Reynolds is special, and Mids’ season might become special, too
Air Force football Coach Troy Calhoun walked out of his locker room Saturday evening with a wan smile on his face — the kind of look one sees on a coach when he knows there really wasn’t much he could have done to change the outcome of a game.
“We got whipped,” he said, walking in the direction of the postgame interview room. “That’s a very, very good football team.” He paused for a moment and then added, “Keenan Reynolds is a special player.”
In three sentences, Calhoun said just about all that needed to be said about Navy’s 33-11 rout of Air Force on Saturday at wet and windy Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The Midshipmen were in control of the game throughout; they forced the Falcons into four turnovers and had a 27-0 lead in the third quarter before Air Force produced a brief spasm of life.
There was also Reynolds. The biggest shock of the day was that he didn’t score, failing to add to his career total of 73 rushing touchdowns — four shy of the major college football record.
Instead, he did everything else. He rushed for 183 yards on 24 carries and threw for 117 more. Just as important, handling a wet ball on a wet field throughout the day, neither he nor any of his teammates fumbled or committed a turnover.
“One team handled the ball exceptionally well,” Calhoun said. “One didn’t. That was pretty much the story of the ballgame.”
It was and it wasn’t. Navy came into the game with what Coach Ken Niumatalolo called a “quiet confidence — not arrogance, confidence,” wanting desperately to put last year’s loss in Colorado Springs behind them. That win allowed Air Force to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and, in spite of Navy’s other successes last season, it was something players and coaches stewed over throughout the offseason.
In the days leading up to the game, the Midshipmen were all careful to say the right things about that loss. “They flat out beat us,” Reynolds said before and after Saturday’s game. “There were no excuses to be made.”
In truth, there were. Reynolds was playing on a bad knee and hurt his shoulder during the game. Injuries, of course, are part of football. As Reynolds said, smiling, when asked how it felt to play the Falcons while healthy: “In football, health is a relative term.”
Quietly though, the Mids were seething, thinking not only about the loss, but all the offseason work they had put in, not just to prepare for the season but to prepare for this game.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t get caught up in any of the hype,” offensive guard E.K. Binns said. “The only talking that matters in football is the talking you do when you put the pads on. We wanted to be sure we understood this was still just a football game — a very important one — but a football game nevertheless.” They did just that. The Mids took control early and never looked back. The game began this way: Air Force three and out; Reynolds 54 yards on Navy’s first offensive play; Navy fullback Chris Swain plunging into the end zone four plays later. Navy 7, Air Force 0, less than four minutes after the opening kickoff. Message sent.
The question now: Just how good is this Navy team? The Mids are 4-0 and have won every game by double digits. Now they face their toughest test of the season when they travel to Notre Dame next week. The Mids don’t beat the Irish very often: they lost 43 in a row from 1964 to 2006, then won three of four and have now lost the last four.
That said, if Navy somehow gets out of South Bend with a win, going undefeated becomes a very real possibility. Even with a loss, 11-1 isn’t out of the question. Of course, no one wearing a Navy uniform or Navy coaching gear wants to hear any of that.
“The players came up with going 1-0 every week,” Niumatalolo said. “I like that.”
“We left a lot out there today,” Reynolds said, almost sounding as if his team had gotten whipped. “I wasn’t very happy with my passing. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Often when players talk that way, there’s a tendency to roll one’s eyes. But Reynolds is clearly sincere, an approach that not only makes him a better player but makes him the kind of leader his teammates universally look up to. Whenever he’s asked about the touchdown record he shakes his head and says: “As long as we get the ball into the end zone, I’m happy. I don’t care who gets it there.”
His teammates certainly buy into that notion. “Honestly, I think we want him to get the record more than he wants it,” Binns said, laughing. “He’s such a great guy to play in front of because he makes the right decisions all the time, and you know how much work he’s put into preparing for every game.”
He’s also talented. He doesn’t throw that often, but he can get the ball down the field, as he proved several times Saturday, his disappointment with himself aside. “He made good throws and he made them under pressure,” Calhoun said. “We got a pretty good rush on him a few times and he still made the plays. Plus, he breaks tackles. You don’t see too many quarterbacks who can do that.”
The Heisman Trophy has all but been handed to LSU’s Leonard Fournette already. But if Reynolds can somehow engineer an upset at Notre Dame . . .?
“I don’t think it’s out of line to bring his name up,” Niumatalolo said in response to a question. “I’m not going to do it, he’s not going to do it, but if others want to, it’s certainly not wrong.” Just how good is Reynolds? “He’s the best quarterback we’ve had since I got here,” Niumatalolo said.
That takes in a lot of ground — Chris McCoy, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and Ricky Dobbs, for starters.
No service academy player has won the Heisman since Roger Staubach in 1963. Reynolds may not win it this year, but he deserves to be in the conversation. More important, he’s leading a team that has a chance to be very special before this season is over.