Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) throws to a receiver against South Alabama on Nov. 16 in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 42-14. (Patrick Semansky / AP)
ANNAPOLIS, MD. — Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo had to stop his post-game news conference several times to regain his composure after he choked up talking about his 22 seniors playing their last home game in Annapolis.
Darius Staten made his last home appearance a memorable one with a career-high 127 yards on seven carries with a touchdown to lead the Midshipmen to a 42-14 victory over South Alabama on Saturday night.
With the win, the Midshipmen qualified for a bowl game for the 10th time in the past 11 years. Navy (6-4) will accept a bid to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 30 against a team from the Mountain West Conference.
“I’m so happy for us our guys because there are so many things that are hard here for them to be able qualify for something like that,” Niumatalolo said. “I mean it’s hard to win games. It’s just a tremendous accomplishment by our players. I just couldn’t be more happy for them.”
The Midshipmen, who scored 22 consecutive points in the second half, also finished undefeated at home for the first time since 2004.
South Alabama’s Ross Metheny completed 18 of 27 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns. Both touchdown passes were to Shavarez Smith, who had five receptions for 65 yards for the Bengals (3-6).
Brandon Bridge replaced Metheny at quarterback for the Bengals and put together a 20-play, 89-yard drive that was stalled at the Navy 4 when Kendall Houston was stuffed by Cody Peterson on fourth-and-2 with 11:12 left in the game. Navy then put the game away on the next possession on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds to Matt Aiken.
“I had a feeling they were going to run the ball with that guy because he runs pretty hard,” Peterson said. “I kind of just shot the gap. I didn’t really read it that much. I got lucky I guess.”
Navy backup quarterback Tago Smith added another 24-yard scoring run with 2:17 left for the 42-14 lead. The Mids racked up 519 total yards, with 351 coming from the rushing attack.
“It’s amazing,” Staten said. “It’s pretty much an unbelievable feeling. It shows how much the underclassmen really care about us. They gave it everything they had for us to win the game today.”
Navy opened an early 3-0 lead on its first possession with a 37-yard field goal by Nick Sloan. The Jaguars then responded with a 14-play, 78-yard scoring drive, capped by a 4-yard pass from Metheny to Smith.
Staten then gave Navy a 10-7 lead with 13:24 left in the half with a 17-yard touchdown run. After being helped by a roughing the passer penalty on Navy’s Chris Johnson, South Alabama went ahead again when Metheny and Smith teamed up for a 22-yard touchdown.
The shootout continued on the next possession as Navy scored again on a 7-yard run by Shawn White, who carried three defenders into the end zone. The Mids increased the lead to 20-14 with 34 seconds remaining in the half on a 21-yard field goal by Sloan.
“Against that team, you need to put up points and you need to put up points often,” said South Alabama coach Joey Jones, whose team suffered its most lopsided loss of the season. “When you get behind Navy, you feel like you are playing catch-up the entire game. Then, they keep the ball and constantly keep moving down the field with their running game. They are a very good football team and we knew that coming in.”