ANNAPOLIS — Matt Aiken slipped into the end zone late in Navy's game against Indiana on Saturday, left alone as a cornerback blitzed.
From the sideline, fellow Navy wideout Brandon Turner could only hope quarterback Keenan Reynolds would notice the junior who missed the first month of the season.
"I see him come wide open as soon as the play starts and the corner blitzes, and Keenan's doing his fake and I'm like 'Keenan, please turn around, please turn around, please turn around,'" Turner said. "As soon as he turns around, I'm like 'Please just throw it, lob it, anything.' As soon as he got the ball off, I didn't even look. I knew he caught it."
It was Aiken's first touchdown of the season, and it lifted the Midshipmen (4-3) to a 31-30 victory, their third straight triumph.
The winning streak coincided with Aiken's return from a knee injury, and while he isn't entirely responsible for Navy's surge — Reynolds' star turn as a starter, a generally solid defense, sound special teams and turnover-free play are the pillars of the turnaround — he's bolstered the Mids' often overlooked receiving corps.
It's also a recovery Aiken wasn't entirely sure would happen.
Aiken suffered his knee injury during a scrimmage early in preseason camp, and the staff soon was optimistic he would be back in time for the Mids' Sept. 15 game at Penn State. But Aiken didn't dress for that game and didn't play in Navy's first two home games, either.
Frustration grew throughout September, and Aiken said he heard about the possibility of a de facto redshirt. That's a rarity at the academy, where an extra year of athletic eligibility is not a valid reason to postpone graduation.
A serious injury, like the broken right foot that prompted safety Jeff Deliz to withdraw from the academy in the fall of 2007 and then re-enroll the following spring, has in the past allowed a player an extra season.
"I was all-in for that whole idea," Aiken said. "I was really ready to make that happen. I'm not sure exactly the reasoning through all of it. I never really had a chance to talk to anybody about it. It just worked its way out that it wasn't going to happen."
Instead, he was finally ready to play when Navy visited Air Force on Oct. 6. He caught a pass off the bench in that game, then again served in a reserve role in a defeat of Central Michigan.
His return also solidified Navy's receiving corps, one that was thin without Aiken and Turner (preseason suspension) early in the season and is now as deep as any group of Mids wideouts entering Saturday's visit to East Carolina (5-3).
"You feel great for him," receivers coach Mick Yokitis said. "He's a guy who works his tail off and always has. For him to be rewarded and make a big play for us is good. He's got a lot more big plays in him, though."
Saturday's, though, was among the most significant of the season since Navy moved above .500 for the first time since a 2-0 start last year. It's big stuff for someone who was thinking about the possibility of not playing at one point last month.
Now, he has plenty of time to get his mind around arguably the most high-profile reception of his career.
"It was slow-motion," Aiken said. "That's one of those catches people drop because you're just thinking about it way too much. But I made sure I caught it. I wasn't going to drop that one."
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