Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds’s pursuit of individual history coincides with one of the biggest moments in recent team history.
Saturday, Reynolds leads the Midshipmen into the Liberty Bowl to face Memphis, the nation’s 15th-ranked team and current pace-setter for the Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl bid.
If he scores a rushing touchdown, as he has 77 times prior in his collegiate career, Keenan Reynolds will bypass former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball’s NCAA record for rushing scores in a career.
He’ll do so in the most important game in Navy’s brief AAC history, and in his home state of Tennessee.
Reynolds, a native of Antioch, is one of nine Midshipmen Tennesseans Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo mentioned returning home on this week’s AAC coaches call.
Memphis is one of three teams tied for the American Athletic Conference West division lead with an unblemished league slate. Houston and Navy are the other two.
A win Saturday hardly locks up the conference, but it is a major tent-pole. Memphis’ place in the Top 25 is further validated, while a Navy team with just one loss, against No. 8 Notre Dame, makes a strong case for inclusion in the polls for the first time in a decade.
From just about every angle, Saturday bears historical significance.
Win or lose, Reynolds is likely to go into the NCAA record book. He’s scored at least one rushing touchdown in 35 of 43 games since notching the first of his career, Oct. 6, 2012, against Air Force.
Through four seasons as a starter, Reynolds has continuously refined his game.
Said Nuimatalolo earlier this season: “His preparation has gone to another level. It wasn’t like he was getting all these accolades and sat back relaxing. He took his preparation, his workouts, his film study…all to another level.”
“I don’t know the young man, but I’ve watched several games on film. He seems to be in total control of what they’re trying to do,” Memphis head coach Justin Fuente said.
Fuente recounted the story he read of Reynolds’ touchdown rush in the Mids’ 29-17 win over USF. The Bulls were within a score but their defense had their backs to the goal line on a late Navy drive.
Holding the Mids to a field goal gave USF the ball back, down eight with an opportunity to tie on its final drive. A touchdown sealed a Navy victory.
“It was fourth-and-[goal],” Fuente said. “Coach was wanting to kick a field, and [Reynolds] said, ‘Nah, let’s go ahead and get it. And they went for it and got it in for a touchdown.”
— American Football (@American_FB) October 31, 2015
“That says to me those coaches have total trust him in,” Fuented said.
Fitting for Keenan Reynolds tying Montee Ball’s record by taking charge. The quarterback’s been the consummate leader for Navy’s triple-option offense since taking over as the starting quarterback midway through 2012.
“When your leader’s [demanding more of himself], it brings everyone else up,” Niumatalolo said. “Because everybody recognizes, hey, if the best player on team is working that hard, we better pick it up, too.”
Against USF, that influence was evident in a total team win.
At 117 yards, Reynolds was one of three Mids to rush for more than 100 against the Bulls. Fullback Chris Swain set the pace with 131, and running back Dishon Romine more than doubled his season-long output with 115.
First time in school history Navy has 3 players with 100-plus rushing yards in same game.
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) October 31, 2015
“It’s pretty hard to gain up in one phase against us,” Niumatalolo said. “If you’re trying to take away one component, we’ve got some other weapons. We’re as talented as we’ve ever been.
“That said, we’re going to have to play our best football game to have a chance against Memphis,” he added.
Indeed, Memphis ranks No. 22 nationally against the run at just 118.8 yards allowed per game. Though the Tigers have yet to see a truly run-based attack, the most telling stat to their prowess against the rush is that no opponent has broken a five-yard per carry average.
Getting into the end zone against Memphis and gaining position for a conference championship are both considerable challenges for Keenan Reynolds and the Midshipmen. But then, so too is making history.