Navy Ends the Season in Style, Topping Virginia, 49-7
At the Military Bowl luncheon yesterday, Navy linebacker D.J. Palmore was asked what it would take for Navy to emerge victorious against Virginia. His responded that the team needed to play Navy football, which seemed to rile up some of the Virginia contingent that was on hand.
Anyone who has followed the Navy team this season, though, knew exactly what he meant. Navy has made several uncharacteristic mistakes this season that has cost them games. To play Navy football, then, meant doing the things that past Navy teams were known for: running the ball, winning the turnover battle, and avoiding costly penalties.
The Midshipmen excelled in each of those categories today before a sellout crowd in Annapolis, dominating Virginia, 49-7, in the tenth edition of the Military Bowl. Quarterback Zach Abey earned Most Valuable Player honors for Navy (7-6) after tying a program record by scoring five touchdowns in a bowl game. Fellow quarterback Malcolm Perry led all runners with 114 yards, while fullback Chris High chipped in 101 as the Mids outgained the Cavaliers (6-7) on the ground, 452-30. Navy committed only three penalties and forced three turnovers while not conceding any.
“It’s great to go out at home and beat a really good Virginia team,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “That’s the best we’ve played all year. We put it together on both sides of the ball.”
“Congratulations to Coach Niumatalolo and the Naval Academy,” said Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “They played an exceptional game today. They performed well in all phases— offense, defense, and special teams.”
Virginia’s Joe Reed took the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, but it was all Navy after that. The Midshipmen finally put together the total team performance that had eluded them all season, outgaining Virginia 452-175. When asked if this is what he meant when he talked about playing Navy football, Palmore said that it was.
“Outside of the opening kickoff, that was the way that we should be playing,” he said. “We had 11 guys motioning and running to the ball. That’s Navy football.”
“We did what we were supposed to do,” he said. “We came off the ball up front. It all starts with the guys up front. They did a really good job. Our guys carrying the ball ran physical. We played Navy football today.”
The game was played in front of 35,921 frigid fans, with a kickoff temperature of 25 degrees and a northerly breeze. The weather seemed to affect Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert, who had difficulty completing passes and finished 16 of 36 for 145 yards and an interception. After the game, Benkert acknowledged the weather but didn’t want to use that as an excuse for his performance.
“It was windy and cold,” he said. “It took a little bit to get started and was hard to get into a rhythm. We never really found our stride as the game went on. That is not an excuse. I have to find a way to deliver the ball in the right spot and be as accurate as possible. I wasn’t able to do that consistently all day.”
Mendenhall echoed his quarterback’s comments.
“I don’t think we executed, concentrated, or performed well,” he said. “I can’t say how much the inclement weather had to do with it. I expect our guys to play well regardless of circumstance. My job is to prepare them that way. We never found rhythm or connected to mount any semblance of a threat.”
Nobody from Virginia wanted to blame the weather for how they played, preferring to give credit to the Navy coaching staff for a solid game plan. Mendenhall felt going into the game that his passing attack would be a matchup advantage against the Navy pass defense, but that advantage never materialized.
“We’ve had strong success throwing the ball, and the Naval Academy has struggled defending the pass, at least statistically,” he said. “We believed that matchup would be in our favor, but we didn’t throw, catch, or just execute in protection as well, and the run game hasn’t been consistent enough all year for us to rely or count on that. When we got behind, it put more pressure on the throwing game.”
Navy used man coverage for most of the year on defense, but against Virginia, they moved back to zone coverage in most situations. The change worked.
“They ran a lot of cover two today, especially when we got down in third and long, they dropped a lot of people,” Benkert said. “Then in third down and critical situations, they brought more pressure. They just had a good back-and-forth scheme going with us all game. We had our opportunities, and we missed a few throws and didn’t connect on a few passes, but all in all, I feel like they were really prepared and kind of had us figured out early.”
“We knew that we were going up against a talented offense, so we switched it up from the things we normally do,” said Navy safety Sean Williams. “We had disguises. Our reads were right.”
“Early in the season we didn’t blitz the striker a lot, so we switched it up,” said Navy striker Justin Norton. “The changeup was huge today.”
Reed’s kickoff return was the third in Military Bowl history and the fifth longest in UVA history. Navy was able to respond, though, by putting together a 12-play, 69-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7. Anthony Gargiulo had a 28-yard run on 3rd and 13 to move the Mids to the Virginia 21 and keep the drive alive after Perry was sacked for an 11-yard loss.
Mendenhall felt that Navy’s ability to respond after giving up a quick touchdown reset the momentum that his team gained on the return.
“I think it was a tone-setter, but I don’t think either team would say it determined the outcome,” he said. Probably no more so than the kickoff return for a touchdown. They were two plays early in the game that ended up canceling out, and then the real game kind of started.”
Norton sacked Benkert for a six-yard loss on second down on Virginia’s next possession, which led to a three-and-out. Navy took possession on their 45-yard line when Craig Scott returned a 38-yard punt seven yards. Six plays later, the Mids took a 14-7 lead when Malcolm Perry kept the ball over the right side and squirted through for a 22-yard touchdown run.
The Cavaliers were able to move into Navy territory on their next drive when Benkert rolled right and found Olamide Zaccheaus for a 20-yard pass to the Navy 46. Three straight incompletions after that, though, killed the drive. It appeared that the Cavaliers might have picked up a first down after Tyler Sayles was flagged for targeting on third down, but the call was reversed after review. Lester Coleman’s punt was downed at the one-yard line.
Navy could only advance to the 17 before being forced to punt themselves. Virginia had good field position at their 46, but couldn’t take advantage. Elijah Merchant stopped a swing pass for no gain on first down, then Sean Williams made a leaping interception of a Benkert pass on third down to give Navy the ball at the 14. The Mids couldn’t pick up a first down after the interception, though, and Virginia again had the ball at midfield after Owen White’s punt. Once again, they weren’t able to take advantage, as Benkert was unable to connect with Doni Dowling up the left sideline on fourth down.
This time, Navy made Virginia pay. Perry carried the ball five times on the Mids’ next drive, including runs of 33 and 19 yards, the latter of which took him into the end zone to give the Midshipmen a 21-7 lead with 3:12 remaining in the half.
Holding Virginia scoreless after twice giving them the ball near midfield was a big confidence boost for the Navy defense.
“Those were some huge stops,” said Niumatalolo. “I just loved the way we played out there. We played with emotion, but we were focused. They dropped some passes too, but that doesn’t take anything away from how well our defense played.”
A Virginia mistake on the next possession led to more Navy points. Benkert fumbled a handoff attempt that was recovered by Sayles, giving Navy the ball on the Virginia 36. Four plays later, Zach Abey carried the ball in from 1 yard out to give Navy a 28-7 lead, which they took into the locker room at halftime.
Navy drove into Virginia territory to open the second half, but Perry had to leave the game with an apparent ankle injury, and the drive stalled. On the ensuing punt, Daniel Hamm muffed the catch, and Elan Nash recovered for Navy at the Virginia 11. Two plays later, Abey carried the ball over the left side from 5 yards out to give Navy a 35-7 lead.
Virginia appeared to find something that worked offensively on their next drive, moving all the way to the Navy 16 behind three completions by Benkert for 42 yards. A personal foul penalty, though, put the Wahoos in 3rd and 16, and they were unable to convert after Justin Norton and Khaylan Williams teamed up to stop a swing pass to Jordan Ellis.
After the Virginia punt, Abey took over. The embattled quarterback started the drive with a 39-yard run on a midline option, then finished it with a 20-yard run over the left side to put Navy ahead, 42-7, and put the game out of reach with 1:57 left in the third quarter. He would add another touchdown for good measure with 11:11 in the fourth quarter.
The win was a feel-good moment for Navy’s seniors, sending them out on a high note after a rough second half of the season. Chris High reflected on that after the game.
“This means a lot,” he said. “To go through the program all four years and be able to finish it out with a win. We went through practice all week and to be able to get this outcome is great.”
The win also seemed to motivate Niumatalolo, who was already talking about how excited he was about next season.
“This was as decisive of a win as we’ve had in a long, long time against an ACC team. I’m really proud of our seniors and the team that we have coming back. We have a lot of guys that played today coming back. The future is bright for Navy football.”