Navy carried a sense of purpose into the cold at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Thursday afternoon. It had been nearly three weeks since the Midshipmen’s gut-wrenching loss to Army, and their anger was fuel for intense preparation, including practicing in full pads and lifting weights every day this week to get ready for their Military Bowl meeting with Virginia.
The work paid off as the wind picked up, and Navy steamrolled the Cavaliers, 49-7.
Unlike in the Army-Navy game, there was no snow-covered turf underfoot to slow quarterback Malcolm Perry, and he rushed for a game-high 114 yards and two touchdowns before exiting in the third quarter with a right foot injury. And unlike on that afternoon in Philadelphia, there was no stout Army defense across the line of scrimmage to keep Perry’s backup, Zach Abey, from scoring five touchdowns.
Navy’s rout not only dulled the sting of the Army loss, it snapped a three-game losing streak and marked its fourth bowl win in five years, this one over a team from a Power Five conference — even if that team hadn’t won a bowl since 2005 or played in one since 2011.
And the beating, in the teams’ first meeting since 1994, was as thorough as the score indicated. The Midshipmen (7-6) outgained the Cavaliers 452-145, with all of Navy’s offense coming on the ground.
“That’s the best we’ve played all year,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That was, to me, a momentum-changing game for our program. I’m still getting over the Army loss. It was the toughest loss I’ve ever had in my 20 years of coaching. . . . We knew this game was huge not only to send our seniors off the right way but to propel us to the offseason, get some confidence. For us, to beat a really good team like that, that convincingly, I think it’s going to really, really help us.”
A win for Virginia (6-7) would have topped an impressive second year of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure, during which the promise of a program turnaround flickered.
There weren’t many highlights for Virginia, which said goodbye to a trio of standout seniors Thursday in Kurt Benkert, the program’s first quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season; safety Quin Blanding, the program’s all-time leading tackler with 479; and inside linebacker Micah Kiser.
Benkert went 16 for 36 for 145 yards, threw one interception and was sacked once. Navy held Virginia to just 30 rushing yards.
Mendenhall, a former defensive coordinator, said it was Navy’s non-option quarterback running plays that make its scheme so much more difficult to combat than most triple-options. The Cavaliers saw something similar in a 40-36 win earlier this season over Georgia Tech, which is coached by Paul Johnson, whom Niumatalolo replaced in Annapolis.
Mendenhall conceded the loss takes some of the shine off an otherwise bright year.
“It’s never fun to not play well and lose the game,” he said. “But it’s also reflective of exactly where we are. That’s not an accident, so it might be the most valuable game of the year.”
The Cavaliers’ lone score of the day was a 98-yard kickoff return from sophomore Joe Reed to start of the game.
Navy then rattled off six consecutive touchdowns with little trouble. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper used a two-quarterback system with Perry starting and Abey, a bigger runner, subbing in for short-yard situations. Abey, a junior, also filled in when Perry was rolled up on in the third quarter. Perry was using crutches after the game.
The first series saw Perry move the Mids 69 yards in 12 plays highlighted by a 28-yard run from Anthony Gargiulo. Perry got Navy to first and goal before Abey came in to notch the first of his three one-yard touchdowns.
Abey’s five rushing touchdowns tied a Football Bowl Subdivision bowl-game record. He also passed former quarterback Keenan Reynolds to become the second all-time leading rusher in a season for Navy, ending the year with 1,413 rushing yards, including 88 against Virginia. His longest score was a 20-yard run with just under two minutes left in the third quarter.
“Coach Niumat has been telling us all week it’s about how you finish,” Abey said. “Being able to put some points on an ACC opponent, I think it definitely makes us go into the offseason with our heads held high.”