FORT WORTH — Navy rediscovered the offensive punch sorely lacking in its previous two games. It wasn’t enough to overcome myriad injuries, defensive breakdowns and an uncharacteristic rash of penalties, several of which Coach Ken Niumatalolo questioned following a 48-45 loss to Louisiana Tech on Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl.
The 25th-ranked Midshipmen (9-5) committed six penalties, their most since 2006, for 70 yards and were unable to get a stop when it mattered most. Louisiana Tech (9-5) marched 70 yards against a patchwork defense missing three starting linebackers to get Jonathan Barnes’s 32-yard field goal as time expired at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Navy lost its third in a row for the first time since 2014 and failed in its bid to secure double-digit wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. A depleted secondary also had no answer for Bulldogs wide receiver Trent Taylor, who had 12 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns on the way to being named MVP in front of an announced 40,542.
Missing eight starters overall, Navy yielded its second most points in a game this year and 497 yards of total offense, including 409 passing to quarterback Ryan Higgins. The senior completed 29 of 40 attempts with four touchdowns and no interceptions .
“I thought there were a lot of bad calls out there,” Niumatalolo said. “I was telling the [officiating] crew, we’ve been coaching here nine years, and we’ve led the country or were one and two in least amount of penalties, but I told those guys after this game we’d be leading the country.”
A pass interference call assessed to cornerback Jarid Ryan in the fourth quarter particularly roiled Niumatalolo, the winningest coach in Navy history. Ryan had intercepted a pass while covering Carlos Henderson, but officials ruled he had grabbed the wide receiver in the end zone, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Navy 11.
Three plays later, Henderson caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Higgins for a 45-38 lead. The Bulldogs entered ranked third in passing offense in a major college football, fifth in scoring offense and No. 8 in total offense.
“This week was just another battle,” Ryan said. “We knew [Henderson and Taylor] were their guys, and you just tried to limit them and just try to do as best you can, but they made more plays than we did.”
Navy tied the game at 45 on quarterback Malcolm Perry’s 30-yard run with 3:46 to play. The freshman was making his first appearance since coming out of the stands, changing from his dress whites into a football uniform and relieving Will Worth in a season-opening romp over lower-division Fordham.
Perry had to play against Louisiana Tech when Zach Abey absorbed a late hit to the ribs during the Midshipmen’s final drive and left the game for good. The sophomore was making the second start of his career following injuries to original starter Tago Smith in Week 1 and to Worth in the American Athletic Conference title game, a 34-10 loss to Temple, on Dec. 3.
Abey accounted for 273 yards of total offense to help Navy set single-season school records for points (531) and total yards of offense (6,136).
“I thought as a whole, we all fought hard,” said Abey, adding he was sore but not seriously hurt. “I just wish we could have gotten it for the seniors because I know they wanted it so bad.”
Trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Navy got fullback Chris High’s nine-yard run to tie it at 38 with 9:05 left. It was the junior’s second touchdown, marking the second time in his career he has scored multiple times in one game.
The Midshipmen began the second half with a textbook triple-option drive covering 90-yards on 14 plays to tie the score at 31. High finished it off with a 24-yard run.
Navy forced a turnover soon after, with nose guard Jackson Pittman stripping the ball from Bulldogs running back Jared Craft and linebacker Brandon Jones recovering at the Midshipmen 7. Navy didn’t convert that sudden change of possession into points however, with Abey running for no gain on third and five.
After the Midshipmen tied the game at 24 on Bennett Moehring’s 40-yard field goal to match a career long, a breakdown in the secondary led to Taylor’s 51-yard scoring reception with 35 seconds left in the first half. Taylor came wide open in the middle of the field.
Penalties on the part of Navy’s defense contributed to Louisiana Tech’s touchdown with 7:15 left in the first half to retake the lead, 24-21. Henderson’s three-yard catch produced the points, but earlier in the series, the Midshipmen were called for a late hit and a face mask.
“It sounds like sour grapes,” Niumatalolo said, “and I hate doing that to Louisiana Tech because they played a great game, and their kids are really good and made plays, but I thought there were a lot of bad calls out there.”