Navy came into Saturday’s 113th contest with rival Army with a 7-4 record – thanks to winning six of its previous seven games – and as a seven-point favorite. On the other hand, its rivals from West Point entered the contest having dropped five of their past six games on the way to a 2-9 record.
Those numbers pointed to at least a somewhat easy win for the Midshipmen. But as Saturday’s game – presented by USAA – once again showed records, statistics and any other form of logic rarely matter when the two teams square off.
Navy freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds scored on an 8-yard run with 4:41 left in the game to give the Midshipman a 17-13 lead. But the Black Knights came right back, driving to the Navy 14 with just over a minute to go before fumbling the ball away. Navy’s Barry Dabney pounced on the ball, preserving the win – his program’s 11th-straight in the rivalry dating back to 1899.
“If you’re a fan of college football, what an unbelievable football game,” said Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose team won the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy by going 2-0 against its fellow service academies this year. “Two teams battling back and forth, neither team would quit. To me, that game’s indicative of the season. Things didn’t start off so good … but they just fought the whole time.”
Reynolds – who came on in relief of an injured Trey Miller in the Air Force game and is now 6-1 as a starter – played like anything but a freshman on the game-winning drive. Facing a third-and-8 play on Navy’s last drive, Reynolds calmly completed a 10-yard pass to Geoffrey Whiteside. Two plays later, Reynolds evaded a tackler and scrambled for 11 yards before getting out of bounds.
On the next play, Reynolds dropped back and exhibited incredible touch on a 49-yard strike to Brandon Turner that gave Navy a first down at the Army 8. On the next play, Reynolds ran around the right side for the game winner.
“There's something about the kid,” said Turner, who’s headed to Surface Warfare after graduation. “Just the way he led us on that last drive was unbelievable. In one of the biggest games, a freshman came in and beat one of the better Army teams there's been in these last few years. That's incredible, that's remarkable.”
Coach also was impressed. “The kid is a very, very good football player,” Niumatalolo said. “He listens. He's well coachable. His legacy will be, will he stay hungry and stay humble? If he does those two things, the kid has a chance to go down as one of the best quarterbacks we have ever had.”
While Reynolds has one more game left in his inaugural season, the loss ended the college football career of Army quarterback Trent Steelman, the only signal caller in Black Knight history to start four season openers and four Navy games. He ran for 96 yards and a score and threw for 48 yards, finishing his career with 3,320 yards rushing, another 2,653 yards passing and 54 total touchdowns.
“It’s just unfortunate,” said Steelman, whose next position will be that of quartermaster. “I don’t know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved that game in every way possible. But that’s life. Things don’t go your way sometimes. You’ve just got to be able to turn around.”
Steelman also left Niumatalolo impressed. “They don't get any tougher than Trent Steelman,” he said. “I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man. We should all be proud, as Americans, that that guy’s going to protect our country.”
Navy won despite being outgained 418-297 – including surrendering 370 yards on the ground – because of a defense that bent but rarely broke. Navy came up with a fourth-down stop on Army’s first drive of the game and recovered three fumbles.
Senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel – who will be assigned to a nuclear submarine after graduation – was in on 11 tackles, including a sack and one and a half tackles for loss. He said the tight game didn’t come as a surprise to him.
“You can see it in their eyes: They go through the same things we do,” Wetzel said. “They’re from the same backgrounds, the same families. They fight, they claw the same way we do. To beat those guys is a privilege. It’s an honor because nobody out there is going to give anybody an inch. You’re never going to take anyone lightly, no matter what your record is."
On the other side of the field, Army senior defensive back Josh Jackson -- who is headed to Air Defense Artillery – said he and his other fellow seniors still have an obligation to the West Point football program.
“As a team, and especially as seniors, we have to take this as a learning experience and mentor the young guys,” Jackson said. “We’re not done just because (we're) not putting on the pads anymore.”