Navy's Mason Graham (42) celebrates with teammates after Navy keeps… (John F. Rhodes/AP )
DALLAS — Because the Navy football team must win its remaining games to reach a bowl, the Midshipmen are treating each with the urgency of a bowl.
With that in mind, Navy took an early double-digit lead Saturday, then held off Southern Methodist for a 24-17 win before 21,080 at Ford Stadium, a crowd that included former President George W. Bush.
On a windy day in which Navy went without a passing yard, senior quarterback Kriss Proctor ran for a team-high 107 yards, senior fullback Alexander Teich added 90 yards and senior defensive end Jabaree Tuani led a resurgent defense with a sack, a pass breakup and three tackles for losses. Their efforts enabled Navy to win its second game in a row, its first game this season against a team with a winning record at the time and its first this season when the margin was seven points or less.
Just three weeks ago, Navy (4-6) lost to Notre Dame, 56-14, its sixth loss in a row. The Midshipmen appeared unlikely to extend their consecutive bowl-game streak to nine seasons.
But with two games left in the regular season, that milestone suddenly is within reach. To get there, they need to beat San Jose State next Saturday and Army on Dec. 10 at FedEx Field.
“I said it a couple times before when we kept losing: This team is going to keep fighting,” Teich said. “There’s no quitters on this team. We’re here for a reason. They train you here. They teach you not to quit, not to give up because you’re going to face adversity at times, and you’ve got to persevere through it. That’s just the character of this team.”
Capping a 13-play, 78-yard drive, Navy junior slotback John Howell scored on a one-yard run for a 17-10 lead with 5 minutes 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
Consecutive defensive stands allowed the Midshipmen to preserve the margin well into the fourth quarter.
The first came after junior linebacker Brye French sacked Mustangs quarterback J.J. McDermott on third and two, forcing a punt.
But returner Matt Aiken muffed the ball after calling for a fair catch, and Southern Methodist’s Chris Banjo recovered at the Navy 25. From there, however, the Midshipmen gave up just five yards and got the ball back when McDermott threw incomplete on fourth-and-five.
Navy took over in the closing seconds of the third quarter and, on the final play, lost two yards when senior slotback Aaron Santiago ran into a crowd of defenders. One play later, though, junior slotback Gee Gee Greene took a pitch around the left side for 29 yards, and the Midshipmen were in business again.
Navy extended the series when Teich barely reached the marker on third-and-two. Then on first down following Proctor’s nine-yard run, defensive end Taylor Thompson was called for a personal foul, tacking on 15 yards.
Two plays after the penalty, senior slotback Mike Stukel scored on a five-yard run thanks to a clearing block from Greene, and Navy lead 24-10 with 12:20 to play.
The Mustangs scored a touchdown with 3:40 to go, but with no timeouts left, they were all but helpless as Navy ran out the clock for its fifth straight victory over SMU and eighth in nine meetings.
“I’m very proud,” Tuani said. “Everybody in this team, regardless of how our season’s been going, this is the way we’re playing Navy football. Everybody is starting to click a little bit more. Everybody’s just getting an understanding of how we play and how we do things.”
The Midshipmen scored on their opening possession, following through with one of Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s top directives. Navy has had issues this season starting quickly, and they knew full well against a run-and-shoot team like Southern Methodist (6-4) that taking an early lead was all but a prerequisite for winning.
The drive began at the Navy 20 and featured 10 consecutive runs, including a 17-yard run by Proctor and an 11-yarder by Howell. The Midshipmen got to the 25 and had first and 10, but three runs produced only five yards, so they had to settle for place kicker Jon Teague’s line-drive 39-yard field goal into the wind.
Safety Chris Ferguson intercepted McDermott on the Mustangs’ next drive, offsetting an interception on the previous play by Proctor, who’s still recovering from a dislocated left elbow. The Midshipmen took over at their 44, and eight plays later, Greene took a pitch around the left side into the end zone from one yard for a 10-0 cushion with 12:32 to play until intermission.
The Mustangs finally scored on Chase Hover’s 28-yard field goal as the first half expired, capping a 14-play drive that used 2:36. Southern Methodist knotted the score on the initial drive of the second half when wide receiver Cole Beasley caught a seven-yard touchdown from McDermott before the Midshipmen soon assumed the lead for good.
“They tied it up at 10, and that may have been the most important drive,” Proctor said of Navy’s ensuing touchdown. “We got the momentum. We ate up clock. We picked up first downs. It just feels great.”