Middle Tennessee-Navy Preview
The Midshipmen will face the Blue Raiders on Monday at Amon G. Carter Stadium on the campus of TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 11th edition of this bowl.
The Armed Forces Bowl has previously featured both Army (2010) and Air Force (2007-09, 2012), but this marks the first time it will host the Naval Academy. It will be the only bowl game to have welcomed all three service academies.
Middle Tennessee made a few headlines last summer with the case of 24-year-old freshman Steven Rhodes, who served five years with the Marines before enrolling at the school. The NCAA granted the defensive end a waiver and four years of eligibility.
Record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds leads Navy (8-4) and its option offense into this matchup with the Blue Raiders (8-4), who won their final five games and went 6-2 in league play during their first season in Conference USA.
The Midshipmen closed with four straight victories, including a 34-7 win over Army in the season finale that was their 12th straight in the series. The win clinched the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy after Navy beat Air Force 28-10 in October.
Reynolds ran for 136 yards and scored three touchdowns, giving him 29 rushing TDs to break the single-season mark for a quarterback previously held by Ricky Dobbs (Navy, 2009) and Collin Klein (Kansas State, 2011), both of whom had 27.
"Coming into the game, I wasn't too concerned about the record," said Reynolds, who also scored 176 points to break a school record that stood since 1917. "If I broke it, I broke it. If not, oh well."
Reynolds passed for 1,038 yards and eight scores this season and also piled up 1,260 rushing yards with a modest average of 4.5 per carry. He led Navy to the nation's second-highest rushing average at 322.0 yards per game, topped only by BCS championship-bound Auburn (335.7).
The Midshipmen's 47 rushing TDs lead the FBS.
"Their quarterback is excellent," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. "Very seldom does he make mistakes. He can beat you with his feet and can beat you with his decision-making process. He is good and their defense does not give up big plays."
Navy's defense held two of its last four opponents to 14 points or fewer, and it also showed it can win a high-scoring game with a 58-52 win over San Jose State on Nov. 22.
That may become the case against the Blue Raiders, who have averaged 42.6 points during their five-game win streak. Middle Tennessee, however, did struggle with a combined 34 points in losses to BYU, East Carolina and North Texas that preceded the surge.
"We're excited about playing a very good Middle Tennessee team," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "If you're 8-4, we recognize how hard it is to win. So for them to be 8-4 shows what kind of season they have."
Leading the way for Middle Tennessee is quarterback Logan Kilgore, who threw for 2,289 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. The Red Raiders also have a balanced run game with two players - Jordan Parker (767) and Reggie Whatley (640) - reaching 600 or more yards.
The Blue Raiders will have their hands full with Reynolds and the option set, but their run defense was solid in their last three games with an average of 116.6 yards allowed. Middle Tennessee gave up 185.8 per game on the season.
"It's going to take a lot of mental focus," said linebacker Roderic Blunt. "We have to be disciplined. That's number one when you are playing a team like this."
The Midshipmen will be making their 10th bowl appearance in 11 years.
"We're excited about our season. We've had some tough wins and some tough losses," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo is in his sixth season at the helm and 16th overall with Navy. During his tenure as head coach, the Midshipmen have gone 48-30 and appeared in four previous bowls.
Stockstill has gone 51-48 in his eight seasons at Middle Tennessee, which hasn't played in a bowl since 2010, when it lost to Miami (Ohio) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The Blue Raiders also went 8-4 in 2012 but were passed over for a bowl berth in favor of a Western Kentucky team that went 7-5 and had lost at home to Middle Tennessee.
"I told them to think back to their emotions that they had at this time last year," Stockstill said of his players, "and to understand and appreciate how special going to this bowl is going to be."