ANNAPOLIS — Brandon Turner hadn’t witnessed a Navy football season end quite like last year’s did.
Not when Navy recruited him. Not during a year at the academy’s prep school. And certainly not during his first two years with the Midshipmen.
As the wide receiver’s final year of football commenced in the spring, he and his teammates knew they wanted no part of a rerun.
“The guys I remember looking at and watching on TV and being friends with, those guys always had great seasons and went to a bowl game and beat Army,” Turner said. “So it’s like ‘How are you supposed to feel when you win five games, don’t go to a bowl game and beat Army but you barely beat them?’ That’s really not the tradition or legacy we want to leave.”
Thanks to Turner, captains Brye French and Bo Snelson and the rest of Navy’s senior class, the men who will play their final game for the Mids this weekend won’t have to worry about such a problem.
Navy (8-4) wraps up a bounceback year Saturday when it meets Arizona State (7-5) in the Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. A victory would leave the Mids lacking little as they look back on their season arc.
They wrested back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first in three years. They topped Army for the 11th consecutive season. They returned to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
So much of the success stemmed from a group of veterans, some of whom played prominent roles on bowl teams as underclassmen. They not only coveted a return to the annual bowl treks that defined the Mids under Paul Johnson and then Ken Niumatalolo between 2003 and 2010, but also dreaded the prospect of another substandard season.
Yet it wasn’t a overtly brash group; instead, Navy did little chirping as it resurrected its season after a bumpy 1-3 start.
“Instead of their talk, it was their actions that spoke volumes to me — off the field, on the field, just a selfless group, and I think they laid a great foundation for the younger guys who are here,” Niumatalolo said. “This is the pattern: You work your butt off, you keep your mouth quiet and just understand the process. I think some people talk about winning, but I don’t think they understand you have to teach the whole process.”
If French and Snelson were not entirely aware what awaited them when they were voted captains last winter, they knew how they wanted to approach things.
Both men were careful to praise their predecessors and the previous season’s senior class, who departed with a 5-7 season. Yet they also had little interest in allowing the Mids to relax too much, lest such an attitude slip into on-field matters.
In retrospect, it was an ideal season for a leader such as Snelson, a 5-foot-7 firecracker who started the last eight games at slotback. The well-respected and even-keeled French, who juggled both football and lacrosse during his first two years at the academy, was a fine foil.
Together, they helped chart a detail-oriented course for a program that might have lost sight of the source of its long-running success.
“They had really tough job, especially at the beginning of the season,” junior linebacker Cody Peterson said. “They weren’t very popular. They were pretty strict, but they did an excellent job. They really unified the team, and we have a solid foundation because of them.”
It might not have seemed like it a month into the season.
Navy lost three of its first four games, including predictable setbacks against Notre Dame and Penn State. While a Sept. 29 loss to a San Jose State bunch that went on to a 10-2 season doesn’t look bad in retrospect, it was still jarring for the Mids to absorb a shutout and manage only 144 yards offense.
A quarterback change late in the following game (plebe Keenan Reynolds for an injured Trey Miller against Air Force) granted Navy a new look. But the Mids also got back to grinding out close victories; after going 2-5 in one-possession games last season, Navy was 4-0 in those contests this fall.
“Look at last year; the little things plagued us and we lost a bunch of games,” French said. “That was our focus and I think it paid off. Look how many fumbles and turnovers the first four games and look at the outcomes. Then look at the turnover margin after that and look at the win-loss column. It all translates. It’s nice when you have a plan and see that it works out and pays dividends.”
It was nonetheless a season that could have led nowhere. While coaches and players insist they believed the fall still held potential and the Mids faced a favorable schedule (just one of their final six opponents went on to reach a bowl game), it’s hard to tell where things might have gone with an Oct. 6 loss at Air Force.
Instead, Navy rallied that day to win in overtime, validating the philosophy of its savvier players who never chose panic or anxiety.
“If we had been afraid as a senior class and tight and worried about some things, I really think we wouldn’t have played as well as we have,” Snelson said. “I think when you go back and turn on the tape, the opportunities that were afforded to us, most of those we definitely seized.”
While Navy went about securing victories, it also possessed the haunting knowledge of what would happen if there wasn’t a recovery.
“We easily could have not won any more games, probably won three or four games and beat Army and been content,” Turner said. “But we didn’t want that. I felt a lot of us sat down and figured out what we needed to do and we got it done, which is pretty cool to look at. You always talk about teams doing that, but we actually sat down, figured out what we wanted to do and accomplished our goals.”
Saturday offers another chance to demonstrate the power of the Navy football brotherhood, which is already buoyed after seven wins in eight games. Snelson found particular satisfaction from receiving texts, calls and Facebook messages from last year’s seniors, who expressed pride in the turnaround season.
One last opportunity awaits these seniors, who have accomplished about everything they could have hoped to when the season started.
Well, almost everything.
“We still wanted to get a least a 10-win season and that didn’t happen, but we still have a chance to come out with nine wins after this bowl game,” senior safety Tra’ves Bush said. “We just have to keep working hard and see if we can make that happen.”
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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