Behind near flawless execution of the triple option, the Navy football team overcame uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half to secure a 42-32 win against visiting Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon.
The Midshipmen amassed 569 rushing yards, the second most in school history, and won their 16th consecutive regular season game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Zach Abey led the way with 128 yards, including a 53-yard run in the final minutes, and two touchdowns on 20 carries .
Abey knelt twice to run out the clock, losing three yards combined in the process, or else Navy would have matched the school record for most rushing yards (572).
"That's all [coordinator Ivan Jasper] and the offensive staff, [who] came up with a great game plan," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "People don't see us very often, so it's a great advantage for us because you can practice against yourselves, but this is what we do for a living. This is what our program has been doing for decades."
Slotback Malcolm Perry added 100 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries to help Navy (3-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) improve to 10-0 at home in American Athletic Conference regular season games. Slotback Josh Brown contributed two rushing touchdowns and 79 yards on four carries while also springing teammates with precise blocking.
In all, Midshipmen slotbacks combined for 333 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries.
A defense that had been porous much of the game sealed the outcome when Navy cornerback Tyris Wooten blitzed and sacked Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore, forcing a fumble. Linebacker D.J. Palmore recovered at the Navy 21-yard line with 2:14 to play to preserve the final margin.
"First of all, when I got the call, I got excited automatically," Wooten said. "I noticed the offense and the receivers were coming out frantic, so I kind of slid down there and tried to disguise the blitz. I saw [Moore] pump fake once, and I went for the ball. I knew I had to make a play."
The Midshipmen's first drive of the fourth quarter, resulting in Abey's one-yard touchdown, proved particularly significant. It allowed Navy to take a three-possession lead, 42-24, with 10:07 left in a game in which both offenses moved virtually at will.
Cincinnati (2-2, 0-1) aided the Midshipmen during the series when defensive end Bryan Wright slung Abey to the ground after the whistle, drawing a personal foul. That gaffe put Navy at its 46, and seven plays later, Abey was in the end zone for the fourth time this season.
Ahead by four points at intermission, Navy extended the lead to 11 thanks to Brown's 39-yard touchdown run on a pitch around the left side. The drive started at the Navy 43 when Perry returned the opening kickoff of the third quarter 33 yards.
The Bearcats answered on their next possession, marching 75 yards on 14 plays to whittle the margin to 28-24 with 9:01 remaining in the third quarter on a five-yard touchdown pass from Moore to wide receiver Kahlil Lewis on fourth and goal.
Navy countered with Abey's one-yard dive to pull ahead 35-24 with 2:29 left in the third quarter. The long gain during the possession unfolded when wide receiver Tyler Carmona caught a 34-yard pass.
"We kind of had an idea of what they were going to come out in," Abey said of Cincinnati's defensive front. "The last two games, we thought we had an idea what [the opponents] were going to come out in, and they came out in something completely different so we had to adjust on the field. Today, we were fortunate that they came out in what we were working on all week."
First-half miscues kept Navy from opening a much larger lead. Place kicker Bennett Moehring, for instance, missed a 24-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds to play that kept the Midshipmen's halftime lead at 21-17.
On Navy's third possession of the game, senior slotback Jahmaal Daniel fumbled following an 11-yard run, and the Bearcats recovered at their own 34. A touchdown on that drive would have put the Midshipmen ahead 21-7, but Cincinnati instead closed within four points on a 36-yard field goal by Josh Pasley.
The Midshipmen entered Saturday tied for 102nd among 128 teams in major college football in turnover margin.
There also was a slew of penalties that handcuffed Navy, which committed four for 50 yards in the first half. The Midshipmen came in as the least-penalized school in the country, having committed two for 20 yards.
Injuries impacted the Midshipmen as well, with slotback Tre Walker leaving late in the second quarter when he hurt his right knee during a kickoff return. Navy already was without starting slotback Darryl Bonner, who sat out because of a high ankle sprain.
Still, the Midshipmen had accumulated 343 rushing yards by halftime.
"It's disheartening," Bearcats Coach Luke Fickell said after his defense yielded the most rushing yards in school history. "It burns. It hurts. I look at myself first. It is not the kids' fault. We have to put them in a better situation. We have to do a better job of tackling, but we have to foresee some things that are going to happen."