It was dispiriting enough for Navy to lose to visiting Temple, 34-10, in the American Athletic Conference football championship Saturday afternoon. Compounding the misery were season-ending injuries to a pair of starters, none more pressing than starting quarterback Will Worth.
Major college football’s leader in rushing touchdowns broke a bone in his right foot early in the second quarter, departing for good with the Midshipmen trailing by three touchdowns. On the same play, Navy lost starting slotback Toneo Gulley to a broken bone in his left foot.
Their absences leave the 19th-ranked Midshipmen (9-3) considerably shorthanded heading into next weekend’s matchup with Army in Baltimore. Navy will start its third quarterback this season, sophomore Zach Abey, against its archrival, with the Midshipmen seeking to extend their series-record winning streak to 15.
“We were down before the injuries,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We weren’t playing well on either side of the ball, especially on offense. You have to give [the Owls] credit. They played really well today, and we didn’t play well, but the injuries took some steam out of us.”
Navy’s aspirations to reach the Cotton Bowl were effectively extinguished pending Sunday’s official bowl announcements. The Midshipmen were in the mix to represent the second-tier conferences known as the Group of Five in the New Year’s bowl, but that distinction now in all probability falls to undefeated No. 17 Western Michigan, which beat Ohio on Friday in the Mid-American Conference championship game.
The Midshipmen instead are set to play in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23 in Fort Worth, a destination that became all but certain when Temple (10-3) took a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Midshipmen, before an announced crowd of 22,815, had their string of 15 consecutive wins at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium ended. The streak is a program record and was tied with Houston for the longest active run in the nation.
Also hurt in Navy’s most lopsided loss of the season were starting slotback Dishan Romine and reserve slotback Darryl Bonner. Romine was on the sideline for final portion of the game with trainers working on his leg. Bonner had left late in the first quarter with a head injury.
Both players will be evaluated further this week.
On Saturday, Abey replaced Worth on Navy’s second possession of the second quarter, directing the Midshipmen to the Temple 6-yard line. The Midshipmen settled for Bennett Moehring’s 23-yard field goal for their first points of the game, completing a drive that included Temple linebacker Avery Williams being ejected for targeting Abey.
But that only trimmed Navy’s deficit to 21-3.
Abey finished 7-for-13 passing for 104 yards and two interceptions. He added 14 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown to lead Navy, which was held to 168 rushing yards, less than half its average (342) as the country’s second-ranked rushing offense.
Worth did what he could after his injury, spending time on the sideline discussing strategy with Abey.
“Just trying to make sure he knows we’ve seen all these looks in practice before and just go out and play with confidence,” said Worth, who set Navy’s single-season record for offense (2,595 yards) before he was forced out. “I was in his shoes 11 weeks ago, the exact same spot, so any kind of advice helps.”
Worth became the starter this season when Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the opener. He went on to match a handful of records at Navy, including consecutive 100-yard rushing games (seven) and overall games with 100 yards in a year (eight).
Worth also had led the Midshipmen to an average of 53 points per game in November. The Midshipmen had amassed at least 500 yards of total offense in each of the past three games, a school record. The triple-option attack, however, never got on track against the Owls, who entered with the country’s third-ranked defense and limited Navy to 306 total yards.
The game was out of hand soon after Temple, already leading 14-0, recovered a fumble by Bonner on the Temple 25 in the final minute of the first quarter. Five players later on third and seven, Temple quarterback Phillip Walker completed a 56-yard scoring throw to Keith Kirkwood. The junior wide receiver had pulled away from coverage over the middle and ran uncontested into the end zone.
Worth was injured during Navy’s ensuing possession on a four-yard run. He remained down after the play and exited to the locker room following the next snap with roughly 12 minutes left in the half. Worth reemerged from the locker room on crutches with his right ankle heavily wrapped in ice.
Also on crutches was Toneo Gulley, a senior co-captain who was hurt attempting to make a block for Worth. Navy already had been without linebacker and senior co-captain Daniel Gonzales, who suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury Oct. 1 in a 28-14 loss to Air Force.
“A lot of emotions,” Gully said. “You work so hard to get to this point, and then you can’t really play. You’ve got to just lead from the sideline now and be the voice on the sideline. That was tough but had to do it, had to be strong for the team.”