Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) runs in a touchdown Dec. 14 against Army in Philadelphia. The Midshipmen face Middle Tennessee State on Monday in the Armed Forces Bowl. (Matt Rourke / AP)
Armed Forces Bowl
Middle Tennessee St. (8-4) vs. Navy (8-4), 11:45 a.m., (ESPN)
Line: Navy by 6½
Series record: First meeting.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Navy won the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for the second consecutive season, the ninth time in 11 years, with that snowy win over Army, and now goes for its first bowl victory since 2009. The Midshipmen have lost five of their last six postseason games. Middle Tennessee State, snubbed for a bowl spot last year despite the same 8-4 record, now gets a chance to win at least nine games for only the second time in 21 seasons. The Blue Raiders won 10 games in 1992, and again in 2009.
The differing offenses and quarterbacks. Navy gets most of its yardage on the ground, ranking second nationally with 322 yards rushing per game. Sophomore Keenan Reynolds has run for 1,260 yards and 29 touchdowns, the NCAA record for a quarterback. Middle Tennessee State has a balanced offense, gaining 208 yards a game on the ground and 207 yards through the air. Logan Kilgore has set an MTSU record with 53 career TD passes and is only the fourth quarterback in school history to pass for more than 7,000 yards.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Middle Tennessee State: Sophomore safety Kevin Byard has nine interceptions in his 24 career games, including four returned for touchdowns.
Navy: Senior LBs Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti, the top two tacklers for the Midshipmen. Peterson has 135 tackles, and Sargenti 103.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Armed Forces Bowl is the first bowl game to host all three service academy teams. Air Force has played in Fort Worth four times, and Army has also played there and is set for the 2014 game if bowl eligible. ... It is the 100th game for Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, 51-48 in his eight seasons. ... Navy has five sets of brothers on its roster, tied with Wisconsin and Army for the most in FBS this season.
FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Navy and Middle Tennessee State have drastically different offensive philosophies and very similar results.
The teams playing in the Armed Forces Bowl on Monday both have 8-4 records and average about 415 total yards a game, though the Midshipmen gain most of their yards on the ground with their triple option while the Blue Raiders are basically 50-50. Both have extended winning streaks after midseason slumps.
Middle Tennessee was 3-4 in mid-October after losing its third straight game before an open date and a players-only meeting. The Blue Raiders hasn’t lost since then, starting with a wild 51-49 victory over Marshall when Logan Kilgore threw a touchdown pass on the game’s final play.
“I do think the Marshall game kind of jolted the team a bit,” Kilgore said. “To be able to ride a win streak like that going against some quality teams, it gives the team all the needed momentum to carry into a long bowl process.”
Especially after last season, when Middle Tennessee was also 8-4 but was snubbed for a bowl spot in it final year in the Sun Belt Conference before moving to Conference USA.
Navy was 3-3 after a double-overtime loss at Toledo. The Midshipmen then beat Pittsburgh and lost 38-34 loss at Notre Dame before four consecutive wins, including in triple overtime at San Jose State before beating Army in blizzard-like conditions just more than two weeks ago.
“Our two goals every year are to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy and go to a bowl game. So this is our main goal “ Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’re grateful for our opportunity to play and play against another team that’s won the right to be at a bowl game. … You come into the culmination of the season, and there is no letdown.”
Here are five things to know when Navy and Middle Tennessee State meet for the first time:
ONE THROWS, ONE RUNS: Middle Tennessee averages 208 yards rushing and 207 yards passing per game with Kilgore’s 53 career TD passes a school record. The Midshipmen are second nationally with 322 yards rushing per game, led by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds with 29 rushing TDs, a Navy record and the most ever in a season by an NCAA quarterback. “We have one great quarterback. I wish I could run like him,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, the two-time Super Bowl champion who 50 years ago won the Heisman Trophy as Navy’s quarterback. “Keenan is really special.”
CHILLY, NO ICE: The kickoff forecast is for below-average temperatures in the mid-30s. Navy won’t complain since it will be sunny with no chance of any precipitation. “Watching Navy’s last game, I know whatever it is, it’s going to be a heck of a lot better than what they had to play in,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. Navy beat Army 34-7 in snow and freezing temperatures, when some players had hypothermia symptoms. “It’s a lot warmer than what we just played in,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “So our kids will be excited.”
ALL THREE ACADEMIES: With Navy in its first Armed Forces Bowl, the bowl is fittingly the first to host all three service academy teams. Air Force was the first in 2007, and has played there three more times since. Army, which played in 2010 game, will have a spot next year if bowl eligible. Navy is set to return in 2016 if bowl eligible that season.
DEFENSIVE POINTS: Middle Tennessee’s defense has scored five touchdowns, on four interceptions and a fumble recovery. That is the most for the Blue Raiders in the FBS era (since 1999). They have forced 31 turnovers that have led to 85 points. Middle Tennessee also had its first shutout since 2006 in a 48-0 win over FIU last month.
BOWL STRUGGLES: Navy has won only one of its last six bowl games, and is 1-3 under sixth-year coach Ken Niumatalolo. But the coach did nothing different for this bowl trip. “Maybe eat a little bit more, but other than that, no,” he said. “If you look at our bowl records, I have a horrible bowl record, so I’m still trying to figure it out.” He said the goal was make sure “our preparation is pure as it can be” and also for his guys to have some fun.