Perry runs for 282 yards, and his Mids team­mates all pitch in

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - BY AVA WAL­LACE ava.wal­lace@wash­post.com

There wasn’t much con­fi­dence left on the Navy side­line by the time J.R. Os­born, the sopho­more place kicker who only re­cently had worked his way up to trav­el­ing with the Mid­ship­men, lined up for an 18-yard field goal with the game on the line.

The Mid­ship­men had been through the wringer Satur­day at Navy-Ma­rine Corps Memo­rial Sta­dium: They had seen Mal­colm Perry, the sopho­more who had started ev­ery other game this year at slot­back, in­stead start un­der cen­ter for the first time in his ca­reer and rush for a daz­zling 282 yards, only to sprain his left an­kle late in the fourth quar­ter and leave the field on crutches. They had watched as a 23-point half­time lead over South­ern Methodist shrank to zero.

When Os­born’s kick sailed through for a 43-40 win, the beaten-up and tired Navy play­ers took off their gold hel­mets and cel­e­brated in the mid­dle of the field, a mo­ment that looked like re­lease.

“It’s pretty eu­phoric,” right guard Evan Martin said.

Be­hind Perry’s hero­ics and Os­born’s clutch kick, the Mid­ship­men (6-3, 4-3 Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence) beat SMU on se­nior day to be­come bowl el­i­gi­ble for the sixth con­sec­u­tive year and 14th time in the past 15 years. Navy also snapped a three-game los­ing streak and got back to play­ing like it­self again — and not a mo­ment too soon. Next week the Mid­ship­men play No. 3 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

“We were holding on for dear life,” Navy Coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said, “we started to sput­ter on of­fense, and I just felt like if we could keep scor­ing and take care of the rock, then we’d have a shot. But to be bowl el­i­gi­ble again, for this many years, it shows the con­sis­tency of our pro­gram.”

Ni­u­mat­alolo made a ma­jor per­son­nel change to snap Navy back into shape. He started Perry, the speed­ster who saw time at quar­ter­back in two games last year but had not played the po­si­tion since spring ball, over first-string quar­ter­back Zach Abey and backup Gar­ret Lewis be­cause he wanted to jump-start the Mid­ship­men.

His plan worked. Be­fore his in­jury, Perry had four touch­downs, in­clud­ing on runs of 92 yards — the sec­ond-long­est touch­down run in pro­gram his­tory — and 24 yards. His 196 yards at half­time were the sec­ond most in school his­tory amassed in one half. Perry flaunted not only his speed but his elu­sive­ness, and he led the Mids to a 34-11 lead at half­time.

“That’s God-given,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

Abey, who in­jured his left, non­throw­ing shoul­der in a Nov. 2 loss at Tem­ple, watched from the side­line. Ni­u­mat­alolo said Abey could have played in a pinch and will be avail­able if Perry is un­able to go against Notre Dame.

It was in that loss in Philadel­phia that Ni­u­mat­alolo de­cided he would start Perry in­stead of Abey this week against the Mus­tangs.

“I just feel like he’s our best ball­car­rier. We needed a spark,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “We were sput­ter­ing on of­fense, and I just wanted to see if he could give us some life. We took a chance — he hadn’t played quar­ter­back since the spring, but he has the best quar­ter­back coach in [of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ivin Jasper] . . . . Ul­ti­mately, I had to do what I felt was best for our team.”

Navy rushed for 559 yards and av­er­aged 7.7 yards per play, far above the 5.1 yards per play it has av­er­aged over the past three losses. Navy only both­ered to throw once, and Perry’s lone at­tempt re­sulted in an in­ter­cep­tion.

Sup­port­ing Perry on of­fense was ju­nior full­back An­thony Gargiulo, who broke runs of 21 and 29 yards to key the Mids’ 10-play, 78-yard drive that set up Os­born’s kick as time ex­pired. Satur­day’s game in­cluded firsts for both play­ers: Gargiulo rushed for a ca­reer-high 145 yards. Os­born’s field goal was his first ca­reer at­tempt at a scor­ing kick.

“I still re­ally don’t know what’s go­ing on or what’s hap­pened,” Os­born, who filled in for the in­jured Ben­nett Moehring, said after­ward.

Navy’s de­fense did its part to sup­port Perry in the first half, holding SMU (6-4, 3-3) to 173 yards of to­tal of­fense be­fore in­ter­mis­sion while the Mids racked up 357. But the Mus­tangs’ of­fense reloaded af­ter half­time and scored on all three of its pos­ses­sions in the third quar­ter while Navy fal­tered.

On SMU’s fi­nal drive of the third quar­ter, Navy safety Sean Wil­liams was called for tar­get­ing. The penalty comes with an ejec­tion and also means the Mids’ top de­fen­sive back will miss the first half of next week’s game at Notre Dame. Mus­tangs wide re­ceiver James Proche grabbed a 17-yard touch­down pass two plays later to shrink Navy’s lead to 40-32, and to twist the knife, se­nior line­backer D.J. Pal­more was called for rough­ing the passer on the fi­nal play of the se­ries. The penalty put SMU on the 50 for kick­off.

The eight-point mar­gin held un­til SMU’s fi­nal drive, which cov­ered 71 yards in five plays and was sealed with Ben Hicks’s 29yard pass to Court­land Sut­ton. The Mus­tangs com­pleted the two­point con­ver­sion to tie it at 40 with 3:32 re­main­ing, set­ting the stage for one fi­nal piece of drama.

“We got tough kids,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “We’re go­ing to fight to the end. I’ve been telling peo­ple — we’re go­ing to fight to the freakin’ end.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IM­AGES

Full­back An­thony Gargiulo broke free on a fourth-quar­ter run for the Mid­ship­men in a win that left them el­i­gi­ble for a bowl game.

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