Navy's ground game bottled up in 2nd half as Air Force holds on for 30-21 win


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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colorado — Keenan Reynolds rolled on the turf in the waning seconds, his foot stomping the ground over and over, in obvious pain.

Afterward, the Navy quarterback said he was feeling "OK."

As for the loss? Now that stung.

Reynolds couldn't pull off a late rally as Air Force beat Navy 30-21 on Saturday, a significant step in the Falcons' bid to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2011.

This wasn't one of the finest games for the Midshipmen (2-4). They turned the ball over twice, missed a field goal just before halftime and had their vaunted ground game — tops in the nation — held to just 36 yards in the second half.

"The story was our inability to take care of the ball," Reynolds said.

And the story for the Falcons (4-1) is they're now halfway to the White House as Kale Pearson led the way with three touchdown passes.

Air Force just needs to beat Army on Nov. 1 to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which represents superiority among the three service academies. If the teams all finish 1-1 in the annual round-robin competition, Navy, the two-time reigning champion, retains the prize. A trip to Washington, D.C., to meet the President goes to the winner.

This was a big first step, though, considering the victor of the contest has gone on to capture the last 17 trophies.

"Tough loss," Reynolds said.

Reynolds had a late TD pass, along with a 10-yard TD run in the second quarter. His run gave him 49 career scores, tying him with Ricky Dobbs for most in school history.

Not that he was in a celebratory mood by that particular distinction.

"I wasn't aware of it. We lost," Reynolds said.

Pearson put Air Force ahead for good on a 3-yard TD pass to Garrett Griffin in the third quarter. But Navy rallied late and pulled to within a field goal. Air Force recovered the onside kick, and Pearson found Garrett Brown on fourth-and-2 from the 13 to clinch the win.

It's the second straight big win for the Falcons, who knocked off Boise State a week ago.

"There are still some doubters, saying maybe we got lucky last week," Pearson said. "We're an all-around good team."

The defense did its part, bottling up the nation's top rushing offense in the second half. The Midshipmen entered the contest averaging 358 yards.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo was trying to make sense of what transpired as his team dropped their third straight.

"Very disappointed," he said. "Disappointing because of how we've been playing."

Pearson finished with 112 yards passing, while receiver Jalen Robinette threw for 54 more on a trick play. Pearson threw a lateral to Robinette, who then tossed a long pass to Brown to give Air Force a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.

It was a flashback to Robinette's high school days, when he was a quarterback.

"When we put that play in, I was pretty excited about it," Robinette said. "It looked good in practice."

Will Conant added a 22-yard field goal with 4:27 remaining, giving the Falcons a 24-14 lead.

That proved big, because the Midshipmen climbed back into the game when Reynolds found a wide-open DeBrandon Sanders, who broke out of a tackle and sprinted 40 yards into the end zone with 2:14 remaining. But the onside kick was snared out of the air by Robinette.

The Falcons' opportunistic defense came up big time after time. They created seven turnovers against Boise State and two more against Navy, including an interception by Christian Spears in the end zone early in the second quarter.

In the first half, the Midshipmen were mistake-prone as they turned the ball over twice — and almost two more times, if not for Air Force penalties. The Falcons had an interception by Justin DeCoud negated by a defensive holding call and later a 21-yard fumble return for a score by DeCoud called back after the senior cornerback was whistled for a targeting hit on Reynolds after the option QB pitched the ball.

DeCoud was ejected from the game for his hit on Reynolds.

Navy tied the game at 14 on Reynolds' 10-yard run with 6:35 left in the second quarter. The Midshipmen had a chance to take the lead at halftime, but Nick Sloan pushed a 38-yard field goal attempt to the right with no time remaining.

"We didn't play well enough," Niumatalolo said.

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