GAME NOTES: After beating Army Dec. 14 in Philadelphia, the Navy Midshipmen will try to keep the winning trend alive as they play Middle Tennessee in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
Navy (8-4) defeated Army, 34-7, thanks in large part to starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. The Midshipmen have won four in a row and five of their last six games with wins over Pitt, San Jose State and Hawaii included.
Middle Tennessee (8-4) is also on its own win streak, having won five straight entering the Armed Forces Bowl, most recently over Conference-USA foe UTEP, 48-17, on Nov. 30. In those five wins, the Blue Raiders have outscored their opponents, 213-108, recording at least 42 points in their last three games.
It will be the first meeting between these two programs. For Navy, it's the program's 10th bowl game appearance in the past 11 seasons, but the first trip to the Armed Forces Bowl. Middle Tennessee is making its fourth bowl game appearance under eight-year head coach Rick Stockstill.
"I talk to them (the players) every day about the history of the bowl and the history and tradition of Navy," Stockstill said. "Just how lucky we are as coaches and players that we are able to do this because something greater than us. This is a special game."
On offense, the Blue Raiders aren't extremely explosive in terms of individual performances this season, but as a unit, especially recently, Middle Tennessee has dominated with the ball in the offense's hands.
The Blue Raiders are led by quarterback Logan Kilgore, who completed 197- of-322 pass attempts this season for 2,289 yards and 16 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. The Blue Raiders average 404.6 yards per game offensively.
Running back Jordan Parker gained 741 yards and scored six touchdowns on 145 carries in 10 games played this season, while a combination of receivers Tavarres Jefferson, Marcus Henry and Kyle Griswould scored 12 times on touchdown receptions.
The Middle Tennessee defense will be busy trying to stop Reynolds and Navy's powerful rushing attack. The Blue Raiders as a unit rank 85th in the country in rushing defense, giving up an average of 185.4 rushing yards per game.
Much of the responsibility for keeping track of Reynolds should fall on sophomore linebacker T.T. Barber, who led the Blue Raiders in tackles with 112 this season. He was also first on the team in tackles for loss with 10.5 and had three sacks.
Barber showed his versatility in 2013 by intercepting three passes, recording two pass breakups and forcing two fumbles.
Redshirt sophomore safety Kevin Byard led the team with five interceptions and five pass breakups. He and the rest of the defensive backfield will be charged with being the last line of defense if the Midshipmen break a big run.
Stockstill said his team has been gearing up for a bowl game since day one, and even when the Blue Raiders were 3-4 to start the season, his team never stopped believing.
"We knew what our goal was and what we had to do to get there," he said. "That's why I have so much respect for our team. I've seen the sacrifices and adversity they've overcome to get to this point. This is a special team to me."
The Blue Raiders will have Reynolds to contend with on offense. Reynolds is the key piece of a Midshipmen attack that ranks second in the FBS in rushing yards per game. The Midshipmen average 322 rushing yards, which makes up the majority of the team's 413.5 total offensive yards per game.
Reynolds was also efficient in the team's limited passing game. He completed 65 of his 121 pass attempts in 12 games this season for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns with only two interceptions. His average of 86.5 passing yards per game tells the story of a team set on pounding the ball on the ground.
The sophomore quarterback is by far the team's leading rusher. On 280 carries, Reynolds gained 1,260 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns, which ranks first in the country for one player. He ranks second in quarterback rushing yards behind Northern Illinois senior Jordan Lynch.
The only other player on Navy that has received over 100 touches this season is sophomore fullback Chris Swain. The 5-foot-11, 232-pound fullback has carried it 102 times for 398 yards and four touchdowns.
The Midshipmen average 5.5 yards per rush, and have outscored their opponents on the ground this season, 47 touchdowns to 17.
Only two players on the Midshipmen roster have recorded double-digit receptions this season. Receivers Casey Bolena and DeBrandon Sanders have caught 13 and 12 passes, respectively, this year for a combined 381 yards and one touchdown. Matt Aiken is the only player in the Navy receiving corps with two touchdown receptions.
Who says ground games can't be effective? The Midshipmen have certainly proven that a strong running game can lead to a winning record and bowl appearance.
Defensively, Navy struggles to reach the opposing quarterback in the backfield. The Midshipmen only recorded 10 sacks in 12 games this season, with no defensive player recording more than two statistically.
Cody Peterson is the team's leading tackler with 135. Three players on Navy's defense have recorded three interceptions each this season, and one of those three players (Chris Johnson) has two fumble recoveries.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said this game is very special for Navy, as it gets a chance to represent the country in the most suited bowl game.
"What this bowl represents is more than a football game," Niumatalolo said. "Being from the United States Naval Academy to be part of such an event that celebrates the lives of those Americans, we feel very blessed."
Shutting down Navy's ground game is much easier said than done. The Blue Raiders have struggled with run defense this season, a trend that is likely to continue in this game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Navy 30, Middle Tennessee 24