by Ava Wallace

PHILADELPHIA — A season that began with a solemn promise in January from Navy’s senior class to Coach Ken Niumatalolo built to a euphoric crescendo Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

With one final touchdown wrought from one final scoring run from Malcolm Perry, the Midshipmen’s dazzling senior quarterback from Tennessee tossed the football into the air in celebration and swung his arm like a windmill, bunny-hopping across the end zone. It might have been the biggest show of emotion in the reserved quarterback’s career and for good reason: With a 31-7 win over Army in the 120th installment of the Army-Navy game, Navy’s seniors had kept their word.

They had promised Niumatalolo that, after a 3-10 season in 2018 that ended with a third consecutive loss to Army, they would be the ones to right the ship.

They followed through nearly one year later, bringing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Annapolis for the 11th time in the past 17 years and the 16th time in program history. But it wasn’t just that they won. It was the resounding manner in which they did it. Perry rushed for 304 yards, making him the first player in program history to run for 300 yards against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, and the Mids’ defense smothered a banged-up Army team with ease.

Navy (10-2) leads the all-time series 61-52-7 after snapping Army’s longest winning streak since the 1990s.

“This didn’t happen today. This happened back in January with our senior leadership and their commitment to be successful,” said a teary Niumatalolo, who arrived at his postgame news conference wearing a strand of tea leaves for good luck. “I’m just so proud of them and happy for them.”

Niumatalolo, in his 12th full season helming the program in Annapolis, earned his ninth victory in the rivalry game, making him the winningest coach in series history.

It was he who gave the seniors the necessary tools to make good on their January promise. The Hawaii native made sweeping changes ahead of the season, tending to features both big (he overhauled the defensive staff) and small (he lobbied Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk to provide the Mids with a sports nutritionist for the first time). In the defense’s case, hiring coordinator Brian Newberry from Kennesaw State and bringing in four other new assistants resulted in the most significant staff turnover since Paul Johnson took over as head coach in 2002.

Niumatalolo also placed his full confidence behind Perry at quarterback and tailored the offense to the senior’s liking. Perry used every free moment he had during the offseason studying Navy’s playbook to reach a new level of expertise.

The result was the swift turnaround of a program that looked outdated and inert a year ago.

“No one likes what happened last season, and I can speak on behalf of the whole team: There’s no other guy we’d want to be playing for,” senior center Ford Higgins said. “The way [Niumatalolo] approached this offseason was something we could all get behind so easily, the way he came in with high energy bringing in new people. It’s something that was contagious. . . . We are the men of Ken.”

But on the field Saturday, it was Perry who led the way.

The senior quarterback averaged 10.4 yards on his 29 carries and scored two touchdowns. Fullback Jamale Carothers, a sophomore who wasn’t even traveling with the varsity team at the start of the year, accounted for a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Carothers rushed for 75 cards on 22 carries.

Beginning in the second quarter — a single Army drive ate up nearly all of the first — Perry made Navy look like a boulder that had been given a shove down the side of a mountain. The Black Knights (5-8) outgained the Mids 75-8 in the first quarter. In the other three, Navy outgained Army 388-73.

Injuries had gutted the Black Knights. Christian Anderson was the program’s first quarterback since 1979 to make his first career start in the Army-Navy game. He was playing behind an offensive line that was so beat up it rotated groups of players every series the way hockey teams change lines. Army held the ball for just 15:24 in the final three quarters.

“I couldn’t be happier to see Malcolm Perry graduate,” Army Coach Jeff Monken said. “He is a terrific player. He ran through us today; there wasn’t much we could do about it. … I’m disappointed in today’s loss. I’m disappointed in this season. There are really not many words to say.”

Anderson, a junior who filled in for injured starter Kelvin Hopkins Jr., led Army with 56 rushing yards and one touchdown. He completed 2 of 4 passes for 18 yards.

After both teams shook off their jitters with a three-and-out to start, Army marched 78 yards in 18 plays for a scoring drive that ate almost 11 minutes of clock and sealed it with a five-yard rush that capped Army’s longest scoring drive of the season.

Perry made up for lost time in the second quarter.

The senior’s first big run of the half was a 55-yard tear up Army’s sideline for a touchdown after he juked his defender and took advantage of a good block from fullback Carothers to find space on the edge of the field.

Perry’s second big play was an equally tricky run in which he made it look like he has rubber bands in his ankles instead of cartilage. His 44-yard sprint put the Mids on the Army 17-yard line. Two plays later, he initiated Navy’s version of the Philly Special when he pitched the ball to wideout Chance Warren, who threw a one-yard scoring pass that floated high into the air before Carothers corralled it. The trick play, which came six seconds before halftime with the Mids receiving the ball to start the third quarter, gave the Navy a 14-7 lead that felt like more.

“I just wanted to make sure I was in bounds and try to make a play on the ball,” Carothers said. “I knew either way we were going to get points on that possession, so I just tried to give myself the best chance possible.”

After a hiccup in which Army captain Elijah Riley blocked Bijan Nichols’s 29-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter’s opening drive, Navy grabbed hold of momentum by forcing a pair of three-and-outs and held tight for the rest of the game.

Carothers scored again on a five-yard run with 4:53 left in the third quarter after the fullback rattled off a 14-yard sprint and Perry added an 18-yard run to get the Mids to the Army 6. The pair combined again to get Navy into field goal range at the start of the fourth quarter, scoring again on a 37-yard kick from Nichols before the Black Knights even had a first down in the second half.

“It means the world,” Perry said. “… For me personally, this was the biggest game I’ve ever played in my life. We didn’t win the last three games, and that makes this game even more sweet.”

The senior had so many requests for autographs and pictures that he was the last player off the field.

Read more:

Live updates

by Jacob Bogage in Washington