Zach Abey is still having some growing pains as the starting quarterback for Navy.
The junior is absorbing the nuances of the Midshipmen’s signature triple-option offense. He also has committed a few costly turnovers.
Still, the Navy coaches are encouraged by his recent strides.
Abey amassed 240 total yards and threw for a touchdown, leading the Midshipmen past Tulane, 23-21, in the teams’ American Athletic Conference opener Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I think we made a lot of mistakes,” Abey said. “A lot of that is on me. We made plays when we had to, but we had a lot of missed opportunities. I made a lot of bad decisions.”
Abey was coming off a record-setting performance last week against Florida Atlantic in which he ran for 235 yards — the most-ever for a quarterback in the AAC. He was the difference again with 108 yards on 29 carries. Abey also completed 4 of 12 passes for 132 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Tyler Carmona, with an interception.
Tulane quarterback Jonathan Banks, a junior college transfer, took a hard hit in the second quarter, suffering an undisclosed injury, and did not return. Sophomore Johnathan Brantley, however, provided a spark off the bench and scored his first career touchdown with a three-yard run in the second quarter.
“I was surprised, but I had to be ready,” Brantley said. “That’s my job as a backup, to step in if he goes down. I was ready.”
The Green Wave (1-1, 0-1) cut the margin to 23-21 on a one-yard dive by Dontrell Hilliard and a two-point conversion with 12:56 left in the game. Tulane, however, failed to convert a pair of key fourth downs late in the fourth quarter to extend drives.
A penalty for too many players on the field gave Navy a fourth and one from the Green Wave’s 46 with 1:58 left. Abey converted the first down, and the Midshipmen (2-0, 1-0) were able to run out the clock to seal the victory.
“I thought our guys really fought back,” Tulane Coach Willie Fritz said. “We had some big plays in there that we converted to get back in the ballgame, which was great. I’m proud of the guys and their effort, and everything else. But I would have liked to have the opportunity to see what we could have done there at the end. It would have been tough, but I would have liked to have that opportunity.”
Brantley was 5-for-8 passing for 58 yards. He also ran for 73 yards on nine carries with the score.
The game was a battle of two teams with a similar offense.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo ran the triple-option as a quarterback at Hawaii and was later an assistant under Mids coach Paul Johnson, who ran the same system. Fritz has used the zone option throughout his 24-year coaching career.
On this day, Navy was more successful moving the ball, outgaining the Green Wave 326 yards to 262.
Tulane was looking to open the season with two straight victories for the first time since 2002.
“It was a hard-fought win,” Niumatalolo said. “We knew it would be coming in. I always said playing those guys is like playing a service academy. We both run the ball. Everything is a grind.”
The Green Wave has looked more comfortable running the zone option under Fritz, who is in his second year. One of the keys is the arrival of Banks, who transferred from Independence Community College in Kansas. While his status for the next game is uncertain, Brantley showed he can be a capable backup.
Abey, a junior, has been overall solid running the offense, but he must do a better job protecting the ball. Abey has been involved in all four of the team’s turnovers in the opening two games — two fumbles, an interception and a bad exchange with the center. That’s an area the Mids will look to improve over the next several games.
The Green Wave will travel to No. 5 Oklahoma for the first of two consecutive nonconference games. Tulane is playing the Sooners for the first time in program history.
The Midshipmen have next weekend off before hosting Cincinnati in their second AAC game Sept. 23. Navy leads the all-time series 2-0.
— Associated Press