Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds directed his third comeback win in five games, this time erasing a double-digit deficit late in the first half on Saturday afternoon to lead the Midshipmen past Florida Atlantic, 24-17, and secure the program’s ninth bowl berth in 10 years.
The Midshipmen will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Francisco. Their opponent is slated to be the sixth-place team from the Pacific-12.
Before an announced crowd of 29,326 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Reynolds accounted for three consecutive touchdowns in nearly six minutes, and the Midshipmen (6-3) added a fourth-quarter defensive stand to ensure their fifth consecutive win and a non-losing record in the regular season.
Reynolds finished with a career-high 159 rushing yards and one touchdown on 26 carries and completed 8 of 15 throws for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s always your worst nightmare as a coach that you’re going to be flat, looking ahead, whatever,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We tried to talk about it all week. We had a short week [because of Superstorm Sandy]. Obviously there’s some things that happened this week way more important than a football game, but our kids were able to bounce back through all of that.”
Navy got a brief scare when Reynolds hurt his left elbow early in the fourth quarter after the Midshipmen had forged a 24-10 lead. Reynolds went to the locker room with roughly 12 minutes to play, came out with tape on his left arm and then was throwing on the sideline.
During his absence, junior Trey Miller took over at quarterback and on his first snap delivered a shaky exchange to fullback Prentice Christian, who fumbled trying to secure the ball. Florida Atlantic recovered at the Navy 39, and seven plays later, tailback Jonathan Wallace scored on a three-yard run with 9:07 to go.
Reynolds re-entered on Navy’s ensuing possession and engineered a drive that used up nearly 31 / 2 minutes. It ended with freshman place kicker Nick Sloan missing a 51-yard field goal attempt that gave the Owls the ball at their 34 with 5:31 to play.
Florida Atlantic (2-7) drove to the Navy 22 and faced third and six. A false-start penalty pushed the ball back five yards before quarterback Graham Wilbert threw consecutive incompletions. Wilbert had to hurry his final throw because sophomore defensive end Paul Quessenberry was bearing down on him behind the line of scrimmage.
“We just knew that we needed to come up with a big stop,” Quessenberry said. “We obviously couldn’t let them get back in the end zone because we were only up by a touchdown. Coach just called a defense, and we ran it and got pressure on the quarterback.”
The offense put Navy in position to win with 24 straight points, a run that began with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds to senior wide receiver Brandon Turner with 5:32 left until halftime. Previous to that drive, Navy had but one first down not via penalty and amassed 40 yards on 13 plays.
Reynolds put the Midshipmen ahead for good with a one-yard touchdown run on the next series, and on the first possession of the second half, the first freshman to start at quarterback for Navy since 1991 delivered a 31-yard scoring strike to Turner on fourth and eight with 11:50 left in the third quarter.
Navy’s final scoring drive concluded with Sloan’s 20-yard field goal and consumed more than five minutes.
“I know the guys have worked hard,” said Reynolds, who had a 48-yard run in the second quarter that kick-started the offense. “We worked hard throughout camp. I know they worked hard during the summer. It’s good to see it paying off, but we can’t stop now. We’ve got six wins and got to keep rolling.”