the game with a sore shoulder with 24 seconds remaining. By then, Air Force was well on its way to ending a two-game slide to the Midshipmen in front of 37,731.
Navy (2-4) has lost three straight for the first time since 2011, which was the only losing season under Niumatalolo. The Midshipmen have had just two losing seasons since installing the triple option in 2002 under then-coach Paul Johnson.
“It sucks. It’s painful,” said Reynolds, referring not to his shoulder that appeared to have escaped significant damage but to the first loss of his career against either Air Force or Army. “It is what it is. We’ve just got move on. We’ve got a long season ahead of us, a lot of things we can still accomplish.”
After a contentious first half that included four personal foul penalties, Air Force went to a no-huddle offense to march 75 yards and take the lead for good, 21-14, with 9 minutes 14 seconds to go in the third quarter. The Falcons (4-1) passed three times during the 15-play drive, including senior quarterback Kale Pearson’s three-yard scoring throw to tight end Garrett Griffin.
The Midshipmen managed only 27 yards on 12 plays during the third quarter. Underscoring their struggles was a fumble attributed to Reynolds — his eighth of the season — although he was able to fall on the loose ball. Reynolds also overthrew Geoffrey Whiteside earlier on a play that appeared headed for a touchdown.
Air Force tacked on Will Conant’s 22-yard field goal and Pearson’s 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Garrett Brown to secure the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for just the third time in 12 years. Reynolds completed a 40-yard touchdown to DeBrandon Sanders with 2:14 to play to get Navy back in it briefly, 24-21, but Air Force recovered the onside kick.
Navy made the first mistake of the game, and the Falcons turned Reynolds’s fumble into a 7-0 lead courtesy of Pearson’s one-yard pass to Alex Ludowig. On their next possession, the Midshipmen benefitted from a defensive holding call that nullified an Air Force interception. Fullback Chris Swain (103 yards, 14 carries) closed the drive with a 46-yard run to match a career long.
The Falcons took a 14-7 lead when Pearson completed a backward pass to Robinette, who faked a run and threw to Brown for a 54-yard touchdown. Navy’s bid to tie on its next series ended when safety Christian Spears wrestled a pass from slot back Calvin Cass Jr. in the end zone, the second interception of the season for Reynolds.
Air Force was giving Reynolds no quarter throughout the first half, delivering hits after the whistle and out of bounds. Senior defensive back Justin DeCoud, for instance, was ejected early in the second quarter for targeting on helmet-to-helmet contact. Reynolds’s counterpunch came via a 10-yard run to tie at 14 with 6:35 left in the first half, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive in which he became Navy’s all-time points leader (296).
“We’ve got to let it hurt and move on,” Navy senior fullback and co-captain Noah Copeland said. “Make sure that we don’t feel this pain ever again.”