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Armed Forces Bowl: Navy pounds Middle Tennessee with triple option

Navy players, including Ben Tamburello, left, Sean Reaver and Jake Zuzek, celebrate beating Middle Tennessee State in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013.

FORT WORTH, Texas – Middle Tennessee State tried to turn the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl into a back-alley brawl. Navy was more than happy to oblige, albeit with a much cleaner brand of football.

Middle Tennessee’s defense tried to set the tone and take Navy off its game with some overly aggressive play that featured some late hits, cheap shots and trash talking. The Midshipmen responded by using their patented triple-option offense to grind the Blue Raiders into submission.

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds capped a tremendous season by rushing for 86 yards and two touchdowns as Navy pulled away from Middle Tennessee State for a 24-6 victory before an announced crowd of 39,246 at Amon G. Carter Stadium.

“I’m very happy for our team, especially our seniors. I couldn’t think of a better way to send out our seniors,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who apologized for being a tad late to the postgame press conference by saying “there was a lot of celebrating going on” on the field and in the locker room.

Navy (9-4) closed the season on a five-game winning streak and recorded nine wins for the fifth time in the last 10 years. Niumatalolo was joined by co-captains Matt Aiken and Cody Peterson in accepting the bowl trophy on the field afterward from Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler and Bell Helicopter president/CEO John Garrison.

“I’m so happy for the seniors that we were able to finish on a positive note and win nine games,” said Peterson, a linebacker who made seven tackles.

It was the first postseason victory for Navy since it defeated Missouri in the 2009 Texas Bowl. The Midshipmen were 1-5 in their last six bowl games and the seniors were thrilled to accomplish the one goal that had eluded them.

“It’s great to be champions of a bowl game. This is a great tribute to everyone on the team and we’re just so happy for the seniors,” Reynolds said. “This whole week has been an awesome experience and the best way to cap it off was with a W.”

Reynolds also did a terrific job of reading the defense and distributing the ball as Navy rolled up 366 rushing yards. Fullback Noah Copeland and slotback DeBrandon Sanders contributed 59 and 53 yards to the ground assault. Slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside (44 yards) and Darius Staten (37) also had some big runs for the Mids, who had nine different ball-carriers.

“That’s a great testament to who we are. We’re an unselfish team that takes whatever the defense gives us,” Niumatalolo said of the superb distribution. “A lot of credit goes to this guy (Reynolds) for getting us into the right plays. I’m just proud of the way we were able to execute.”

Equal credit was due the Navy defense, which held a potent Middle Tennessee State offense to just two field goals. The Blue Raiders had averaged 42 points while closing the regular season with five straight wins, but were stymied on Monday by the Midshipmen. Inside linebacker D.J. Sargenti led the way with seven tackles (one for loss), an interception and pass breakup.

“Middle Tennessee has been moving the ball against a lot of people. I thought our guys played really, really well and played very physical,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m just proud of the way our guys battled and kept them out of the end zone.”

There was much talk afterward about the overall chippiness of MTSU, which was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct four times and also committed two personal foul penalties. Linebacker Roderic Blunt, who got away with gouging Reynolds in the eye after taking the quarterback down, was ejected after getting two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Another defender delivered a forearm shiver to Staten after the slotback had been driven out of bounds.

“We try to just keep our composure and keep playing football. We’ve just got to play between the white lines and play to the whistle,” Niumatalolo said.

Added Reynolds: “You can’t really worry about what’s going on, different things being said or different things being done. We can only take care of our end of the bargain. We just have to get up and stay mentally tough.”

Navy won the pregame coin toss and elected to receive, which is not normally what Niumatalolo prefers to do. That gamble paid off as the Midshipmen opened the game with a tremendous touchdown drive, marching 59 yards in 10 plays and taking almost five minutes off the clock.

Staten gained 10 yards on a pitchout to get things started while Reynolds had a 13-yard gain on a designed keeper as the Mids did all their damage on the ground. Reynolds scored on a 3-yard scamper to give Navy an early 7-0 lead.

It appeared Middle Tennessee State would answer with a touchdown of its own, but Navy’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy worked to perfection. Outside linebacker Jordan Drake pushed on offensive lineman into quarterback Logan Kilgore for a sack that resulted in an 8-yard loss and derailed the 13-play drive that had reached the Navy 18-yard line. The Blue Raiders had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Cody Clark.

Navy increased its lead to 10-7 on its second possession as Nick Sloan booted a 32-yard field goal to cap another time-consuming drive (4:40) that ended with 44 seconds elapsed in the second quarter.

Following an exchange of punts, MTSU had another promising drive come up short as Sargenti deflected a potential touchdown pass in the end zone. Clark came on to kick a 19-yard field goal and an anticipated shootout had turned into a defensive struggle that Navy led 10-6 at halftime.

Navy entered the contest leading the nation in fewest turnovers (8), but was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball on this day. Reynolds was responsible for three fumbles and was saved from a fourth when the ball he bobbled was snared out of midair by fullback Noah Copeland.

Reynolds lost two fumbles and both caused Navy points. The Midshipmen were facing third-and-two from the Blue Raiders’ 16-yard line when standout linebacker T.T. made an outstanding individual play – breaking into the backfield unblocked to drill Reynolds and force a fumble that he recovered.

Middle Tennessee State’s drive to open the third quarter was a microcosm of what happened to its offense the entire game. The Blue Raiders mixed the pass and run effectively in moving deep into enemy territory. Facing fourth-and-two from the 7-yard line, Stockstill went for it and powerful fullback Cory Carmichael was stopped short. Third string safety George Jamison broke into the backfield to trip up Carmichael, who was then stood up by nose guard Barry Dabney.

“We knew going in there would be a limited amount of possessions. So we knew we weren’t going to beat them kicking field goals,” Stockstill said.

Navy took over at its own 6-yard line and moved methodically downfield 4-6 yards at a time. Reynolds had to leave the game for three plays due to the eye injury, but backup Tago Smith kept the drive on track and Reynolds returned to toss a pitch to Whiteside as the Mids converted on fourth-and-one. However, two players later, Reynolds fumbled after crossing the opposing 10-yard line and Barber recovered to snuff out another scoring opportunity.

As it did all day, the Navy defense stood tall and forced MTSU to punt following the turnover. Slotback Demond Brown (Old Mill High) picked up 14 yards on third-and-10 to jump-start the ensuing Navy possession and this time the offense finished. Reynolds had a 16-yard gain to set up his own 1-yard plunge that put the Mids ahead, 17-6, at the 10:48 mark of the fourth period.

Jamison, who was playing because starting free safety Wave Ryder was ejected and backup Lonnie Richardson suffered a concussion, came up with an interception on second down of Middle Tennessee’s next possession. Two plays later, Sanders took a terrific last-second pitch from Reynolds and raced 41 yards to pay-dirt for the clinching touchdown.

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