Keenan Reynolds had told himself that his first Army-Navy game would be just like any other college football contest. But as he rode on the Navy bus to Lincoln Financial Field and saw the parking lots at the sports complex teeming with tailgating fans for both sides, that thought was on shaky ground.
"I was definitely pretty nervous, especially riding to the stadium and seeing the pageantry of the game, and everything kind of sunk in," Reynolds said Monday.
The first freshman to start an Army-Navy game in 21 years, Reynolds shook off the nerves and led the Midshipmen to their 11th straight victory, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on an 8-yard run with less than five minutes to play in a 17-13 final.
After taking over as the starter in the sixth game of the 2012 season, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of Antioch, Tenn., is now the unquestioned leader of Navy's methodical option offense. He has rushed this season for 1,124 yards and 26 touchdowns, one short of the NCAA record for most TDs by a quarterback in a year.
Running the Mids' option is a grueling job. In Navy's most recent game, Reynolds rushed 36 times for 240 yards and scored seven touchdowns, a new NCAA mark, in a 58-52 triple-overtime win over San Jose State, and admitted being "exhausted" and "hurting" afterward.
Still, he has managed to hold up well in a season when he has averaged nearly 23 carries per game.
"It's important during the week that I get rest and get in the treatment room if I have something wrong with me, stay on top of those things," he said. "As far as avoiding hits, it's just being smart about what hits I take and what hits I need to take, being able to pick and choose and getting down and getting out of bounds when I need to."
Reynolds was more of a passer than runner in high school, but his track background has helped him at Navy. He has picked up a few running tips along the way, especially watching film of past Navy quarterbacks Ricky Dobbs and Chris McCoy, two excellent rushers.
"After watching Ricky and Chris," he said, "and watching quarterbacks on TV that run the ball well, the Johnny Manziels and the Cam Newtons, I tried to take little pieces of their game and add them to my game."
Returning to the Linc for the 114th Army-Navy duel, Reynolds knows what it's like to call signals as 70,000 fans yell themselves hoarse, and the expectations of the Navy fans accustomed to success against the Black Knights.
He said the expectations and the pressure won't distract him.
"We're not focused on what happened in the past," he said. "If we get caught up in all the hoopla of the game and all the extra things from people that aren't playing, then you can get sidetracked and ultimately that can lead to defeat. We're focused on our jobs in between the white lines and doing them to the best of our abilities."