A little more than a month into the season, Navy had lost to all three Football Bowl Subdivision opponents it had played, and the closest result in any of those beatings was 12-0 at home to San Jose State.
Then came a road game against Air Force, which had won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for two straight years and appeared on the way to another when it carried an eight-point lead late into the fourth quarter.
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So when Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recently reflected on the state of the team, he paused at some length to come up with an appropriate narrative of how the Midshipmen qualified for a ninth bowl appearance in 10 years.
"I don't know what the word is," Niumatalolo said a few days before Navy's game against heavily favored Arizona State in today's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park. "If we find a way to eke this one out, it could be one of the most satisfying seasons for our team."
The turnaround began with a rousing comeback victory over Air Force, 28-21, in which quarterback Keenan Reynolds crafted the first signature moment of his potentially record-setting career at Navy. Playing his first meaningful minutes, the freshman came off the bench for injured starter Trey Miller and directed the Midshipmen to 15 straight points amid inhospitable conditions at Falcon Stadium.
Reynolds' 15-yard rushing touchdown with 6:35 left in regulation, followed by Noah Copeland's two-point conversion run, forced overtime, and guard Jake Zuzek's fumble recovery in the end zone gave Navy the lead. The defense preserved the improbable outcome by holding Air Force to 6 yards on the Falcons' only possession of overtime.
Navy (8-4) proceeded to win its next four games, including rallying for 10 points in the final 5:30 for a 31-30 homecoming victory over Indiana. It was the first win by the Mids against a Big Ten Conference team since Navy beat Illinois in 1979 and the first against a Big Ten opponent at home since Purdue in 1926.
Another key moment in that surge was a 56-28 win over East Carolina, which finished the regular season 8-4 and played in the New Orleans Bowl. The Midshipmen amassed 563 yards, 512 of which came via the run, and beat the Pirates for the second straight time on the road. Reynolds rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another, and senior slotback Gee Gee Greene ran for a career-high 131 yards.
"You could see our team coming together," senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said. "After Penn State [a 34-7 loss on Sept.15], a lot of people were like, 'Wow, this Navy team is going to have a down year.' But I don't think anybody in the locker room really felt that. It was just a slow process of learning how to play with each other and to build as a team. Coach always talks about just getting better every week, and I feel that's really what we've done."
Not surprisingly, the Mids' regular season culminated in dramatic fashion. Navy was trailing Army by three points late in the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field when Reynolds scored on an 8-yard run to provide the final 17-13 margin. The Midshipmen had gained possession several minutes earlier after a poor exchange between Army quarterback Trent Steelman and running back Larry Dixon led to a lost fumble.
Navy extended its series record to 11 straight wins against Army and claimed the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2009 and the 13th time overall, a service academy record.
"It's just an amazing experience," senior slotback Bo Snelson said. "I think this one, this season, is definitely one I'm going to be the most proud of just because I've been with these guys for so long and been able to see how much they've poured into this program."
Navy (8-4) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
When: Today, 4 p.m.
Site: AT&T Park, San Francisco
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: First meeting
Line: Arizona State by 14
Navy offense vs. Arizona State defense: Despite one-sided losses to start the season against Notre Dame and Penn State, the Midshipmen have not faced a team with the collective speed of the Sun Devils or a defensive lineman with the power and athleticism of All-American tackle Will Sutton since going up against South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney last season. But the Mids were able to hang with the Gamecocks a year ago, and if they contain Sutton, who had nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss, they should be able to give freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds enough time to make plays. The Midshipmen also need to pay attention to linebacker Chris Young, who had 14 tackles for loss. The Sun Devils rank second in the nation with four sacks a game. What should help Navy, at least starting out, is that Arizona State has never played against a triple-option offense. If the Midshipmen can get their running game going behind Reynolds, sophomore fullback Noah Copeland (209 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games) and senior slotback Gee Gee Greene (team-leading 765 yards with 7.1 yards per carry, fifth-best in school history), it could open things up for Reynolds (56-for-97 for 884 yards with eight touchdown passes to only one interception) to throw the ball on play-action to senior wide receiver Brandon Turner, who can be tough to cover. The Sun Devils have 20 interceptions. The Midshipmen have lost only once since Reynolds took over for Trey Miller against Air Force in early October.
Navy defense vs. Arizona State offense: The Sun Devils, who scored 87 points to close the regular season with wins over Washington State and archrival Arizona, are a fast-starting team (outscoring opponents 124-63 in the opening quarter) with a quick-strike offense (47 of 54 scoring drives coming in three minutes or less). Tailback Marion Grice is as dangerous coming out of the backfield (eight touchdown receptions) as he is running the ball (nine scores). Quarterback Taylor Kelly likes to throw to his backs, who have accounted for nearly a third of the team's 3,102 receiving yards. Though they improved as the season went on, Navy's pass defense is susceptible to giving up huge chunks if the Mids don't put enough pressure on the quarterback. Senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel (15 tackles for loss, seven sacks) had a monster year — particularly for a player who hadn't seen much time his first three seasons — along with fellow senior linebacker Matt Warrick (a team-high 84 tackles and three interceptions), who seems to come up with big plays in big moments.