WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Riley Skinner’s first interception in nine months was quickly followed by another, then another.
The miscues didn’t stop until Navy was celebrating its first win over a ranked team in 23 years.
Skinner was responsible for five of No. 16 Wake Forest’s six turnovers, and his fourth-quarter interception ended any comeback hopes in Navy’s 24-17 win on Saturday.
“It’s pretty deflating for an offense and a defense when you do that,” said Skinner, who had his streak of 133 passes without an interception shattered by throwing four and losing a fumble. “It’s all on me.”
The Demon Deacons (3-1), who had earned a reputation for disciplined play, were done in by more than just their mistake-prone quarterback. Starting left tackle Jeff Birdsong was ejected, they couldn’t run the ball and the defense couldn’t stop the nation’s top ground game.
Eric Kettani rushed for a career-high 175 yards and backup quarterback Jarod Bryant scored the decisive touchdown late in the fourth quarter — after Skinner’s fourth pick — as Navy survived despite losing quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada in the second quarter to a hamstring injury.
“We weren’t surprised that they were tough against the run,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “I think the ability to not throw the football without turning the ball over was what hurt us today.”
With No. 20 Clemson also losing Saturday to Maryland, much of the luster is gone from the Clemson-Wake Forest matchup Oct. 9 that was supposed to determine superiority in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For Navy (3-2), it was new coach Ken Niumatalolo’s first signature win, and the Midshipmen’s first victory over a ranked team since they knocked off No. 20 Virginia 17-13 in 1985.
“It was a phenomenal job of our kids fighting, scratching and clawing,” Niumatalolo said. “Our defense played phenomenal today. Every situation that we put them in, our defense just stepped up.”
A much-criticized defense, which gave up 76 points in consecutive losses to Ball State and Duke, had many contributors. Four players had interceptions, with Emmett Merchant picking off Skinner midway through the fourth quarter with Wake Forest driving for a tying touchdown.
Kettani then quickly reeled off a 57-yard run, and Bryant’s 4-yard TD run with 3:45 left assured Navy wouldn’t cough up a 17-0 lead.
“We needed that touchdown at the end, obviously, to give us some breathing room,” Niumatalolo said. “I mean that’s a good football team we just beat.”
Wake Forest was coming off a dominating defensive performance when it forced seven turnovers a week earlier in a 12-3 win at Florida State. But the Demon Deacons struggled to move the ball in that game, and the woes in the ground game (43 yards rushing) continued against Navy.
Throw in all the turnovers, and Wake Forest had its six-game winning streak dating to last season snapped.
Skinner, who had not thrown an interception since the first half of last year’s Meineke Bowl, completed 26 of 40 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown pass to Mike Rinfrette with 1:14 left. But Navy recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
“TCB — take care of the ball — and we just didn’t do that today,” receiver Chip Brinkman said.
Skinner’s first interception, by Ross Pospisil on Wake’s first series, led to Kaheaku-Enhada’s 4-yard TD run.
Navy, which converted seven straight third down chances to start the game, took a 14-0 lead on Kaheaku-Enhada’s 3-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
Coming in with only five turnovers in three games, Wake Forest couldn’t overcome a dizzying display of mistakes and undisciplined plays in the first half.
Receiver Marshall Williams lost a fumble, Skinner badly overthrew Brinkman and it was picked off by Wyatt Middleton, Skinner lost a fumble after picking up a first down and then Ketric Buffin intercepted another badly thrown ball.
And Birdsong could only watch, after being ejected early in the second quarter for a blow to the head away from the ball. It was all part of an uncharacteristic first half that saw Wake Forest with only one more first down (six) than turnovers.
Kaheaku-Enhada left in the second quarter when he aggravated a left hamstring injury. But Bryant and Kettani continued to eat up yards and Navy — a 16-point underdog — finished with 292 yards rushing.
“It was an unbelievable win for our program,” Niumatalolo said.