Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds scrambles during the first quarter against Ohio State. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

After they had played the alma maters, after he had shaken every Ohio State hand he could find and had glanced at the M&T Bank Stadium scoreboard one last time, Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo walked in the direction of the tunnel with his head down, a wan grin playing at his lips.

“We had to be perfect, it’s who we are,” he said softly. “We had chances.” He paused for a moment as another Ohio State assistant coach came up to shake his hand. “We had a real chance to win this game.”

The final score — Buckeyes 34, Midshipmen 17 — might appear to contradict that statement. But Niumatalolo had it exactly right. Saturday’s season opener for his team, played out before a crowd of 57,579 — a vast majority in Ohio State red — was a very real opportunity for Niumatalolo to do something he hadn’t done in his first six seasons as Navy’s coach: beat a team ranked in the top 10.

The Mids beat Missouri in a bowl in 2009 and have twice beaten Notre Dame since Niumatalolo succeeded Paul Johnson at the end of the 2007 season. They came achingly close to winning at Ohio State in the opener in Columbus five years ago, losing 31-27 after a two-point conversion attempt that could have tied the game in the final seconds was intercepted and returned for two points by the Buckeyes.

That game drove Niumatalolo in the eight months leading to this afternoon. “I couldn’t even enjoy our bowl game,” he said. “As soon as it was over, we had to start preparing for this game — to the 13th degree. I mean everything; how we ate, how we stretched. We knew what it was going to take to beat a team like this.”

Midshipmen Coach Ken Niumatalolo. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

What it would have taken was a mistake-free game — the sort of game Navy has often played in the past 11 seasons, 10 of which have ended in bowl games, nine of which have ended with Navy winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. But they couldn’t produce that kind of game Saturday.

Two of the mistakes were huge: quarterback Keenan Reynolds’s fumble on Navy’s opening drive of the second half that was picked up by linebacker Darron Lee and returned 61 yards for a touchdown, and Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett’s 80-yard strike to wide receiver Devin Smith with 4 minutes 10 seconds left in the third that put Ohio State up for good, 20-14.

To be fair to Reynolds, he was taking a huge hit from defensive end Joey Bosa while he was trying to pitch the ball to slotback Demond Brown and the pitch was behind Brown. At that moment, the Mids led 7-6 and had quickly driven into Ohio State territory to start the third quarter. Even after that turnover, Navy came right back and marched 84 yards in four plays to retake the lead, 14-13.

At that moment, Niumatalolo, who for most of the day was as animated on the sideline as he’s ever been, knew — just knew — his team was capable of pulling a monumental upset.

“In my heart, I thought we had the perfect scenario coming in,” he said, standing in a hallway outside his locker room. “They had Virginia Tech the next week — a team that plays completely the opposite of the way we play. How do you prepare in a situation like that? Plus, I really like this team. I like our quarterback, like our athletes. We had a staff with a head coach and two coordinators [Ivin Jasper on offense, Buddy Green on defense] who had been together a long time.

“And I remembered how close we came out there” in 2009.

Navy had the lead and the ball after stopping Ohio State on fourth and one near midfield and the third quarter clock beginning to wind down. They briskly moved to the Ohio State 32-yard line. But then Reynolds went backward on two plays — for a two-yard loss on an option play; for 11 more on a sack. Navy had to punt. One play later, the tone of the entire day changed when Barrett found Smith.

“We were in cover-two,” Green said later. “We bit a little, hesitated. That was enough.”

Green’s mantra on defense is simple: Don’t let them throw the ball over your head. That’s why he had his safeties deep, giving up a short throw if the Buckeyes wanted it. But when rover Kwazel Bertrand hesitated for a split second, there wasn’t time for the safeties to get to Smith.

“It had been run, run, run,” said Parrish Gaines, Navy’s defensive captain. “They caught us sleeping in the secondary. I’m gonna think about that one when I go to sleep tonight.”

Chances are Niumatalolo won’t sleep much the next few days — especially with a game against a Temple team that crushed Vanderbilt on Thursday coming up next. His team gave him all the effort he could ask for but breakdowns in the area where Navy is normally strongest — between the ears — led to a deficit in the third quarter that allowed Ohio State to wear down the defense and control the fourth quarter.

At the end of the afternoon, there wasn’t much doubt about the mutual respect the teams had for one another. In the midst of the handshakes, Ohio State coaches could be heard telling their players, “follow Navy” — meaning they were to stand behind the Midshipmen during the postgame playing of “Blue and Gold.”

As always, Niumatalolo stood at attention while the song was played. But when the final notes died, his shoulders sagged for a moment. The day was over. The chance, which he had thought was so real, was gone.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.