Ivin Jasper, Navy’s offensive coordinator, summed up what happened to the No. 19 Midshipmen on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in seven words: “Mama said there’d be days like this.”
Maybe, although neither Mama nor anyone else wearing blue and gold could have possibly imagined just how disastrous Navy’s first appearance in a conference title football game would turn out to be.
It wasn’t just that Temple completely controlled the American Athletic Conference championship from the opening kickoff to the final kneel-down in a 34-10 rout. It wasn’t even the specter of Navy’s dreams of playing in the Cotton Bowl — of going to a major bowl game for the first time since 1963 — completely going up in smoke.
It was the carnage, both physical and emotional, that came with the loss.
Although a number of other Midshipmen were hurt and may be doubtful for Saturday’s game against Army, it was one play early in the second quarter that pretty much ended any hope that Navy would rally from an early 21-0 deficit and also — suddenly, stunningly — put Navy’s 14-game winning streak against the Black Knights into jeopardy.
On a second-and-six play from the Navy 29, quarterback Will Worth, who has had a miraculous senior season since being pushed into the starting lineup when Tago Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the second quarter of the season opener, ran four yards on his 263rd carry of the fall.
This one, though, was different.
“I thought I heard a pop,” in his right foot, he said. “I tried one more play, but I couldn’t put any weight on it.”
While Worth was trying to walk off his injury, slotback Toneo Gulley, Navy’s offensive captain and one of the team’s spiritual leaders, was lying on his back. Gulley had been blocking for Worth on the play, and while on the pile, he felt someone roll up on his left leg.
“I felt some pops here and there,” he said. He shook his head. “Crazy.”
Two of Navy’s most important players — perhaps its two most important players — injured on the same play. Worth picked up one yard on the next play, coming up a yard short of a first down. As Navy punted, he was helped to the locker room.
Gulley already was sitting on a training table. His first thought when he saw Worth come in: This is impossible.
“It was very emotional,” Gulley said. “For both of us.”
Both were X-rayed, Gulley first, and both got equally bad news. Each had a broken bone in his foot — Worth, the right, and Gulley, the left. Just like that, their Navy careers were over.
In all likelihood, even if Worth and Gulley hadn’t been injured, Temple would have won this game. The Owls scored touchdowns the first three times they had the ball.
“It was just a good old-fashioned butt-whipping,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “It starts with me as the head coach, and you have to give credit to [Temple Coach] Matt [Rhule] because his team was prepared.”
Way back in September, Temple struggled against Army’s option offense in a 28-13 loss. On Saturday, the Owls held Navy to 168 yards on the ground — the Mids were averaging 342 yards, second in the country coming into the game — and forced three turnovers against an offense that had committed nine all season.
Of course, the 21-0 lead and Worth’s injury helped, but Temple, as Niumatalolo pointed out, had control of the game before the play that will go down as one of the most disastrous in Navy history.
Sophomore Zach Abey, who began the season as a third-stringer and had never attempted a pass, came in for Worth. He tried gamely to get the offense going, busting the Mids’ longest run of the day on a 47-yard third-quarter scramble that led to Navy’s only touchdown.
That cut the margin to 24-10 with 3:03 left in the third quarter and gave the shivering brigade of midshipmen a sliver of hope. It went away quickly. Temple killed 7:01 off the clock on the next possession before Aaron Boumerhi kicked a 42-yard field goal.
For Temple, the win was even sweeter than its players and most of its fans could know. Nineteen years ago, the Owls came here and lost to Navy, 47-19. There was so little interest in the team back then that few fans made the trip to Annapolis. At game’s end, after the playing of “Navy Blue and Gold,” the Temple band began to play its alma mater. Except the players had all left. And so Navy’s players stood at attention during Temple’s alma mater. On Saturday, the Temple band, fans and players were in full voice.
In truth, this game was the perfect storm for those concerned about Navy joining the AAC two years ago. The Mids earned the right to play in the title game, but playing meant that the Army game — still the most important on the schedule — will be their eighth straight game without a break. Army hasn’t played since Nov. 19.
Even so, no one could have imagined not only losing the game but losing Worth and Gulley.
“The guys up the street will be licking their chops after this,” Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said of Army as he walked in the direction of the tunnel, his usual good cheer nowhere to be found.
A moment earlier, Worth and Tulley had hobbled up the tunnel on crutches, each with a boot on his damaged foot. Daniel Gonzales, the defensive captain who suffered a Lisfranc injury in the 28-14 loss at Air Force on Oct. 1, was right behind them using a push-scooter. The three of them symbolized the day for Navy.
And so, Navy will face Army with a third-string quarterback starting and both captains on the sideline. The fact that the Mids will take a 9-3 record into that game is remarkable.
Mama said there’d be days like this, no doubt. But there won’t be any crying or complaining from Niumatalolo or any of his players.
“Zach is right where I was 11 weeks ago,” Worth said. “My job now is to do anything I can to get him ready to play.”
Don’t doubt him. Or the Midshipmen.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.