By about 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, the Navy Midshipmen could be the first team in the nation to know where they will be spending their Christmas holiday season.
The Midshipmen, who are 5-3 and only need one more win to become bowl eligible, are a two-touchdown favorite over Florida Atlantic, who will visit Annapolis trying to avoid its seventh loss of the season. If Navy wins, it will almost surely accept a bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which will be played in San Francisco on December 29.
Go back a little over a month, and it would’ve been hard to conceive that Ken Niumatalolo’s team could be in such a position.
On September 30, the Midshipmen were sitting at 1-3 and one day earlier had suffered a shutout loss to San Jose State at home. In three games against FBS-division competition, Navy had scored a total of 17 points and committed 10 turnovers on offense. Clearly, not the type of hard-nosed, disciplined play that has become synonymous with Navy football over the past decade.
Against Air Force on October 6, things seemed to be turning around. The Midshipmen were finally getting some offensive production from quarterback Trey Miller and were within one score the entire game. Then, with about 10 minutes remaining, the junior injured his ankle and had to sit out the rest of the game.
The injury forced Navy to turn to true freshman Keenan Reynolds to lead the offense for the rest of the game. What appeared to be yet another setback for the Midshipmen ended up being a blessing in disguise. Reynolds calmly led Navy to an upset victory over Air Force, which was capped in overtime by a fumble in the end zone that was recovered for a Midshipmen touchdown.
Not only was the Air Force game a turning point for Navy in general, but also for Reynolds in particular. Since then, the Midshipmen are averaging over 36 points per game on offense, and Reynolds has taken over for Miller as the starting quarterback.
The turnaround has been marked by a return to basics for the Navy offense. Rather than trying to pass for yards as they attempted to do last year and at the beginning of this year, the Midshipmen are sticking with a strong running attack that racked up 512 yards last week against East Carolina. Not only has this resulted in a better third-down conversion rate, but it has limited the turnovers significantly (Reynolds has committed only one turnover since becoming the starter).
In addition to Reynolds, key to Navy’s success offensively have been senior Gee Gee Greene and sophomore Noah Copeland. Green and Copeland, who are the team’s leading rushers and spearhead Navy’s triple-option attack, were members of last year’s Navy squad that failed to qualify for postseason play for the first time since 2002.
Now, it is almost certain that the Midshipmen will get back to a bowl game in 2012. This week’s opponent, Florida Atlantic, could have an extremely tough time stopping this confident Navy offense. The Owls are last in the Sun Belt in rush defense, giving up just over 200 yards per game on the ground.
Keeping pace with Navy will be no easy task, either. Florida Atlantic also ranks last in points per game scored.
It would be foolish to assume that Navy is simply settling for the minimum six wins to head to San Francisco, however. Looking ahead, it is entirely possible that the Midshipmen could run the table for the remainder of the season and end up 9-3. In addition, Navy would put together its longest winning streak since 1926.
Ken Niumatalolo would never admit it, but it would feel nice if Navy is the first school in the nation to say it knows where it will be during bowl season.
Taking care of business early is always a good feeling.