In the final home game of their football careers, the Navy seniors contributed decisive plays when it mattered most to spark a 42-14 victory over South Alabama on Saturday afternoon in front of 33,086 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
The victory ensured the Midshipmen a spot in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth against an opponent from the Mountain West Conference. It’s the 10th bowl appearance in 11 years for Navy, which got a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown from senior slotback Darius Staten, one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown from sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds and a second-half shutout by the defense.
In going undefeated at home for the first time since 2004, Navy (6-4) amassed 519 total yards — 351 rushing — and 28 first downs. Reynolds threw for a season-high 168 yards, which were his most against an Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since becoming the starter five games into last season.
“It’s a storybook game for those seniors,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the 22-member class as he fought back tears during the postgame news conference.
Consecutive series in the second half defined Navy’s win.
First, senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson knifed through the line of scrimmage to tackle Jaguars tailback Kendall Houston for a two-yard loss on fourth and two from the Navy 4. That stop left South Alabama with nothing to show on the heels of a 20-play drive covering 79 yards and lasting nearly nine minutes.
On the Midshipmen’s ensuing possession, Reynolds completed a 45-yard scoring pass to senior wide receiver Matt Aiken with 7 minutes 49 seconds left.
Aiken then caught the two-point conversion among a cluster of defenders for a 35-14 lead.
“It was such an emotional game for all of us,” said Aiken, also a co-captain. “We knew it was going to be that way. It was just great to get the win, come out on top in front of our fans, in front of our families.”
Peterson finished with a game-high eight tackles, and senior linebacker D.J. Sargenti added six. Junior defensive end Paul Quessenberry had Navy’s only sack and one tackle for loss.
It was the third time this season the Midshipmen have not surrendered a point in the second half.
“I’m so proud of how we kept fighting,” Peterson said.
Navy opened the scoring courtesy of place kicker Nick Sloan’s 37-yard field goal with 6:05 left in the first quarter. The drive began at Navy 31, and the Midshipmen converted twice on third down.
The second conversion covered 10 yards on Reynolds’s 10-yard run, moving the Midshipmen to the South Alabama 25.
Staten’s 20-yard run off a pitch landed Navy at the 11, but nose tackle Jesse Kelley sacked Reynolds for an eight-yard loss on second down. On third and 19, Kelley again came loose up the middle, forcing Reynolds to throw the ball away as he scrambled to avoid another sack.
The Jaguars took the lead on their ensuing possession on a four-yard completion from quarterback Ross Metheny (a transfer from Virginia) to wide receiver Shavarez Smith.
The touchdown capped a 14-play drive over 79 yards.
A 91-yard touchdown march followed for the Midshipmen, who went ahead 10-7 on Staten’s 17-yard run around the left side, but the lead didn’t last long.
South Alabama drove 71 yards and reached the end zone on a 22-yard completion from Metheny to Smith one play after linebacker Chris Johnson was assessed a 15-yard penalty for a late hit.
But the Midshipmen closed the first-half scoring with a touchdown and field goal.
Fullback Shawn White’s seven-yard scoring run was the highlight of the first half as the freshman, in the lineup because of injuries to Noah Copeland and Chris Swain, carried three defenders and one of his own linemen into the end zone.
“The whole week, everything was kind of locked down because we knew how important this game was,” Reynolds said. “There’s a lot riding on it. Obviously getting [win] number six, a bowl berth and then being undefeated at home and last but certainly not least sending [the seniors] with a victory. They deserve this win.”