The good times for Navy football have been scarce this season, so the team’s 34 graduating seniors welcomed something happy to look back on Saturday.
The memory of singing the alma mater after their final game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium following a 37-29 win over Tulsa, their first victory in two months, might be the first choice.
But if any of them wants an alternative, one sequence in the third quarter is an attractive option: After junior defensive tackle Jackson Pittman forced a fumble at Navy’s 3-yard line and Marcus Edwards recovered to produce a significant momentum shift in Navy’s favor, Malcolm Perry broke free for a 52-yard burst and senior Tre Walker followed with a 35-yard rush that resulted in a field goal and a 14-point lead.
Stretches like that have not been common for these Mids. But after a seven-game losing streak that included games against two of the remaining four undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 11 Central Florida) heading into Saturday, the Mids showed they have some fight in them with two games left.
The offense in particular looked more cohesive than it has in weeks against the Golden Hurricane (2-9, 1-6 American Athletic Conference). For the seniors, it was important to show college football that Navy (3-8, 2-5) hasn’t given up on the year.
“Better late than never,” safety Sean Williams said.
Saturday felt something like a throwback game from last season with Zach Abey, back at starting quarterback, and slotback Perry leading the way. Navy’s offense put up 404 yards, 389 of which came on the ground. The Mids had 21 first downs and averaged 6.2 yards per play, nearly a full yard more than their season average.
Ken Niumatalolo, who coached draped in a yellow and blue lei to honor the seniors, attributed much of the offense’s success to Abey. The senior sported a newly shaved head having recently learned he’ll join the Marine Corps upon graduation and was excellent in his third game starting under center.
Abey rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. He threw only twice, completing one for 15 yards .
“He ran the offense like [offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper] has taught him to run the offense,” Niumatalolo said. “That was our team out there today. It’s been good to see that offensively the last couple of weeks in bits and parts, but it was good to see that today in a complete game, and it all started with Zach.”
Abey’s versatility is not lost on his teammates.
“Zach amazes me every time I see him out there,” said senior fullback Anthony Gargiulo. “He starts from wide receiver, goes back to quarterback, I think they talked about center at one point . . . he’s ready for whatever gets thrown at him. With Zach, you never doubt.”
Perry, meanwhile, rushed for 76 yards on just six carries, giving him a second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Keenan Reynolds did it three times in a row from 2014-16.
Fittingly, Walker, another senior, put the game out of reach with a 33-yard touchdown rush that put Navy up 36-22 with less than eight minutes to play.
Tulsa answered with a touchdown on its next possession, the key play coming on a 37-yard pass from quarterback Seth Boomer that put the Golden Hurricane inside the Navy 5. But Abey and Perry each moved the chains on key third downs on Navy’s final possession, allowing the Mids to run out the clock.
Niumatalolo was most proud of the resolve his team showed, especially on the heels of the losing streak.
“Just been impressed by the character of our team,” Niumatalolo said. “Every Monday they come back ready to work.”
For the seniors, the win felt like a soothing balm. Hoots and happy hollers emanated from a rowdy locker room while the Navy players spoke.
“It seemed like it was just needed,” Gargiulo said. “Everything was just working well, offense, defense, special teams, and just to come in the locker room after that and see everybody’s excitement, see the joy — it definitely was needed. Especially with, you know, the season we’re having right now. We haven’t given up. We never will.”
The Mids visit Tulane next week before the traditional finale against Army on Dec. 8.
“I know we’re not the type to just lay down and ride out the rest of the season.,” senior linebacker Taylor Heflin said. “The seniors want to leave an impact, showing the guys no matter when we’re down, we’re going to get back up and keep fighting. So to carry out and get two more wins for the rest of the season, it would just mean the world.”