The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl was billed as a shootout between two different offensive styles as soon as the matchup between Navy and Louisiana Tech was announced. The game lived up to that billing, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense in a back-and-forth affair. In the end, the team that had the ball last was the one the came out on top. Unfortunately for Navy, that team was Louisiana Tech, who kicked a field goal as time expired to clinch a 48-45 victory.
Tech wide receiver Trent Taylor shattered the Armed Forces Bowl records for catches and receiving yards, with 12 for 233. Teammate Carlos Henderson added ten more catches for 129 yards, while quarterback Ryan Higgins threw for 409 yards on 29-40 passing. Zach Abey led the way for Navy, with 119 rushing yards to go along with 159 yards through the air.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was impressed by Taylor’s performance.
“They did a really good job of executing, and they did a really good job on their schemes and putting him in certain spots and good matchups,” he said. “He’s a heck of a receiver and he’s really good after the catch too. Not only does he get open, but he makes plays after he catches the football.”
One silver lining for Navy in the loss was the play of Abey, who had 278 total yards. It was night and day compared to the Army game, and Niumatalolo was pleased with how the sophomore played.
“He’s getting better every week. The kid’s worked really hard. Zach did a lot of good things today. We are going to critique everything and look at his fundamentals, and getting us in the right play; those kinds of things which everybody can always improve on. But I thought he came out and battled today and did a lot of good things.”
Abey himself felt a lot better this week.
“I feel like I finally settled down,” he said. “I had a little more time in practice, getting extra reps. I focused a lot on my preparation this week, and I feel like when I went out there, I had a clear game plan. I felt fine.”
Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Blake Baker used a game plan that focused on scraping the middle linebacker and outnumbering Navy on the perimeter. Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was complimentary of the plan, but also felt that Abey could handle any adjustment that he needed to make.
“They had a good plan,” he said. “Their kids knew what they were doing. They were going to cancel gaps and get guys out on the perimeter, and we had make plays. We had a lot of one-on-ones; we had to make a guy miss.
“We executed and had a chance. It’s all you can ask for.”
Overall, Jasper felt good about Abey’s performance.
“He played pretty well,” he said. “Fought his tail off, got hurt, and was ready to come back in. He’s grown up a lot, and the future looks good.”
Louisiana Tech got off to an ideal start, as Henderson appeared to be stopped on the opening kickoff return before squeezing through the pack to get loose for 82 yards. Starting from the Navy 16 yard line, Jarred Craft carried the ball three times to put the ball on the one. Higgins finished the drive from there, carrying the ball over the right side for a one-yard touchdown run.
After a short kickoff that he initially bobbled, John Brown set the Mids up with decent field position at the Navy 32. The Mids opened with a pair of option pitches to the right side, with the first taken by Dishan Romine for 20 yards. Zach Abey’s errant pitch on the second led to a fumble that was recovered by Louisiana Tech’s Prince Sam.
Taking over at their own 48, Louisiana Tech went on an eight play, 48-yard drive that ended with a 22-yard field goal by Jonathan Barnes. The key play on the drive was a completion to Taylor on a slant over the middle that went 29 yards. The Navy defense stiffened in the red zone, though, to hold the Bulldogs to three points.
After another three and out by the Navy offense, the Navy defense responded by forcing a three and out of their own. On first down, Micah Thomas sacked Higgins for a loss of seven. Tyris Wooten then broke up a pass intended for Henderson to force the punt.
Navy took the ball at their own 45 after an 18-yard return by Calvin Cass. On first down, Abey overthrew a wide-open Darryl Bonner over the middle but followed it up with a 9-yard keeper for to set up third and short, which Shawn White converted on the next play. Two plays later, the Mids faced third and long, and Abey found Chris High open in the flat. The fullback took his first career catch 38 yards to the Louisiana Tech four. Two plays after that, Abey punched it in over the left side to give the Mids their first points of the game.
The Bulldogs responded with a nine play, 66-yard drive that was capped by a 19 yards swing pass to Taylor for a touchdown. It was Taylor’s third catch of the drive, as Louisiana Tech was able to find success with passes to the flat. The touchdown gave them a 17-7 lead.
The Mids responded immediately. After a quick pass to Jamir Tillman for nine yards, Ivin Jasper called the same pass play that Abey overthrew earlier. This time, the young signal-caller was right on the money as he hit Darryl Bonner in stride for a Armed Forces Bowl-record 64-yard touchdown pass to make the score 17-14.
Abey was glad he got another chance to make that throw.
“That’s something we practice every single day, we all make the same throws every single day,” he said after the game. “It’s just pitch and catch. I think Coach Jasper knew that it was probably just a little jitters. I told Darryl Bonner that we’d get it back, and we did.”
The touchdown seemed to settle him down for the rest of the game.
“I think on the first couple drives I still had the shakes in there with my pitches, but I talked it out with the A-backs to figure out what I was doing wrong, what I could do better. and it helped me out.”
The big play also seemed to energize the Navy defense, who responded with another three and out. Jarvis Polu sacked Higgins on first down for a loss of 13. On third down, pressure from linebacker Ted Colburn caused Higgins to underthrow his target, forcing the Bulldogs to punt.
Calvin Cass’ 13-yard punt return gave the Mids the ball at midfield. A face mask penalty on first down put the Mids into Louisiana Tech territory. Two plays later, Abey carried the ball off tackle over the left side for a 30-yard gain, sprung by a great block by Shawn White. Abey kept it again on the next play to give Navy its first lead of the game at 21-17.
Louisiana Tech caught a break on the ensuing kickoff. Bennett Moehring’s pooch kick was allowed to hit the ground, and it appeared that Navy had recovered. However, a Navy player made contact with the ball while his foot was out of bounds. Instead of Navy getting the ball deep in Louisiana Tech territory, the Bulldogs got the ball on the 35-yard line. They took advantage of their good fortune by driving 65 yards in nine plays, regaining the lead at 24-21.
The Mids then tied the game at 24 with a 10-play drive of their own that ended with a career-long 40-yard field goal by Moehring. Louisiana Tech got the ball back with 1:57 to play in the half, and reached Navy territory in five plays. A false start penalty backed them up to their own 49, and the Bulldogs called a timeout to prevent a ten-second runoff with :43 left. As it turned out, they didn’t need to. One play later, Trent Taylor split the safeties on a post pattern over the middle. Higgins hit him in stride, and Louisiana Tech’s star receiver took the ball 51 yards to the end zone. The Mids called a pair of unsuccessful pass plays in the 29 seconds they had to work with on the ensuing drive, but were unable to move the ball. A punt on fourth down ran out the clock, and the Bulldogs went into the locker room with a 31-24 lead.
A holding penalty on the opening kickoff of the second half put Navy at the 10-yard line. The Mids kept their composure, though, and ground out a methodical 14-play, 90-yard drive that took 7:02 off of the clock. Dishan Romine had two carries for 27 yards on the drive, while Chris High took the ball 24 yards for the touchdown that tied the game at 31.
Louisiana Tech appeared ready to reclaim the lead after driving to the Navy 7 yard line. Jackson Pittman, though, stripped the ball away from Jarred Craft, and Brandon Jones recovered the fumble. The Navy offense was only able to drive as far as their own 25 before being forced to punt, and the Bulldogs took over again at the Tech 25.
This time, Louisiana Tech went the distance, driving 70 yards in six plays to take a 38-31 lead. The Mids had a chance to get off of the field after forcing a third and nine, but Higgins completed a hitch to Henderson for 15 on the right sideline for 15 yards to pick up the first down. On the next play, Taylor beat Alohi Gilman up the left hash for 41 yards. Running back Boston Scott finished the drive with a 6-yard run on a draw play for the touchdown.
Navy answered with a touchdown drive of their own, covering 75 yards in 10 plays to tie the game at 38. Abey completed a pass to Brandon Colon on third and nine to pick up a first down early in the possession, then hooked up with John Brown on a crossing pattern for 16 two plays later to put the ball at the Tech 47. The Mids took to the ground the rest of the way, with High scoring his second touchdown of the game, this time from nine yards out.
Tech began the ensuing drive from their own 28. Higgins was sacked by D.J. Palmore on the first play, but Tech picked up a first down one play later on a controversial pass interference call against Jarid Ryan. Ryan would be flagged again on another controversial call in the end zone to nullify an interception, and Higgins completed another fade to the back corner of the end zone to Henderson to make it 45-38 with 4:12 left to play.
Navy needed only two plays to tie the game. Starting from their own 40 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Tech’s Michael Mims, Abey opened the drive a 14-yard pass to Bonner on a wheel route up the right side. Another 15 yards were tacked onto the play thanks to a roughing the passer penalty on Jordan Bradford that forced Abey to leave the game due to injury. He was replaced by Malcom Perry, who made his first appearance since the season opener against Fordham. On Perry’s first play, he faked a toss to the left, then circled back to the right and ran 30 yards to tie the game at 45 with 3:46 remaining.
That was all the time that Louisiana Tech needed. On second down and 5, Higgins completed a short pass to Henderson that turned into a 21-yard gain after a pair of missed tackles. Two plays later, Higgins connected with Taylor for 23 yards on a similar pass play. From there, the Bulldogs were content to drain the clock and set up the game-winning field goal, which Jonathan Barnes made as time expired.
The loss dropped Navy to a disappointing 9-5 record after once sitting at 9-2 and challenging for a New Year’s Six bowl berth. After the game, though, Niumatalolo spoke highly of his players.
“I’m proud of our guys,” he said. “I thought they played really well this year. I’ve been coaching for 27 years and the injury bug really got us this year, but I’m just proud of the way our guys battled.”