From the opening kickoff of the second half Saturday against Wake Forest, when Navy returner John Angelo was knocked out and fumbled after what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit, it seemed as if the same thing would happen to the Midshipmen.
But Navy, despite taking several crunching hits after losing quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada with a reinjured hamstring late in the first half, wouldn't get knocked out or cough up its 17-point halftime lead over the 16th-ranked and previously unbeaten Demon Deacons.
"We've got to take our hats off to our kids, a phenomenal job of our kids fighting and scratching," first-year Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Midshipmen held on for a 24-17 victory at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Despite only 17 yards of offense in the third quarter with Jarod Bryant at quarterback, despite continually poor field position that had Navy pinned inside its own 5-yard line to start three possessions, the Midshipmen found a way to beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 23 years.
They did it with defense, intercepting quarterback Riley Skinner four times; the Wake Forest quarterback had not been picked off in his first three games. They forced two fumbles, one by defensive end Jabaree Tuani, the first freshman to start on Navy's defensive line in 10 years.
"We left it all out there; we had something to prove," said safety Wyatt Middleton, who had one of the interceptions. "We went out there and had fun."
The Midshipmen also did it without their trademark triple-option offense working to full capacity after Kaheaku-Enhada got hurt.
The offense stalled under Bryant until late in the fourth quarter, when a 57-yard run by fullback Eric Kettani led to a 4-yard touchdown run by Bryant and helped give Navy a 24-10 lead with 3:45 left.
"The first thing that comes to mind is keep the ball high and tight," said Kettani, who finished with a career-high 175 yards. "It's nice to score, but getting huge field position helped out. If they would have stripped it from me, it would have been a completely different outcome."
Slotback Bobby Doyle's 39-yard run to the Navy 48 midway through the fourth quarter. Though Shun White fumbled four plays later, Doyle's run allowed Navy to build some confidence that it could run against the Demon Deacons. That the play went to someone other than Kettani or White prevented Wake Forest from coming after the Midshipmen the same way on the series when Navy scored.
White's fumble on a pitch from Bryant. Though it turned out not to be costly, because safety Emmett Merchant intercepted Skinner on the ensuing possession, it is still a concern to the coaching staff. White, who was leading the nation in rushing earlier this season, was held to 20 yards on 11 carries.
The Midshipmen travel to Colorado Springs to play Air Force (3-1) Saturday in what is likely to be a showdown for the Commander in Chief's Trophy. Navy's five-game winning streak against the Falcons will be put to a test against much-improved Air Force, which had a week off to prepare for the Midshipmen. Kaheaku-Enhada's status for the game is unclear.