BALTIMORE — When incumbent starting quarterback Zach Abey was a senior at Archbishop Spalding High School in Anne Arundel County , he met before the season with Coach Kyle Schmitt, then entering his first year. Included in that conversation were Abey’s aspirations after graduation.
At the top of the list was playing for Navy, particularly in its tradition-rich game against Army. Abey committed to the Midshipmen after watching them extensively during the triple-option era. He even became familiar with directing that style of offense at Spalding, which uses a version that includes a heavy dose of quarterback runs.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been dreaming of running out of that tunnel for the Army-Navy game,” Abey said.
The sophomore not only will be doing so Saturday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium but, through an improbable series of circumstances, also is set to make the first start of his Navy career in a game both service academies value winning more than any other on the schedule.
Abey became the starting quarterback only because of injuries to both players in front of him. In the season opener, original starter Tago Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, ceding the job to Will Worth. The senior went on to start the next 11 games, amassing 25 rushing touchdowns to lead major college football.
But in last weekend’s 34-10 loss to Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Worth broke a bone in his right foot early in the second quarter and left for good. Immediately after the game, Coach Ken Niumatalolo revealed that Worth would be out for the remainder of the season.
Abey took over for Worth against the Owls, rushing 14 times for 70 yards and a touchdown and completing 7 of 13 passes for 104 yards with two interceptions. His first came shortly before intermission on a wildly off-target throw intended for senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman, the result of miscommunication and a lack of in-game experience.
Abey has three career appearances, all this year, for the Midshipmen (9-3). His most productive outing came in a 75-31 win against Southern Methodist in the AAC regular season finale, when he rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on seven carries with Worth resting on the sideline.
“The games he’s gone in there, he’s done a good job,” Niumatalolo said of Abey, who was suspended for the first game this year for a minor violation of team rules during the offseason.
With Abey unavailable during that 52-16 win against Fordham, freshman Malcolm Perry came out of the stands, changed from his dress whites into a football uniform and finished the game in relief of Worth. Perry will serve as the No. 2 quarterback heading into this weekend, with sophomore Garret Lewis listed as the third quarterback on the depth chart.
That Abey has ascended to first string underscores an injury-filled season the likes of which Niumatalolo said he had never previously encountered. Ten players are listed on Navy’s most recent injury report as being out for the year, including senior co-captains Daniel Gonzales, a starting linebacker, and Toneo Gulley, a starting slotback.
“I’ve already spoken with Zach, and he’s excited for this opportunity,” Gulley said. “I have full faith in him, and that’s what I told him. I pretty much said we’ve been facing adversity all season. Next-man-up mentality, and his situation in a way is similar to Tago going down, then Will having to step up, and Will did a great job. I expect nothing less from Zach.”
At stake for Navy is its series-record 14-game winning streak against its bitter rival. The Midshipmen most recently lost to Army (6-5) in 2001, 26-17, and have won four of the past give games each by seven points or fewer.
Last year, Navy trailed at intermission for the first time since 2009. In the third quarter, then-quarterback Keenan Reynolds completed a 50-yard touchdown pass to Tillman for the final margin in a 21-17 triumph. Two seasons ago, the Midshipmen won 17-10 in the third Army-Navy game to take place at M&T Bank Stadium.
The teams also played at the home of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and ’07.
“We never really talk about the streak,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s more the media talks about it. We just talk about beating Army, this year, the 2016 team, because nothing from the other years matters this year. It’s not like you can carry over points or anything. We’ve just got to get ready for this game, and that’s what I’ve always said. Our guys recognize it.
“The thing that matters most isn’t the past, but this Saturday.”