ANNAPOLIS, Md. — It would've been easy for the Navy Midshipmen to get complacent Saturday. Easy for them to look past Texas State and dwell on their next game against Army. Easy for them to remember that their trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has already been booked.
But that's not Navy.
On a day when 27 seniors were honored at midfield before the game, the younger Midshipmen honored their elder classmates the only way they knew how: by grinding out a sloppy 21-10 victory and sealing the program's ninth winning season since 2003. Navy has now won 10 consecutive Senior Days dating back to 2002.
"I'm very proud of our young men," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It was an emotional game, just for our seniors - the last time seeing them here at this stadium. The next time they'll be here is when they graduate...to finish out this way, I'm very happy for them."
The Midshipmen racked up 407 yards on the ground, the third time this year they've exceeded 400 rushing yards, but they struggled all afternoon to turn those yards into points. Noah Copeland scored two touchdowns and senior Gee Gee Greene dove for a third, but it was ultimately the Navy defense that made all the difference.
Against a Texas State offense that averages 26.2 points per game and put up 55 points against Louisiana Tech a week ago, the Midshipmen stood their ground. Wide receiver Isaiah Battle slipped behind the secondary for a 62-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, but the Bobcats struggled to score the rest of the afternoon. Five of their fourth down conversions, including a fake field goal midway through the second quarter, fell short.
"Just give our kids a lot of credit," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "They played hard and made plays when they needed to make them... the key was they just kept battling."
They kept battling even when the game was all but over.
On the very last play of the game, Texas State was facing a fourth-and-goal from the Navy four-yard-line. A touchdown wouldn't have changed the outcome of the game, but nobody told the Midshipmen that. As the crowd rose to its feet, Parrish Gaines jarred a Bobcat wide receiver and knocked the ball loose. His teammates celebrated the play as if their entire season had been on the line.
"The seniors worked so hard just to get to this point in their careers," freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds explained. "It was great to send them out with a win."
Reynolds had the most lackluster performance of his young career, completing just 3-of-8 passes and finishing with 85 total yards. And he was just one of several Midshipmen that struggled. Sure-handed slotback Bo Snelson fumbled an easy pitch in the first quarter. Kicker Nick Sloan missed two makable field goals.
When asked about those missteps after the game, Niumatalolo took exception.
"You guys always want to build on the negatives, but we won," he said. "You guys are making like this is a sad part. We're 7-4, we're going to a bowl game, getting ready for Army. I don't know what else to say."
The Midshipmen lost three of their first four games to start the season but have since rattled off six wins in their last seven games. In many ways, the win over Texas State was but a precursor to the two huge games that are still to come. Next, Navy will travel Philadelphia to play Army at Lincoln Financial Field with the Commander-in-Chief's trophy on the line. Then it will fly to San Francisco to play a Pac-12 team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
But Niumatalolo didn't view Saturday's game as a tune-up. He stressed the importance of winning a game for his seniors in their last contest at home - and winning another game, period.
"It's hard to win. It's hard to prepare, these guys work hard," he said. "We're not Alabama or LSU or anybody like that. We've got to grind out all of our wins - that's just the way it is. So I'm very proud of them."
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