While Middle Tennessee and Navy will play each other for the first time ever in Fort Worth, Texas, this year’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl will have a distinct Tennessee flavor.
Navy is playing in its 10th bowl in 11 years thanks to a record-setting season by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. A true dual-threat who now holds the single-season mark for rushing touchdowns (29) by a quarterback, Reynolds is from Antioch, Tenn., which is less than 30 miles from MTSU’s campus in Murfreesboro.
The Midshipmen (8-4) won eight games for the second season in a row and 10th in 11 overall on the strength of the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack. The signature triple option, which was first introduced by former head coach Paul Johnson (currently at Georgia Tech) and has been continued by Ken Niumatalolo, has churned out an average of 322 yards rushing per game.
Navy has gone 3-6 during its current bowl streak and has lost its last two postseason games. This also represents the Midshipmen’s fifth bowl game played in the state of Texas and first since the 2009 Texas Bowl in Houston against Missouri. That also was the last bowl game the Midshipmen won, as they beat the Tigers 35-13 in Reliant Stadium.
Middle Tennessee (8-4) is playing in its first bowl game in three seasons after the Blue Raiders posted their second straight eight-win regular season. Despite beating Georgia Tech in 2012 and finishing with eight victories, MTSU was left out of the bowl picture in its final season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Now in Conference USA, head coach Rick Stockstill’s team made the most of their new surroundings. The Blue Raiders tied with East Carolina for second place in the East Division with a 6-2 conference mark.
The Blue Raiders have won five games in a row and a victory over Navy would give them their second-most wins (9) in a season since the program moved to the FBS ranks (formerly known as Division 1-A) in 1999. MTSU last played in a bowl game in 2010, when it lost to Miami (Ohio) 35-21 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
MTSU vs. Navy
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 11:45 a.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Navy -6.5
MTSU’s Key to Victory: Lean on past experience
Last season, the Blue Raiders’ signature victory came when they beat Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets are coached by Paul Johnson who was at Navy from 2002-07 and introduced the triple option offense to the Midshipmen. That offense is still in place under Ken Niumatalolo, so MTSU does have some experience in defending it. The key to stopping the triple option is limiting the damage done on the ground; something the Blue Raiders did pretty well in that road upset victory last September. Georgia Tech finished with 238 yards rushing but needed 53 carries (4.5 ypc) to get to that total. MTSU used Tech’s own medicine against it, rushing for 264 yards on 44 carries (6.0 ypc) behind a monster game (217 yards, 5 TDs) from Benny Cunningham, who now plays for St. Louis in the NFL. The Blue Raiders will certainly need to muster plenty of offense from quarterback Logan Kilgore (above, right) and its multi-headed ground game, but any hope of victory begins and ends with slowing down the second-ranked rushing attack in the nation. The Midshipmen average 322 yards rushing per game and as a team average 5.5 yards per carry. They have been held under their average just four times and one of those came against a ranked Duke team. MTSU has held up pretty well against the run in its five games versus bowl teams (BYU, East Carolina, Marshall, North Carolina, North Texas), allowing just 218 yards on the ground per contest, but Navy’s triple option is unique. Fortunately the Blue Raiders have played against something very similar not too long ago and maybe that recent experience will pay dividends against the Midshipmen.
Navy’s Key to Victory: Hold onto the ball
It is no secret that the Midshipmen’s game plan is to try and beat you by running the ball early and often. After all, Navy led the nation with 708 rushing attempts or an average of 59 per game. Contrast that to just 139 total pass attempts in 12 games, which is less than 12 per contest. Put it all together and 84 percent of Navy’s total offensive plays were runs. And while the 322 yards rushing per game is certainly impressive, good for second in the nation, what’s even more impressive is the fact that the Midshipmen have lost a total of four fumbles this season. Combine that with four interceptions and Navy’s eight total turnovers are the fewest among the 125 teams in FBS. The Midshipmen forced 20 takeaways on defense and special teams giving them a plus-12 turnover margin, tying them for 10th in the nation. Ball security is obviously critical to any productive offense, but especially a run-centric one like Navy’s. It’s also important in this game because MTSU is right behind Navy when it comes to turnover margin. The Blue Raiders were a little more careless with the football, committing 20 turnovers (13 INTs, 7 fumbles), but they produced 31 takeaways, including 16 fumbles. The fumble recoveries tie them for the third-most in the nation, and the 31 total takeaways tie them for fifth. The overall plus-11 turnover margin puts them one behind the Midshipmen and is just another reason why Navy’s ball carriers will want to make sure they have a good grip on the pigskin.
Key Player: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
A two-time All-State selection when he was at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., Reynolds didn’t stay close to home and go to nearby MTSU. Instead he enrolled at the Naval Academy where he became just the third freshman in program history to start at quarterback. After rushing for 649 yards and throwing for 898 in his first season, Reynolds has taken his game to historic levels this season. A 1,200-yard rusher and 1,000-yard passer, Reynolds has accounted for 37 total touchdowns, including a NCAA-record 29 rushing scores. He has seven games with at least three rushing touchdowns and set another NCAA mark with seven scores on the ground in a three-overtime win at San Jose State in late November. Even though he’s attempted just 121 passes, Reynolds has posted a respectable 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. MTSU has done a decent job against the run this season, allowing 185.8 yards rushing per game, but the Blue Raiders know full well that Navy’s triple option represents a unique challenge. Is MTSU up to the task or will Reynolds cap off a historic season with a big game against his hometown team?
Navy may appear one-dimensional, but the Midshipmen do that one thing – run the ball – very well. MTSU has balance on offense and made a healthy living off of turnovers, but the Blue Raiders are 1-4 against teams that finished with a winning record. Navy’s defense didn’t exactly shut opponents down and it will be tested by MTSU’s offense, but I think the Midshipmen’s ability to control the clock with its triple option attack will be the key to this one. Tennessee native Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen’s record-setting quarterback, also has the added incentive of facing his hometown Blue Raiders. Besides, in the Armed Forces Bowl isn’t it obvious which team you should pick?
Prediction: Navy 35, MTSU 31