The Navy Midshipmen did everything they possibly could have hoped to do in the Military Bowl. Keenan Reynolds claimed his FBS touchdown record. He set an FBS rushing-yard record for a quarterback. He became a career 4,000-yard rusher and passer, adding to his legacy and his place in college football history.
He also ran Navy's offense as well as he ever has... in his last collegiate game... on his home field... in front of a home crowd.
Navy gave Reynolds and Buddy Green a perfect sendoff. The program reveled in Ken Niumatalolo's continued presence on the sidelines. It flourished under Dale Pehrson's continued guidance. After a Houston game in which the defense was trampled, and an Army game in which the offense struggled, Navy looked like a revitalized team against Pittsburgh. The team which amassed a 31-7 lead over the Panthers represented the best version of the best Navy squad in the Paul Johnson-Niumatalolo era. Navy encountered a few moderately anxious moments in the fourth quarter, but it converted every fourth down which came its way, and soon enough, the Midshipmen emerged from the fire with an 11-2 season.
It's true that seasons are longer today than they were in past decades (centuries), but Navy's 11-2 rates as a legitimately great season. Had the Midshipmen gone 11-3 and not 11-2 (with the AAC title game being part of the mix), the 14-game schedule would have made it a little harder to put the 2015 campaign on par with the 1905 season (10-1-1), the 1926 season (9-0-1), or the 1957 season (9-1-1) as the best in Navy history. An 11-2 mark isn't heavy enough on losses to diminish the overall body of work. Since the 1905 team played 12 games, the 13 played this season still elevate the 11-win total to a great and lofty height.
Just how did Navy get to this point? Yes, the Midshipmen's defense once again produced big takeaways in the fourth quarter against Army in Philadelphia -- that's been a cornerstone of the program's success in its most important game of each year. It's also true that Navy saved its best for Air Force and did well to fight past Tulane in late October. Yet, if one is to select a couple of snapshots of the season -- times when everything was precariously poised and seemed to hang in the balance, about to lean in one direction or the other -- the focus for 2015 is best devoted to consecutive weeks in the middle of autumn.
On Halloween against South Florida and then on Nov. 7 at Memphis, Navy most fully showed what it was made of. As a result, what could have been a perfectly respectable 9-4 season became something much more substantial.
South Florida ambushed Navy with an early kickoff return and a flinty defense. The Bulls watched Navy sustain one drive for over seven and a half minutes in the second half, but they didn't allow a touchdown. USF preserved a narrow lead (17-16) with that defensive stand, and it would have been easy for Navy to lose heart after just such an occurrence.
Yet, as the fourth quarter began, Navy became more resilient than ever. The Midshipmen came up with a ballsy defensive stand; watched South Florida miss a field goal, and then pounced as soon as USF betrayed emotional vulnerability following that plot twist. Navy roared to two touchdowns after the Bulls' missed field goal, and when the fourth quarter was done, the Midshipmen had outscored their visitors, 13-0. Final score: Navy 29, South Florida 17.
Not many analysts thought much of South Florida at the time, but when the Bulls caught fire in November, throttling Temple by a 44-23 score and then amassing a 51-3 halftime lead over Cincinnati, it became apparent that Navy's win over USF was a lot more impressive than first thought. The Midshipmen had defeated an opponent which was developing into a credible football force. That quarter was the first of the two which transformed the 2015 regular season.
The other quarter which made all the difference in Annapolis this year was the fourth quarter of the game a week after the USF survival act.
Navy, facing Memphis on the road in the program's first defining game as a member of the American Athletic Conference, watched the Tigers score 10 points early in the third quarter. The Midshipmen either could have adjusted, or they could have relented in the face of the Tigers' imposing passing game, led by quarterback Paxton Lynch. Remember, Navy labored against both Tulane and South Florida, so when Memphis' offense zoomed out of the gate in the second half, the Midshipmen -- especially in the secondary -- could have slumped their shoulders.
Instead, they redoubled their efforts and were rewarded for their persistence. Navy boosted its 24--20 lead to 31-20 against Memphis, and from that point onward, an increasingly effective Navy defense -- knowing Memphis had to throw on almost every down -- stymied the Tigers in everything they attempted to do. Navy wound up scoring the final 21 points of that game, ringing up a 14-0 fourth quarter and a 45-20 victory which made the Houston game the winner-take-all showdown it turned out to be.
Two weeks. Two perfect fourth quarters against quality opposition. Two excellent responses to gut-check-level developments.
This is the toughness which created an 11-win season. This is the toughness which enabled Navy to transcend not just the ordinary, but the realm of the extraordinary, in 2015. Navy didn't know exactly what it had when it entered that fourth quarter against USF on October 31. When Navy finished off Memphis after another golden fourth quarter a week later, the Midshipmen knew what they were capable of.
Monday, Navy's capabilities and capacities never seemed more expansive or enormous. What were once dreams and hopes have been turned into realities. The idea that Navy could achieve at this level always loomed as a possibility, but few to no pundits in college football were willing to stake their reputations on that idea. Ken Niumatalolo crossed that bridge from potential to present-tense achievement.
What has been a golden era for Navy football somehow got better -- a lot better -- in 2015. Conquering crucibles versus USF and Memphis made this amazing journey possible.