Thanks to a late Tyler Simmons interception, and a more effective triple-option attack, Navy pulled out a 28-21 win before a crowd of 33,924 at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Navy now has another jolt of confidence as they prepare for Notre Dame next week at the New Meadowlands.
"I'm starting to run out of adjectives for our team," said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, following another comeback win. "They're amazing. I'm just so fortunate to coach this team. Our country should be proud of the young Americans who are representing our country and our institution."
Simmons' interception came during a tie game with two minutes left, when SMU had their sights set on a game-winning drive.
"Not bad for a guy playing with a cast on his arm," Niumatalolo said of Simmons. You count on our big players making big plays, and that was what he did."
Two plays after the turnover, Alexander Teich burrowed his way into the end zone for the game winner. Teich also scored early in the fourth quarter to give the Mids their first lead 21-14. It was his first career rushing touchdown. He enjoyed team MVP honors for his career night, which included 21 carries for 95 yards and the two scores.
"Our offensive line did a phenomenal job of blocking," Teich said. "I couldn't be more proud of those guys. It was nice to get some runs that we did to reward them."
The well-known Navy triple-option attack was up against a wide-open, pass happy Mustangs attack led by former NFL coach June Jones, who has rebuilt the once-great SMU program. SMU racked up 375 total yards, including 254 in the air, but it was not enough.
"I think we didn't play in the second half as well as we played in the first half," said Jones, who has also coached at Hawaii, as well as for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. "(Navy) does a great job. They've done well with that offense for a long time. Every team they play, they do a great job of halftime adjustments."
Early on, it appeared Navy was in for a long day. A dominant third quarter, however, changed the game completely. The Mids took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove the length of the field, capping off a 10-play drive with a three-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ricky Dobbs to Santiago on fourth down to make it 14-7. It was Santiago's first career touchdown. The key play was a 51-yard bomb to Santiago on third and long that got the Mids into SMU territory. Santiago also made up for a lost first quarter touchdown opportunity when a Dobbs bomb went through his fingertips in the end zone.
Following a quick defensive stop and SMU punt, Navy got right back to work. Greg Jones took a reverse 33 yards and a Mustangs facemask penalty gave them 15 more yards at the end of the play. Gee Gee Green took a pitch in from a yard out five plays later to tie the score with two minutes left in the third quarter.
The third quarter dominance continued as SMU quarterback Kyle Padron was hit and fumbled on a third down run escaping pressure and Jabaree Tuani was there to recover and the Mids were in business again. Green took a pitch 15 yards to the SMU 16 to end the quarter, and Teich scored his first touchdown of the day four plays later for a 21-14 lead.
SMU tied the game with just over three minutes left using their vaunted spread attack, and Navy's potential game-winning drive stalled quickly. Following a punt, Padron did not see Simmons drop back in coverage on first down and the senior linebacker stepped in front of the pass for the interception, and the eventual game-winner from Teich two plays later.
The triple-option attack of Navy's was efficient at times, but failed to produce big plays in the first half. On the other side of the ball, SMU quarterback Kyle Padron was enjoying a productive first half, hooking up with four different receivers and producing 135 yards in the air and 26 on the ground for a 14-0 halftime lead.
The Mustangs took over early and showed off their run-and-shoot explosiveness, spreading the field with an attack that featured screen passes, delayed runs up the middle out of the shotgun, and of course, the downfield threat. They regularly lined up with four receivers in shotgun formation, including three on one side. A seven play, 71 yard drive from SMU ended with a Kyle Padron to Cole Beasley 5-yard touchdown strike in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 3:05 left in the first quarter.
The key third quarter saw SMU with just a single first down, and 21 yards passing. In addition, they only controlled possession for four and a half minutes.
"We came into the locker room (at halftime) and we knew we weren't playing Navy football," Teich said. "Everyone started executing, playing hard, playing physical, and we got it done."
"This was a huge win. Guys were kind of down, but when we came out for the second half, we knew what we had to do."