- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2017

ANNAPOLIS — With 9:06 to play Thursday, the sun mostly gone, and the game long decided, many of the 35,291 were departing. The hill behind one end zone was splattered with trash and a handful of fans. The blue seats in the stands behind the Virginia side of the field had resurfaced after being abandoned in favor of warmer confines and lesser traffic.

Navy was happy to stay.

It was piling up a Military Bowl-record 452 rushing yards in a 49-7 win against Virginia at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The trampling of an ACC team was helping to remove some of the lasting sourness that remained from the regular-season ending, one-point loss to Army.

It also enabled Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo to become one of the few humans pleased by a jug of liquid being dumped on him when it was 23 degrees outside.

“That was a huge game for our program, and we knew that coming in,” Niumatalolo said.

“This was, to me, a momentum-changing game for our program because we just came off — still getting over the Army loss. The worst loss I’ve ever had in my 20 years of coaching. So, that was a hard loss to get over. So 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.”

Twenty-one points in the first quarter gave way to calm to start the second. The surprise from the opening kickoff — returned by Virginia 98 yards for a touchdown — had faded, as had Virginia’s complications with stifling the triple option.

The Cavaliers could not move the ball, but, suddenly, neither could Navy.

The Midshipmen punted on two drives. Virginia joined them with the same incomplete offense, punting once and turning the ball over on downs the other possession.

That was the lone dormant period of the day. Navy’s rushing made sure of it.

The Midshipmen ran to a 28-7 lead. They had 39 carries for 264 yards by the time the Virginia band lined up to entertain those still shivering in frigid blue seats. Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry gained 120 of those 264 yards — he did not throw once — and scored twice.

The cold, score and grinding Navy offense was enough to thin the stands by the time the third quarter started.

Perry opened the second half by simply repeating the first with gain after gain on the ground. More triple option. More quarterback runs. More confusion for the Virginia defense.

The day before the game, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked to contrast Navy’s triple-option package against that of ACC foe Georgia Tech. Mendenhall explained that Navy was much more creative and dynamic. His defense proved him right Thursday.

But, Perry’s 16th carry was his last. He limped off to the sideline, where he stopped, bent over and was tended to. Two people helped him to the trainer’s table. His right leg was flexed and assessed. Crutches were fetched for him while players and other personnel came to pat Perry on the back and head. He slid off the table, had the crutches adjusted and tucked them under his arms. His Military Bowl was done early in the third quarter because of a right foot injury after he was “rolled up on.”

“I should be back soon,” Perry, expected to be the starting quarterback next season, said.

The injury did not leave Navy stripped at the position.

Zach Abey, the starter for much of the year, came in. He scored a touchdown on each of the next two drives.

By the time the afternoon ended, Abey had reached 1,413 rushing yards for the season, the second-most during a single season in the school’s history. He also scored five rushing touchdowns, a bowl record for the school.

In the midst of Abey’s scores, one of the large yellow heaters that blasted warmth at Virginia players on the bench began to smoke. Players grabbed their coats and moved to another bench, down 28 points, wondering how much could go wrong in one day.

Mendenhall knew coming in that his defensive line, down to four players, was thin. It was about to face a relentless rushing game in its home stadium. Virginia’s only counter appeared to be quarterback Kurt Benkert, the first Cavaliers quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season in school history. His day replicated the malfunctioning heater.

Benkert was just 8-for-20 at the half. He had thrown an interception (which was a third-and-20 deep attempt that replicated a punt) and lost a fumble on a botched exchange with a running back.

With 3:06 to play in the second quarter, Benkert missed an open Olamide Zaccheaus up the sideline. When the ball hit only the ground, Benkert put both hands on his helmet in frustration. He finished 16-for-36 for just 145 yards, unable to unlock Navy’s shift into zone defense for much of the day.

“They kind of had us figured out early,” Benkert said.

The unraveling of the game for Virginia washed away the jolt of the opening kick. Joe Reed ran it back for a 98-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Virginia lead. The Cavaliers did not score again.

They lost six of seven to close the season.

“I believe players play as their prepare,” Mendenhall said. “So, clearly I didn’t have our team prepared to perform to their true potential offensively, defensively or special teams. Navy certainly gets credit for that, but ultimately the head coach is responsible for how his team plays.”

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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