Reynolds is spe­cial, and Mids’ sea­son might be­come spe­cial, too

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - John Fe­in­stein sports@wash­ For more by John Fe­in­stein, visit wash­ing­ton­­in­stein.

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.

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