It wasn't easy by any stretch, but quarterback Keenan Reynolds set the tone for what would be a monumental season, a record-breaking campaign, as he ran for three touchdowns in the 41-35 victory against the Hoosiers, the first road win over a Big Ten Conference opponent for Navy since 1979. A week later, the Midshipmen made it easy on themselves with a rousing 51-7 thrashing of FCS foe Delaware at home.
However, two weeks after that the squad hit a snag as Reynolds went out with an injury against Western Kentucky and, despite owning a lead upon his exit, Navy wound up on the short end of a 19-7 final on the road. The team did rebound to post a 28-10 win over Air Force in the first half of the annual battle for the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, but defeats against Duke and Toledo on the road followed.
Just 3-3 after six games coach Niumatalolo, who is now just seven wins shy of becoming the all-time wins leaders with the Midshipmen, had to turn his team around and he did just that with a 24-21 victory over Pittsburgh at home. During the first week of November, Navy tried to keep up the strong play and nearly upset Notre Dame on the road, but eventually was dealt a 38-34 setback.
With the tremendous effort against the Fighting Irish to hang their hat on, the Midshipmen proceeded to rip off four straight wins to close out the regular season, taking down Hawaii, South Alabama, San Jose State (in three overtimes) and Army, the latter in the annual showdown in Philadelphia by a score of 34-7.
Against the Spartans, Reynolds set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns with an incredible seven, and also became the fourth quarterback in Navy history to both run and pass for at least 1,000 yards in the same season.
At 8-4, the Midshipmen locked themselves into the Armed Forces Bowl where they crushed Middle Tennessee in Forth Worth, Texas, 24-6.
Reynolds was a scoring machine for the Midshipmen, so much so that he set the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns registered by a quarterback with a staggering 31 on 300 carries. Reynolds ran for a team-best 1,346 yards and also opened up the airwaves to the tune of 1,057 yards and another eight scores, against just two interceptions.
"When Keenan took over as our starting quarterback we were 1-3, and so he made us a lot smarter," coach Niumatalolo said of his signal caller. "He's just a wonderful young man. When you look at him, he's not a very physically impressive guy, he's 5-10, he'll tell you he's 5-11, but he's 5-10, 185 pounds, but he's the smartest quarterback that I've been around. He's all about numbers, he gets you in the right play, and he gets the ball to all the right people."
OFFENSE: You need to look no further than Reynolds to see what the Midshipmen have up their sleeves again this season on offense. The program ranked second in the nation in rushing a year ago with 325.4 ypg, thanks in large part to the exploits of Reynolds as he executed the triple-option to perfection. Over the last 12 seasons, Navy has ranked no lower than sixth in the country in rushing.
In addition to Reynolds, Navy had eight other players who ran for at least 220 yards last season, all but one of them reaching the end zone at least once. There are plenty of mouths to feed coming out of the backfield yet again in 2014, with the likes of Geoffrey Whiteside, Noah Copeland and DeBrandon Sanders ready to take their turn. Chris Swain, second on the team last season with 420 yards and four touchdowns, is a bit further down on the depth chart, but still a top talent nonetheless.
Sanders, who tied for the team lead with 13 receptions, showed potential after racing 63 yards with one of those catches,. Whiteside, who appeared in just 10 games and recorded seven catches, showed his speed by averaging 22.6 yards per grab, a number that should at least make defenses think a bit more when cramming the box trying to stop what they think is going to be a persistent run.
Along the offensive line, Navy brings back starters in Bradyn Heap, E.K. Binns, Tanner Fleming, and Jake Zuzek, all key personnel who are essential to keeping up the energy and protecting the skill players coming out of the backfield.
DEFENSE: The Midshipmen had their share of shootouts last season and it was only because of Reynolds that they ended up surviving more often than not. The defense put Navy in some tenuous situations, although you couldn't necessarily fault the efforts of Cody Peterson and DJ Sargenti. The duo finished atop the tackles list for the Midshipmen with 142 and 110 stops, respectively.
Unfortunately, neither Peterson nor Sargenti is back for another go around this season, which leaves Chris Johnson as the top returning tackler after posting 84 takedowns in 2013. Johnson was also tied with Parrish Gaines and Brendon Clements for the team lead with three interceptions, adding a pair of forced fumbles for good measure.
Clements may only be a sophomore, but he has already shown his value to this team and will be a leader in the middle of the field for seasons to come, which should be a comfort to the coaching staff. Senior Jordan Drake and James Britton will also patrol the middle of the field again for the Midshipmen, while fellow senior Paul Quessenberry helps to anchor the defensive line at one of the end positions.
Despite being one of the most disciplined teams in the nation, averaging only 2.62 penalties per contest to rank first in the NCAA last year, there are some areas of concern for Navy, particularly when it comes to stopping opponents on third down, which they did just over 54 percent of the time a season ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS: As far as the kicking responsibilities are concerned, the Midshipmen have both punter Pablo Beltran and placekicker Nick Sloan back in the fold for 2014.
Sloan made good on all but three of his 14 field goal chances last season, hitting his only attempt from 40 yards or beyond. While Sloan is capable of hitting narrow targets, kickoffs will be handled by Austin Grebe once more.
Beltran was called on 40 times a season ago, averaging 41.4 yards per kick as he landed nearly one-third (12) of those efforts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
After averaging 22.2 yards on his five kickoff returns last season, Demond Brown has been penciled in as the primary returner, while DeBrandon Sanders gets a chance to bring back punts, something that was done a total of just 10 times for the Midshipmen all of last year.
OUTLOOK: This season marks the final campaign for the Midshipmen playing as an Independent. Next year the team will suit up as part of the American Athletic Conference against the likes of Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, USF and UCF.
In addition to playing a total of seven opponents that were bowl eligible a season ago, Navy has a few top-tier outings against nationally-ranked Ohio State in the opener at M&T Park at the end of August, as well as a Nov. 1 battle versus vaunted rival Notre Dame at FedEx Field.
Also adding to the change in scenery, the annual Army-Navy battle takes a detour to the south in 2015, settling in at M&T Park in Baltimore as well. The Midshipmen, who have won 12 straight meetings in the series, won the last clash played in Baltimore back in 2007 by a score of 38-3 when, coincidentally, new Army head coach Jeff Monken was part of the Navy staff.
There are plenty of winnable games on the schedule again this season for a Navy team that has won at least nine games in five of the last 10 campaigns. While the overall win total might not be what the Midshipmen are looking for in the end, another Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is almost a foregone conclusion given the status of both Army and Air Force these days.