ANNAPOLIS — As the first quarter drew to a close Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo knew he had a decision to make.
Quarterback Trey Miller had just lost his second fumble of the afternoon, the eighth turnover of his nine quarters as the starter this season. Niumatalolo told backup Keenan Reynolds to begin warming up. Then he informed Miller that if he turned the ball over again, he would be out of the game.
“I was very, very close to making that switch,” Niumatalolo said. “I just had a gut feeling that I wanted to give Trey one more chance, and just told him, ‘Hey, look, we can’t have that anymore.’ “
Miller got the message loud and clear.
Niumatalolo kept his starting quarterback in the game, then watched him take it over. The Marietta, Ga., native rushed for 116 yards and three touchdowns to propel the Midshipmen to a 41-3 blowout of the VMI Keydets.
It was a day of firsts for No. 1, as Miller picked up his first win as a starting quarterback in Navy’s first win of the 2012 season.
“That’s Trey,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s the healthy Trey we know. We know that’s in him, that he has that type of ability.”
Miller’s three rushing touchdowns were the most by a Midshipman since quarterback Kriss Proctor recorded three against Air Force last season. His most impressive score came in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, when he bounced off one defender, sidestepped another and hurdled VMI cornerback James Fruehan en route to the end zone.
Watching his backup get warm might have been all the motivation that Miller needed.
“I try not to worry about that,” Miller said of the situation. “Like Coach said, he just tried to keep me positive. He told me just go out there, relax and play, and that’s what I did.
Fullback Noah Copeland also had a career day, rushing for a career-high 126 yards on 20 carries. Running back Gee Gee Greene finished with 79 yards on the ground, and Navy recaptured the classic running attack that had eluded them so far this season.
“This feels a lot better than the last two weeks,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s not to say that we’re perfect, or we’re the New York Giants, or anything like that, but I’m just proud of the way our young men fought back.”
Navy was outscored by a combined margin of 84-17 in its first two games of the season against No. 11 Notre Dame and Penn State, and it opened Saturday’s game playing just as poorly. A fumbled snap led to a VMI field goal in the first quarter, and Miller’s second fumble ended Navy’s first trip to the red zone.
The Midshipmen entered halftime with a slim 13-3 lead over a Keydet squad that was playing without starting quarterback Eric Kordenbrock, who was knocked out of the game in the first quarter.
It took a combined effort on both sides of the ball to get Navy going again. After Miller scored his third touchdown of the afternoon, freshman cornerback Quincy Adams soared over the middle for a one-handed interception. Niumatalolo said it was one of the most athletic picks he’s ever seen at Jack Stephens Field.
“It was pretty nice, I guess,” Adams admitted. “It was a nice feeling.”
Linebacker Matt Warrick picked off a second VMI pass two series later and returned it seven yards for another Navy touchdown. The score put the Midshipmen up 34-3 and all but cemented Navy’s much-needed first win of the season.
Reynolds did eventually enter the game, leading Navy to a final touchdown in the contest’s closing minutes. It’s a change that could have happened a lot earlier, and probably would have altered the course of the game, had Miller committed one more turnover.
“I told Trey one more turnover, and we had to move on,” Niumatalolo said. “He just buckled down and finished strong.”