Navy's Ken Niumatalolo stand with his team prior to the… (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today…)
Navy couldn't seem to handle its role as a two-touchdown favorite over Hawaii, a rare position for the Midshipmen during what has been now a decade of nearly uninterrupted success. Nor could Navy's defense handle Joey Iosefa, Hawaii's 245-pound Samoan tailback.
Fortunately for the Midshipmen, the Rainbow Warriors had even more trouble Saturday slowing down Navy star Keenan Reynolds. The sophomore quarterback continued what already has been a remarkable career with his best performance to date.
Reynolds threw an early 26-yard touchdown pass and rushed for four more, including two in the fourth quarter that helped the Midshipmen escape Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Saturday with a harder-than-expected 42-28 victory over still-winless Hawaii (0-9).
In becoming the seventh Navy quarterback to rush for more than 200 yards — he finished with a career-best 226 yards on 28 carries — Reynolds also became the first Midshipman since former quarterback Ricky Dobbs, in 2009, to rush for four touchdowns in a game.
His 67-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run was the second longest of his career and Navy's longest from scrimmage this season.
“Hawaii had a good game plan defensively, and it took us a while to try to get our rhythm a little bit,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said afterward. “Keenan stayed with it. I thought the kid played a phenomenal football game.”
The victory put Navy (5-4) on the brink of bowl eligibility for the fifth time in Niumatalolo's six seasons and helped the 48-year-old coach win for the 45th time, tying his predecessor, Paul Johnson, for third most among Navy coaches.
“This thing isn't about me,” Niumatalolo said. “What I learned a long time ago in this profession [is] it's about the players and the assistant coaches. I come and talk to you in the press conferences, but the guys who do all the work are the players and the assistant coaches. … I feel very fortunately to be a part of all those victories.”
Niumatalolo is also fortunate to have convinced Reynolds, who ran a spread offense in high school outside Nashville, Tenn., to come play in the run-dominant triple-option at Navy. Undersized for even a Navy quarterback at a listed 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, Reynolds makes up in savvy and smarts for what he lacks in physical stature.
After failing to convert on fourth-and-goal at the Hawaii 1-yard line with Navy ahead by two touchdowns late in the third quarter, Reynolds watched as Iosefa and quarterback Sean Schroeder led the Rainbow Warriors on a 99-yard drive that cut Navy's lead to 35-28 with 4:36 remaining.
“Prior to the long run, I should have scored, and the coaches were getting on me about that, so I knew I had to go out there and redeem myself,” Reynolds said. “The whole game, I felt like I was one block or one missed tackle away from breaking loose and going all the way. I just tried to keep reminding myself to stay patient, because it was going to happen. The line blocked phenomenally.”
While Hawaii couldn't stop Reynolds and junior fullback Quinton Singleton, a former third-stringer who rushed for a career-best 93 yards and a touchdown, Navy didn't have any more luck slowing down Iosefa or Schroeder.
Iosefa, who had played in only one game this season before undergoing foot surgery in September, rushed for a career-high 191 yards on a school-record 35 carries, scored once and briefly knocked out Kwazel Bertrand when the Navy cornerback got knocked in the head on a low tackle attempt. The left-handed Schroeder completed 17 of his first 18 passes and finished 29-for-33 for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
Iosefa “ran pretty hard, and Hawaii's a good team. They're a lot better than their record shows, I think. We went hit for hit with them; it was a good game,” said Navy senior co-captain Cody Peterson, who matched fellow senior DJ Sargenti and his own career high with 14 tackles. “He's a big boy.”
After Hawaii tight end Clark Evans caught a 6-yard touchdown pass to cut the Midshipmen's lead to seven late in the fourth quarter, there was an uneasy feeling on the home team's sideline. But that uncertainty passed when Reynolds broke free for a 21-yard score with 1:36 remaining, diving for the last couple yards at the pylon.
“I think it was very big, not only with taking the pressure off us, but also with giving some life on defense. As a whole team, if you watched when he scored, the whole sideline, everyone was going around celebrating,” freshman cornerback Brendon Clements said. “That was a big momentum change for us.”
It was also a bit of relief for Niumatalolo, whose earlier decision to pass up a chip-shot field goal up 14 points would have been second-guessed had the Rainbow Warriors completed their comeback.
The win itself was bittersweet for Niumatalolo, coming against his alma mater and one of his close friends in the coaching business, beleaguered second-year Hawaii coach Norm Chow.
“It was hard. You look at guys over there, unless you're from Hawaii, and you recognize how far those guys had to come and the travel logistically, I get nervous when we go down to North Carolina,” said Niumatalolo, who evened his record against Hawaii to 1-1, after losing in 2009. “I make that flight [to Hawaii] every summer, and it takes you two weeks to get acclimated. Considering those circumstances, I thought they played really, really well.”
At least one Navy player performed even better.
But then again, Keenan Reynolds usually does.