For a while after senior Garret Lewis trotted out to start at quarterback and Malcolm Perry lined up not in his usual spot under center but at slotback, it seemed as though Navy had finally found the solution to steadying its wavering offense.
There were signs of progress against Temple on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, particularly in the first half. In the second series of the game, Lewis authored a prototypical Navy drive — 10 minutes, 17 plays, 71 yards — the likes of which the Midshipmen couldn’t buy at Air Force the previous week. The offense was more sure-footed, and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper made better use of his array of playmakers, as evidenced by sophomore fullback Nelson Smith becoming the first Midshipman other than Perry to have a 100-yard rushing game this season.
But a change at quarterback and more creative play-calling couldn’t save Navy from sputtering after halftime and falling to its third consecutive loss, 24-17 to the Owls.
“Obviously, it’s not where we want to be or what we saw for us,” defensive captain and safety Sean Williams said. “But right now, all we can do is taking the next step. In a match, in a fight or in a war, you’re going to lose battles, you’re going to win some. But ultimately you can only worry about what you can control, so that’s how we look at it. Get in the film room, take care of our bodies, work harder, do more.”
Navy (2-4, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) had its chances. No missed opportunity riled Coach Ken Niumatalolo more than a block-in the-back penalty that wiped out what would have been a tie-breaking touchdown and that he called: “Just flat-out, a horrible call. One of the worst I’ve seen in my 29 years of coaching.”
The score was tied at 17 with 1:37 left in the third quarter. Navy had lost the 10-point lead it held early in the half, and it pulled out a trick play in an effort to regain control.
On fourth down from Temple’s 30-yard line, Jasper dialed up a double-reverse pass from Lewis to Perry and back, but Perry couldn’t get his pass off. Instead, he changed direction and took off on a 30-yard touchdown run – only to see it get erased by the call on center Ford Higgins. The Mids punted instead.
“I thought that killed us. I know I’m going to get reprimanded. I don’t care,” an angry Niumatalolo said. “. . . You can’t make those calls — he dove to try to make a play. Our guy didn’t push him. On a big play, it was a bad call, one that cost us the game. We were going to have the lead going into the fourth quarter, and we’re hard to beat leading in the fourth quarter. I thought the call changed the game. I really did.
“. . . You can’t do that to our kids, man. That’s just a horrible call in that situation. I told them when it happened, I said, ‘That cost us the game,’ I told them it cost us the game.”
On the following Temple possession, linebacker Nizaire Cromartie sacked Owls quarterback Anthony Russo on third down, forcing a punt. But the Navy offense that had looked strong in the first half had faded, and it turned the ball over on downs.
Ventell Bryant caught a 62-yard pass from Russo in space with 9:14 to play for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown for the Owls (4-3, 3-0).
The Midshipmen had one last chance with 2:06 left to play.
Senior cornerback Jarid Ryan intercepted Russo in the end zone to give Navy a first down on its own 20-yard line. But Lewis, a senior who earned his second career start Saturday, flinched. The quarterback threw three consecutive incomplete passes, and slotback Myles Fells bobbled a fourth to hand the ball back straight away.
The Mids ended with 284 yards of offense compared with Temple’s 409.
Lewis earned the start at quarterback so that Perry could fill in at slotback: “We had three, basically, two of our top A-backs down,” Niumatalolo said. “I just felt like I’d rather have Malcolm over there than some of the younger guys who haven’t played yet.”
The senior had his moments, rushing for 56 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Niumatalolo has long called Lewis the best passer out of Navy’s three quarterbacks, but Saturday he was mediocre, completing 3 of 11 attempts for 14 yards.
Russo, meanwhile, completed 23 of 31 pass attempts for 300 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted once.
Navy now enters a treacherous stretch of the season licking its wounds. The Mids will face one-loss Houston in Annapolis on Saturday before traveling to play an undefeated trio of Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Central Florida.
“[We’ve got to] regroup every week. That’s what we do. We aren’t going to quit,” Niumatalolo said. “We always have to regroup. We ain’t quitting. We ain’t going anywhere. And nobody in our locker room is a quitter. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to keep going. But for us to fight like that and get a horse-crap call like that is inexcusable. Thank you. I’m out.”