ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — After three losses in a row, Navy was ready to accept any sort of win headed into a bye week.
Overmatched VMI proved to be just the opponent Navy needed as Tago Smith ran for a score and passed for another, Noah Copeland scored on a run and a pass, and Navy's defense chipped in nine points, as the Midshipmen routed the Keydets 51-14 on Saturday.
"A win is a win and wins are hard to come by. You take them any way you can," said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. Navy (3-4) has won all 10 matchups with VMI (1-6).
Navy had lost its last three games, to Rutgers and Western Kentucky at home, then at Air Force last week.
"Going into this game we were 2-4 and we felt we could have very easily been 6-0," Niumatalolo said. "It wasn't like people were blowing us out. We just weren't making the right plays. We just need to keep going. I am encouraged."
Copeland's 64-yard run on Navy's third offensive play jump-started an offense that, coupled with two defensive scores, built a 37-7 halftime lead.
"This was big for us. We have to continue putting these under our belt and just grind it out," said Copeland.
Smith, a sophomore, started for the second time this season — both Navy wins — in place of Keenan Reynolds. With the bye week coming up, Reynolds was held out to rest after incurring both knee and shoulder injuries.
"It's nice if your starter is down to have someone come in and play well," said Niumatalolo. "He's played two football games for us and played really well (in both). He did well (today) and did a lot of good things."
Smith finished with three completions in five attempts for 82 yards passing. His 32-yard pass to Geoffrey Whiteside set up his own 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He also had 27 yards rushing.
"I was happy with the victory, but there is always some things you can improve on," Smith said, adding that the week off will give the team some much needed time to get healthy, get caught up with studies and look toward a strong finish.
Navy's starters, including Copeland and Smith, left after three quarters with the score 44-7.
"It is good to get a break, some key players are hurt and we need them to get healthy. The two long weeks of practice will help us to get some rest and perfect the craft," said Copeland.
Third-string quarterback Will Worth scored the final Navy touchdown on a 2-yard run with 5:52 to play, capping a 70-yard drive.
Navy finished the game with 432 yards total offense, including 350 rushing. Its defense dominated the overmatched Keydets, holding them to four first downs and 86 yards in the first half.
VMI's only score over the game's first 59 minutes came from its defense on a recovery of a Smith fumble. On the play, Smith was hit just after taking the snap at his own 16. The ball bounded off several VMI players until it reached the end zone where Damien Jones recovered.
"The turnover wasn't his fault; we turned a guy loose at the point of attack," said Niumatalolo.
VMI's other touchdown came with 14 seconds left on a 1-yard pass from Al Cobb to Chad Jacob. Cobb completed 26 of 40 passes for 202 yards, but the Keydets rushed for only 60 yards on 30 carries.
"We were having a hard time finding those 10 yards. We would find 9, but couldn't find the tenth. Credit their defense for that," said VMI head coach Sparky Woods. "We were competitive at times, but it felt like we just couldn't be competitive three plays in a row."
After VMI scored on the fumble recovery, Navy responded by scoring the final 23 points of the first half on a safety, two offensive scores and a defensive score. Additionally, a 70-yard scoring run by Smith was nullified by a penalty.
The safety resulted from a high snap on a VMI punt deep in its own territory and was followed by Quinton Singleton's 14-yard touchdown run.
Only 56 seconds later, the defense added a touchdown on Parrish Gaines' 39-yard interception return, and a minute after that, Smith connected with Copeland for a 16-yard scoring pass and a 37-7 halftime lead.
"We're going to take this win and run with. I think we were dialed in today and came to play," said Gaines of the defense.
The 37 first-half points were the most for Navy since Nov. 7, 2007, when the Midshipmen scored a school-record 45 in the first half against North Texas State.
The loss was VMI's fourth in a row. The Keydets have now allowed 300 points in seven games.
"We'd like to compete better. That's our goal, to be a more competitive football team because we have a great corps of cadets that we want to represent better," said Woods.