For eight consecutive seasons, Navy has played in a bowl, a point of pride for a program filled with pride.
Just two weeks ago, that streak seemed doomed as the Midshipmen plummeted to the depths of a six-game losing streak. Even last week's big win over overmatched Troy didn't make a ninth consecutive bowl bid appear likely.
But Saturday, the Mids put the bid back in play. Running with power and poise, Navy trampled one of the nation's best rushing defenses, rumbling for 335 yards on the ground — while gaining none through the air — on the way to a 24-17 upset of SMU at Ford Stadium.
"We were in the darkest shadow, the deepest valley there was during that six-game losing streak," said quarterback Kriss Proctor, who ran for 107 yards and directed the triple-option offense to near perfection. "We hadn't been there in a long time. This just shows the leadership, the kind of guys we have on this team, pulling guys at practice, keeping them going, playing with heart. This says a lot about us."
One thing it says is that the Mids, at 4-6, have bowl eligibility in sight. Victories in their final two games, next Saturday at San Jose State and Dec. 10 against Army in Landover, gives them the required six wins for a ninth straight bid, this one to the Military Bowl.
"That definitely crept into our mind," fullback Alexander Teich said. "[Those teams] started a legacy here and we don't want to be the guys who drop the ball."
The Mids took a giant step in that direction by taking the game back after SMU (6-4) had erased their 10-0 lead. After the Mustangs had tied the game with a touchdown on the first possession of the second half, Navy simply went back to what it does best — running the ball.
Having sliced through SMU's 18th-ranked rushing defense on the outside throughout the first half, the Midshipmen targeted the middle in the second. Fullbacks Teich and Delvin Diggs blasted straight ahead again and again, picking up 44 yards on a drive that covered 78 in 13 grind-it-out plays over 5 minutes, 33 seconds. It ended with John Howell's 1-yard sweep for the touchdown that put Navy ahead to stay.
"We had to answer," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "They had seized all the momentum, so we had to make sure that we took all that momentum away again."
Actually, it took the defense to do that. Yes, the same defense that entered the game ranked 92nd in the nation in scoring defense and 119th against the pass, which happens to be SMU's strength. But after allowing the Mustangs to race from their 20 to Navy's, the Mids held firm.
When SMU chose to go for it on fourth-and-5 late in the third quarter, linebacker Matt Warrick broke perfectly on J.J. McDermott's pass over the middle for Cole Beasley and knocked the ball away. The Mids then took it and ran with it — 80 yards in eight plays on the way to Mike Stukel's 5-yard scoring run and a 24-10 lead with 12:29 left in the game.
"Our defense has taken some criticism this year," Niumatalolo said of a unit that also killed an SMU threat with an interception in the end zone and had six tackles for losses — three by end Jabaree Tuani. "We've had some tough losses, but we weren't feeling sorry for ourselves. We were just trying to forget the past and move on."
Navy moved, all right, but only on the ground. Proctor attempted only three passes for the game — one was intercepted, another was knocked down in the backfield and the third turned into a pass interference penalty — as Navy failed to complete a pass for the first time since a 2009 victory over Wake Forest.
"I love it," Proctor beamed. "Didn't complete a pass but I threw one pick, so I guess that's a completion."
The Mids' game plan was simple — run the ball, control the clock and keep SMU's high-powered passing attack off the field. For the game's first 18 minutes, it could hardly have worked any better. Navy ate up yardage and seconds in big chunks with its triple option, while the Mustangs couldn't get out of their own way.
During the 17 minutes, 28 seconds from the opening kickoff until Gee Gee Greene's 1-yard touchdown that gave Navy a 10-0 lead, the Mids had the ball for 13:54, and ran 30 plays. SMU had a mere nine offensive snaps.
Proctor was all but flawless as the triggerman for Navy, hurting SMU by cutting inside with keepers, then pitching at just the right moment when the defense began to focus on him. And even when he made his huge mistake, forcing an ill-advised third-down pass toward a tightly-covered Matt Aiken that was intercepted by SMU's Kenneth Acker in Navy territory, McDermott returned the favor by throwing an interception to Chris Ferguson on the next snap.
"The defense bailed us out a lot today," Proctor said.
And now the Mids are on the verge of bailing out a season that not long ago seemed lost. With two games left, the goal of a bowl is in sight.
"We've got to win two games," Proctor said. "That bowl game is finally in our sights, but we can't forget that we're one and done. If we lose, it's over. We've got to win next week."
Notes: Former President George W. Bush tossed the coin before the game. Bush lives in Dallas and his Presidential Library is currently under construction on the SMU campus. … Roger Staubach, a Navy Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, attended the game dressed completely in Navy gear. … The victory gave Navy possession of the Gansz Trophy, named for legendary special teams coach Frank Gansz, who died in 2009. Gansz played at Navy and was an assistant with both Navy and SMU. … Navy has won five in a row against SMU and eight of the past nine meetings. … Navy's first-quarter field goal was the Mids' first score on their opening drive since the season's second game, a Sept. 10 win at Western KentuckyCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times