ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Despite his coach's claims that a narrow loss against a tough road opponent constituted a step in the right direction, Florida Atlantic quarterback Graham Wilbert took little consolation in a 24-17 loss to Navy on Saturday.
"You want to win every game," he said. "All our guys fought really hard tonight. We really wanted this one. Felt good coming into the game and we played them tough, for sure. You got to respect what these guys do, and they made enough plays to win."
Early on, it looked like the Owls had figured out the counter to Navy's effective running game: Focus on the fullback, pack the box with up to nine defenders and limit the offensive maneuverability of the ground-happy Midshipmen.
It worked to the tune of a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter, as Navy's offense stalled. Before Navy began its first scoring drive midway through the second quarter, the Midshipmen had run only 16 mostly ineffective plays _ none for longer than 10 yards _ and recorded only two first downs, one of those coming on a Florida Atlantic penalty.
Even when Navy got on the board on a 14-yard pass from Keenan Reynolds to Brandon Turner, the Owls didn't flinch. But it wasn't hard for Wilbert to pinpoint where the momentum shifted: a failed fourth-down pass at the Navy 15-yard line late in the first half.
Reynolds responded by directing a 10-play drive capped by his 1-yard keeper, and the Midshipmen had a 14-10 lead they never relinquished. By the end of the third quarter, Navy had scored on four straight series and was up 24-10.
"We didn't score just before halftime, and we could have potentially scored a touchdown, and they took it down and scored," Wilbert said. "That was a 14-point swing. That was a big one. ... There was a few plays like that during the game that ended up costing us more than we'd like."
Still, the Owls made Navy work for its fifth straight win in the first meeting between the teams. Jonathan Wallace's second TD of the game, a 3-yard scamper with 9:07 remaining, got Florida Atlantic within 24-17.
Wallace finished with 111 yards on 28 carries, but the Owls are still searching for their first consecutive victories under first-year coach Carl Pelini.
"I think if you had said coming into this season that we were going to come to Navy and bring this game down to the wire, you would have told me I was crazy," Pelini said. "But that's who this team is and they keep getting better, they keep working. We've got three more weeks to continue to get better."
Reynolds finished with 159 rushing yards and a touchdown and threw two scoring passes to Brandon Turner. Once Reynolds started calling his own number in the huddle, the Midshipmen flourished, rolling up 393 offensive yards, 246 of them on the ground.
"They had a great game plan coming in," Reynolds said of the Owls (2- 7). "We had to make some adjustments on the sideline. Once we got rolling, (we) figured out what we can and can't run on that defense. ... Once we got some momentum going, we were able to execute."
By winning, the Midshipmen (6-3) earned a spot in the Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, where they will face a Pac-12 opponent. It will be the ninth bowl appearance in 10 years for Navy, which started the season 1-3.
"It is special for our kids," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "But we are going to prepare as we always do. I am excited for our guys to go to a bowl game, especially our seniors."
Reynolds completed 8 of 15 passes for 147 yards. Since taking over as Navy's starting quarterback four games ago, Reynolds has passed for eight touchdowns and run for five more.
He briefly left the game with about 12 minutes remaining with a left elbow injury, but later returned.
"I'm fine," Reynolds said when asked about the injury. "I really don't know what it is."
Wilbert completed 25 of 35 passes for 205 yards.
Navy's five-game winning streak is its first since 2009.
Wilbert connected on nine of his first 10 passes, helping the Owls take a 7-0 lead on a methodical 15-play drive that featured only one play longer than 9 yards and chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock. Wallace scored on a right-side run from 1 yard out on the second play of the second quarter.