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Navy Overcomes Injuries With Another Stellar Season

December 15, 2016
A hush came over Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium when starting quarterback Will Worth and slotback Toneo Gulley were injured on the same play against Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game Dec. 3.

Worth would later emerge on the sideline on crutches and wearing an air cast on his right foot. Gulley had to be carted off the field and later joined Worth to support their teammates.

Suddenly, a season already full of adversity provided even more challenges with the loss of two of the team's top playmakers.

The Midshipmen, however, are always ready to respond to those types of setbacks -- it's part of the fabric of the Naval Academy. So Mids head coach Ken Niumatalolo forged ahead with some new faces ready to step into key roles this past season and beyond.

"When you come to a service academy, you go through so many things," Niumatalolo said. "You have to deal with a lot of adversity. The prep school is hard. Plebe summer is hard. The military is hard. School is hard. I think these kids become so resilient, so tough. To lose all of these key players has been tough, but the next guy has stepped up."

Worth was the second starting quarterback lost for the season after Tago Smith went down with a knee injury during the opener against Fordham Sept. 3. Gulley was the second co-captain lost for the year with linebacker Daniel Gonzales, who suffered a season-ending foot injury against Air Force Oct. 1.

Gulley and Worth wound up in the same training room after the injuries. It was then they felt the full impact that their football careers at Navy were officially finished.

"It was very emotional ... for both of us," Gulley said. "You work so hard to get to this point, and then you can't really play. You've got to just lead from the sideline now and be the voice on the sideline. That was tough but had to do it, had to be strong for the team."

The Midshipmen had trouble moving the ball against Temple and eventually fell, 34-10. The loss was costly because it ended any chance for Navy to grab a spot in the Cotton Bowl as the Group of 5 champion. The Mids also snapped a 15-game winning streak at home, which had been tied with Houston for longest mark in the nation.

Still, it was an overall impressive showing for Navy, which won the West Division of the AAC and advanced to a conference championship game for the first time in the 136 years of the program. 

"I never had a year like this before," Niumatalolo said. "Guys just had to adapt. Guys just had to adjust."

With the loss of Smith and Worth, the team forged ahead with sophomore Zach Abey at quarterback. Abey, an Archbishop Spalding graduate, was shaky during his first extended playing time against Temple, completing 7-of-13 passes for 104 yards with two interceptions. Abey did have a 47-yard run late in the third quarter to give the Mids a spark. He then scored from 1 yard to cut the margin, 24-10, with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter.

Against Army Dec. 10, Abey rushed for two touchdowns and threw two interceptions as the Mids lost, 21-17, snapping Navy's 14-gaming winning streak against Army.  

Dispite the loss, Abey managed to show some flashes that he can effectively run the Mids' triple option. He put himself in position to fight for the starting job in 2017.  

"It is a tough situation to put him in, but Zach knows what is going on," Niumatalolo said. "We were down, both with injury and with the fact that we weren't playing well on either side of the ball, especially on offense. We had some turnovers early that hurt us, and we got stopped on fourth down. In the end, you have to give them credit for playing a really good game."

Abey was a three-sport athlete at Spalding, also wrestling and playing rugby, and that athleticism should help him thrive in Navy's offense. Abey came to Navy as a highly regarded recruit.

He was a two-time All-Conference selection and earned first-team All-State and first-team All-Metro honors as a senior. After his senior season, Abey earned Player of the Year honors from The Baltimore Sun and Capital Gazette.

Despite the struggles in his first extended playing time, Abey exuded confidence he will get better as he gets more reps in the offseason. The experience of playing in the final two games against Army and the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Dec. 23 should bode well for him moving forward.

"I felt pretty comfortable, especially getting game reps the last few weeks," Abey said of being thrown into the game against Temple. "After Tago [Smith] went down, I have been getting more reps in practice, which has helped a lot. I run the second huddle and see the same looks that we are going up against each week. Will [Worth] helped me throughout the game today to make me as comfortable as I could be in the game. It was just hard to get the ball rolling today."

At 6-feet-2, 218 pounds, Abey is a bit bigger than Worth and is a proven strong runner who is not afraid scamper between his tackles. Worth vowed to help Abey as much as he can moving forward. After all, Worth was in the same position when Smith went down and he was forced to lead a triple option offense that relies on the quarterback to set the tone.

"Zach is right where I was 11 weeks ago," Worth said. "My job now is to do anything I can to get him ready to play."

Still, it was a disappointing ending to a storybook season for Worth. He seamlessly ran the triple option when unexpectedly thrust into the starting role, scoring a touchdown in 11 consecutive games. Prior to being injured in the game against Temple, Worth managed to break the school record with 2,595 yards of total offense in a season, passing Keenan Reynolds, who is on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad.

"I just tried to cut up-field and my foot popped," Worth said about the injury. "I kind of had a feeling, but I tried to run one more play. I just wasn't able to put any pressure on it."

The Navy football program is about accountability. No one on the team is using the injuries as an excuse for losses. The mentality is the program has enough talent and depth to overcome those setbacks. That is the overriding message from the seniors to the underclassmen, and that will continue into 2017.

"You can dread about [it], and you can look at it in a negative way, but to me it's football," Gonzales said. "We stepped on the field knowing what could happen. You love the success of football and all the good things that happen with football. But you have to expect the bad.

"I told Tago that the first day he went down. As soon as I went down, it was a reality for myself. Then, the first things I said to Toneo is we still have to lead. This is still our team. We can't be on the field with these guys, but we can do everything we can to help them outside the field."

Issue 228: December 2016