COLORADO SPRINGS — A year after one of its most dispiriting losses in any service academy game, the Navy football team leaned on a backup freshman quarterback down the stretch, a fumble recovery in the end zone for the decisive points and robust defense with the outcome in the balance for a 28-21 overtime win against Air Force on Saturday before 38,927 at Falcon Stadium.
Midshipmen guard Jake Zuzek fell on a loose ball that had squirted into the end zone when quarterback Keenan Reynolds fumbled at the 1 on Navy’s possession to start overtime. Reynolds had entered for Trey Miller with 9 minutes 3 seconds left in regulation after the junior starter re-injured his left ankle during the previous drive.
On Air Force’s overtime possession, running back Cody Getz (204 yards on 29 carries) got the ball on third and five, but linebacker Matt Warrick burst through the line and dropped the senior for a loss of one. Defensive end Wes Henderson then batted down quarterback Connor Dietz’s throw to seal the win in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and provide the Midshipmen with their first victory this year over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
“When I first hit that ball, I didn’t know what to think. Last year was so painful,” said Henderson, referring to the 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force in 2011. “To win like this, it was just unbelievable. It’s really indescribable. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life.”
Trailing 21-13 on its final possession of regulation, Navy (2-3) forced overtime when Reynolds calmly directed a 75-yard scoring drive on six plays. Reynolds capped the series with a 15-yard touchdown burst, and fullback Noah Copeland shook off a tackle attempt in the backfield to tie the score on the two-point conversion run with 6:35 to play.
The tying drive included a 35-yard pass from Reynolds to senior slotback Gee Gee Greene to the Air Force 33. Reynolds also completed a 13-yard pass to junior wide receiver Casey Bolena on second and seven to finish with 77 combined yards in his two series.
“You’ve just got to stay calm,” Reynolds said. “Great guys around us. Great seniors. Everybody was prepared to go, so I had no choice but to be ready to go.”
Air Force had an opportunity to win on the final play of regulation, but senior place kicker Parker Herrington missed a 51-yard field goal attempt to the left, igniting a celebration on the Navy sideline and in the coaches’ booth next to the press box. Navy freshman place kicker Nick Sloan, meantime, went 2 for 2 on field goals, including a career-long 41-yarder with 9:38 to play.
The Midshipmen also forced three turnovers, all fumbles, after recording none through the first four games. Navy had a dozen turnovers entering the game, with Miller responsible for 10, and Air Force (2-3) had lost just three fumbles over its first four games.
“Things were bleak there in this game, bleak in this year,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “But our guys just continued to battle.”
The Midshipmen did just that after Air Force required only four plays on the opening possession of the game for a 7-0 lead.
Herrington missed a 27-yard field goal on the Falcons’ second series, and Navy got within 7-3 on Sloan’s 39-yard field goal with 14:55 to go until intermission.
The Falcons then proceeded to fumble on their next three possessions, and Navy went ahead, 10-7, courtesy of the first of those turnovers. Taking over at their 39 following linebacker Cody Peterson’s forced fumble that safety Tra’ves Bush returned 15 yards, the Midshipmen got into the end zone on Copeland’s five-yard run at 7:55 for their first lead this year against an FBS opponent.
Air Force began its next series at its 42 following a 37-yard kickoff return and ran five plays to get to the Navy 14. On third and four, wide receiver Ty MacArthur muffed a pitch, and linebacker Keegan Wetzel fell on the ball at the 16 for his first career fumble recovery.
Freshman cornerback Quincy Adams also logged his first fumble recovery when Getz lost control of the ball while being tackled from behind by linebacker Josh Tate. Air Force regained the lead shortly thereafter, 14-10, on Getz’s 21-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds left in the third quarter, setting up the frenzied conclusion.
“Last year I kind of thought our loss put us in a tailspin,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m hoping this is the reverse. I’m hoping this game will propel us to some good things the rest of the year.”