The Navy football coaching staff had maintained since training camp opened in early August that the Midshipmen would be just fine following the graduation of record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
First-year starter Tago Smith confirmed as much by staking Navy to a comfortable lead in the first quarter of Saturday’s season opener against lower-division Fordham. The senior, however, lasted only two snaps into the second quarter before a knee injury forced him from the game for good, leaving the rest of his season in jeopardy.
The 52-16 win in front of an announced crowd of 28,238 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium thus became all but an afterthought in light of developments that pressed reserve quarterback Will Worth into the most extended playing time of his career. Worth, a senior, spent last season as the holder on field goals and point-after attempts.
Smith, meanwhile, will be evaluated further in the coming days after finishing with 97 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, but Coach Ken Niumatalolo choked back tears when asked about his status.
“Just a great kid. Symbolizes who we are,” the winningest coach in program history said of Smith. “Hasn’t said crap for three years, kept his mouth quiet. Came to work every day, didn’t complain, didn’t get bitter. What he did in the first half didn’t surprise me. We knew the guy was a good football player. He was just behind Keenan. You just feel bad for a kid that’s waited his turn.”
When Smith went down, the quarterback situation became acute enough that freshman fourth-stringer Malcolm Perry came out of the stands and put on a uniform in the locker room at halftime. Perry was not on the sideline at kickoff because of an illness that hampered him for much of the week but entered in the fourth quarter to close out the Midshipmen’s 11th consecutive home win.
Perry, according to the school’s sports information department, is believed to be the first Navy player to march on with the Brigade of Midshipmen before kickoff and then actually get into the game. He was among seven players who carried the ball as the Midshipmen rolled up 427 rushing yards and 550 total.
Between Smith’s injury and Perry’s relief duty, the senior Worth acquitted himself admirably in completing all three of his pass attempts for 78 yards and one touchdown and rushing nine times for 22 yards and another score. Junior Chris High added 176 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, amassing the most yards by a Navy fullback since Alexander Teich went for 210 against Notre Dame in 2010.
“It’s definitely a rough situation for [Smith] to be going through,” Worth said. “I feel for him. It’s a very tough spot. He’s been waiting three years for this. Definitely feel for him. Going to be saying prayers for him tonight and hoping that everything will turn out all right.”
The injury to Smith occurred with 14:17 remaining in the first half, at the end of a 22-yard run to the Rams 14. Smith stayed down following a tackle by safety Lawrence Menyah, favoring his right knee. Minutes later, Smith walked gingerly to the sideline with assistance from Navy’s training staff.
He received further examination on a training table behind the Navy bench, where Niumatalolo came over to offer support. By the time Smith was fitted for a large brace over his right leg and walking on crutches, the Midshipmen had forged a 28-10 lead on an eight-yard touchdown run from Worth with 13:12 to play in the second quarter.
Smith’s first carry of the year yielded a seven-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead 12 seconds into the first quarter. The run came moments after Ryan Harris forced a fumble, the first of his career, on the opening kickoff and teammate Taylor Heflin recovered. Harris did not re-enter the game after administering the hit, instead leaving the field with his helmet off to be examined for head trauma.
Navy went ahead, 14-0, at the conclusion of its second possession courtesy of fullback Myles Swain’s four-yard touchdown run. Swain is the younger brother of former Midshipmen fullback Chris Swain, who rushed for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent.
After Fordham scored on a 30-yard field goal, the Midshipmen extended the margin to 21-3 with 4:29 to go in the first quarter on an 11-yard run from Smith to cap a three-play drive over 61 yards. Smith completed a 45-yard pass to slot back Calvin Cass Jr. on the first play of the possession, dropping a throw into the senior’s hands in stride.
“It’s a tough game. We all understand that,” Navy senior slot back Toneo Gulley said of Smith. “He’s been waiting on his time, and his time came, and just like that the injury happened. He’s done everything he’s needed to do to get to this point. He went out and just gave it his all, and unfortunately he got hurt. He’ll be back.”