Navy reserves fill key positions in showdown with rival Army
BALTIMORE (AP) Navy's triple option will have to rely on spare parts Saturday against Army, a less-than-ideal position for a team seeking to beat its biggest rival for the 15th time in a row.
Record-setting quarterback Will Worth and slot back Toneo Gulley both sustained season-ending foot injuries last week in the American Athletic Conference championship, a 34-10 loss to Temple.
Sophomore Zach Abey will get his first college start at quarterback in the most important game of the year for Navy (9-3) and seldom-used Calvin Cass Jr. will replace Gulley, the team's co-captain and third-leading rusher.
''You don't want to make excuses,'' Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Tuesday, ''but it's not the most ideal situation.''
Not only that, but the Midshipmen have only one week to prepare. Army (6-5), in contrast, hasn't played since Nov. 19.
When Navy joined the AAC two years ago, it was well aware of the possibility of this happening. Having just one week to get ready for Army is bad enough, but losing two key players in the title game made things a whole lot worse.
''Obviously you'd like some time between games,'' Niumatalolo said. ''You don't want your big rivalry game after a championship game, but what can you do? You've just got to make the best of it.''
Army coach Jeff Monken fully understands Navy's plight. The third-year coach experienced a severe paring of his defensive backfield because of injuries and the death of Brandon Jackson , who was killed in a car crash in September.
The Black Knights have two converted safeties at cornerback: freshmen Jaylon McClinton and Elijah Riley.
''We've lost our four top corners,'' Monken lamented. ''You call most defensive coordinators around the country and tell them I'm going to take away your top four corners, and they couldn't function as a defense. So, everybody is feeling that this time of year.''
Still, Monken feels compassion for Worth and Gulley, seniors who will miss their last chance to fulfill the battle cry, ''Beat Army!''
''I feel terrible for the guys that got injured in that last game,'' Monken said. ''Those kids have had great seasons. They mean so much to their team, and playing in this game means so much to them. It's tough to lose players like that, but Kenny does such a great job that he'll have somebody step in at each one of those positions and they'll be ready to go.''
Abey will be the third quarterback to play for Navy this season. Tago Smith won the job in the preseason but tore his right ACL in the second quarter of the opener against Fordham. He was replaced by Worth, who had an NCAA-high 25 rushing touchdowns and set a school record with 2,595 yards in total offense before breaking a bone in his foot last Saturday.
Now it's up to Abey to direct the triple option in a glaring spotlight.
''It is going to be a big responsibility and I will be up for it,'' he said.
Playing from behind, Abey went 7 for 13 for 104 yards and two interceptions against Temple. Against Army, as always, Navy will focus primarily on running the ball.
''Obviously, you're going to have to tweak the playbook for what he does,'' Niumatalolo said. ''But he's been running the second huddle all season, so he knows what we do. We've got to do what makes us successful, but we've got to also play to his strengths.''
Gulley ran 43 times in 2016, averaging a whopping 9.9 yards per carry and scoring four touchdowns.
He was a star on field and will be a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps after graduation. On Tuesday, he had his leg on a scooter with a Lisfranc injury.
''It's a big disappointment,'' Gulley said. ''I embrace my new role as being a mentor for the guys who are actually going to be playing in the game. That's what brings me peace.''
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