Navy offensive line has gone through ups and downs this season

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Navy’s offensive line had a subpar outing in the disappointing Thursday night loss at Temple on Nov. 2. The Midshipmen were whipped at the line of scrimmage, which was a big reason why the offense was limited to a season-low 136 yards rushing.

There were plenty of missed assignments and poorly executed blocks as Navy averaged a mere 2.6 yards rushing in that game.

“It was pretty obvious that we didn’t play well enough. We just didn’t play to the standard we needed to play,” Navy running game coordinator Ashley Ingram said. “They lined up in an eight-man front or a 50 look and we just didn’t block them very well.”

Ingram, who oversees the offensive line, had a little extra practice time to correct the problems that cropped up. He and fellow offensive line coach Bryce McDonald no doubt got after the unit and significant progress was made during the SMU game.

Quarterback Malcolm Perry and fullback Anthony Gargiulo led the way as Navy rushed for 559 yards, the fourth-highest total in program history. Perry, a surprise starter, ran for 282 yards by himself as the Midshipmen posted the second-best rushing output of head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s 10-year tenure.

Gargiulo, who rumbled for a career-high 145 yards, was effusive in his praise of the offensive line’s performance versus the Mustangs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen holes as big as they created,” he said.

“We played better. I think Anthony might have exaggerated a little bit. I didn’t quite see it that way,” said Ingram, who is notoriously tough when grading the unit. “Obviously, we ran for a lot of yards so we did some good things. There are still some things we can do better.”

For the most part, offensive line play has been a real strength this season for Navy, which once again leads the nation in rushing offense with an average of 369.8 yards per game. The Midshipmen established the benchmark for rushing yards during the Niumatalolo era earlier this season by piling up 569 against Cincinnati. However, the blocking effort was below average in the loss to Memphis when Navy was held to 314 rushing yards.

“We’re still a work in progress. I still don’t think we’ve played our best football. We’re still out here trying to get better every game,” Ingram said. “I will say that we’ve played hard.”

Navy has used more offensive linemen this season than in any other in previous memory, partly due to injuries and also because of increased depth. Left guard Robert Lindsey, center Parker Wade and right tackle Andrew Wood have started every game at their respective positions. Left tackle Jake Hawk has started eight of nine games, getting benched in favor of Ford Higgins against Central Florida. Right guard Evan Martin has has started every game except Tulane, which he missed due to injury and was replaced by Laurent Njiki.

“We’ve played a lot more guys this year than we have in the past. Some of that is because of injuries. We’ve had some guys banged up so we’ve had to keep rolling guys through,” Ingram acknowledged.

Some of those starters have gotten hurt during games and had to come out. Wood went down this past Saturday versus SMU and that led to senior Michael Raiford seeing the most significant action of his career. Higgins, who had played in every game as the top backup at both tackle spots, did not dress last Saturday due to an undisclosed injury.

“We did use Mike more and he played well. We need to continue to play him and develop him,” Ingram said of Raiford, who was switched to tackle from defensive end in August, 2016.

However, it is also due to having quality depth and wanting to utilize that strength to keep all the linemen fresh. Njiki has played in six games with the one start, missing a few games due to an injury. Massive sophomore David Forney has also emerged as a viable option at guard and has appeared in all nine games.

Ingram said Lindsey moved to right tackle after Wood got hurt and that opened the door for Forney to get significant action at left guard against SMU. The 6-foot-3, 318-pound Walkersville resident is the son of former Baltimore Orioles minor league pitcher Rick Forney (Annapolis High).

“Forney played as much as anybody at guard this past game,” Ingram said. “Forney is a talented young guy that is big and athletic. He has a very bright future if he’ll continue to work hard.”

Junior Bryan Barrett is another wide body, checking in at 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds. Barrett has now played in four straight games and saw the most extensive action of his career in relief of Wade against SMU.

“Bryan did really well. Looking back, I wish I would have played him more,” Ingram said. “If Bryan continues to develop he has a chance to be a really good football player for us. If he will work during the off-season I think he has a chance to be one of our better centers.”

Hawk has been up and down this season, struggling mightily during the Memphis loss. The Meade High graduate did not start the next Saturday versus UCF, but came off the bench and took the majority of snaps over the last three quarters. A film clip from the Temple loss showed the Severn resident completely whiffing on a block attempt and last week he was in and out of the game.

“Jake is doing fine. Like a lot of them, he’s a work in progress,” Ingram said.

Ingram readily admitted the improved depth has enabled the coaching staff to pull offensive linemen out of the game more quickly than they might have in previous seasons.

“I think it’s a good thing that we have more guys that can play. There have been times in the past when a guy would mess up and we’d just go ‘OK, he’s still the best we have.’ We’re to the point where if a guy messes up, we can pull him out and talk to him about it,” Ingram said.

“Because we can put another player in there that can execute what we want to do. So we have more depth. We finally have the depth where we can use playing time to hold people accountable.”

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE: Perry was not made available to the media following Saturday’s game because he suffered a sprained ankle during the fourth quarter and was walking with crutches afterward.

Perry was the story of the game, moving from slotback to quarterback and rushing for 282 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore sensation was a surprise starter over juniors Zach Abey and Garret Lewis, who have been the top two quarterbacks on the roster all season.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo was inundated with questions about Perry during Monday’s American Athletic Conference weekly teleconference. Niumatalolo praised offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper for preparing Perry to play quarterback.

“It’s amazing that in three days he was able to get game ready. If there is anyone that could get a kid ready that fast it’s Coach Jasper,” Niumatalolo said. “It was a huge risk. You’re asking a guy to move to the quarterback position in three days and function. I didn’t know if he could do it.”

Niumatalolo reiterated that he mentally made the decision to put Perry at quarterback after Abey was forced out of the Temple contest with a shoulder injury. He was willing to let the process play out during practice to be sure Perry could handle the position switch, but made the final decision toward the end of last week.

“I operate a lot off feelings. It was just a feeling I had when Zach got hurt that I was going to go with Malcolm,” Niumatalolo said. “I wanted people to know that this was my decision. Because if it was a flop I didn’t want to put it on Coach Jasper.”

Perry did not participate in practice on Tuesday or Wednesday and has been limping noticeably this week. In his first interview since the spectacular outing, Perry actually expressed disappointment with how he played.

“I wasn’t too happy with my performance. I had a couple good runs, made a couple good plays, but I also made some bad reads,” he said.

Perry was appreciative of the instruction he received last week from the coaching staff and the team’s other quarterbacks.

“I’ve got a great coach. Coach Jasper got me ready real quick, made sure I knew everything and had all the tools I needed to be ready to play on Saturday,” he said. “I had great support from Zach and Garret so that helped a lot.”

Perry played quarterback as a plebe, but did not receive many practice repetitions once the season got going. He switched to slotback during spring camp, but spent part of the time still practicing at quarterback.

“My prior experience playing quarterback in the spring and last season helped a lot. It wasn’t that tough a transition,” Perry said. “It’s kind of like riding a bike, but you do get rusty. You have to come back and work on your footwork, you also have to worry about different things.”

Perry is not expected to play on Saturday against Notre Dame and not even the coaching staff can be sure where this is going from here. Perry could be back playing slotback when Navy travels to Houston on Nov. 24 or could make another appearance at quarterback before the season is over.

“Wherever I can help the team get some wins is what I want to do. Wherever they see fit to put me I’ll be happy,” he said.

GOING BOWLING: Navy became bowl eligible for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons with the win over SMU. Former head coach Paul Johnson led the Midshipmen into the Houston Bowl in 2003, ending a six-year postseason drought.

Since then, Navy has gone bowling every except 2011 when it stumbled to a 5-7 record. With the Midshipmen mired in a three-game losing streak and facing a very difficult schedule to close out the season, there was some concern this might become the second losing season of Niumatalolo’s 10-year tenure.

Niumatalolo was clearly relieved to get the sixth victory and expressed frustration that some fans had written off this season.

“To be bowl eligible again, for this many years, shows the consistency of our program,” he said. “People were doubting and thinking the season was over. People were coming and offering me condolences. I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ We were going to keep fighting. We have tough kids and we’re going to fight to the freaking end.”

When Navy was an independent, athletic director Chet Gladchuk did a remarkable job of forging relationships that guaranteed the program a postseason landing spot. In fact, Gladchuk had existing contracts in place when the program joined the American Athletic Conference and the Midshipmen were allowed to honor those commitments.

As scheduled, Navy played in the Military Bowl and the Armed Forces Bowl in its first couple seasons in the American. So this marks the first year the Midshipmen don’t know their postseason destination.

Navy is now part of the American Athletic Conference bowl lineup and could wind up in any of seven locations. The AAC is currently affiliated with the Birmingham Bowl (versus an Southeastern Conference opponent), AutoNation Cure Bowl (Orlando, Florida vs. Sun Belt), Boca Raton Bowl (vs. Conference USA), Frisco Bowl (Frisco, Texas vs. at-large), Gasparilla Bowl (St. Petersburg, Florida vs. Conference USA), Hawaii Bowl (Honolulu vs. Mountain West) and Military Bowl (Annapolis vs. Atlantic Coast Conference).

USA Today currently projects Navy to play Virginia in the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Playing a postseason contest in its own stadium for the second time in three years is probably not too attractive for the Navy players, especially the seniors.

Chuck Sullivan, spokesman for the American Athletic Conference, said there is no hierarchy to the league’s bowl lineup. Sullivan did say the Cure Bowl would be slotted after the other six games this year.

“Basically, the conference assigns eligible teams to the respective games based on the attractiveness of the matchups, sensibility of travel and preferences of the schools,” Sullivan wrote in an email response to questions about the AAC bowl affiliations. “Contractually, the bowls do not get to select the teams, but we do try to avoid situations that would not be sensible for them.”

After the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowls are announced on December 3, the American Athletic Conference will assign its remaining teams to the contracted games.

INJURY REPORT: Starting nose guard Jackson Pittman returned to practice this week and participated in live contact drills after sitting out the SMU contest with a concussion.

Pittman returns just in time as Navy’s defensive front will face a stiff challenge against a talented and experienced Notre Dame offensive line. The 6-foot-3, 304-pounder is asked to take on double-teams and hold the point of attack while keeping blockers off the inside linebackers.

Sophomore Dave Tolentino (6-2, 294) started at nose guard in place of Pittman on Saturday and performed well, Niumatalolo said,.

Starting place-kicker Bennett Moehring will also be back after sitting out SMU with a leg injury. Moehring has been bothered by the lower body ailment for several weeks now and had ceded kickoff duties to sophomore J.R. Osborn. Punter Owen White handled place kicks last Saturday.

Starting inside linebacker Hudson Sullivan remains sidelined with a foot injury, but could possibly play at Houston on Nov. 24.

“Hudson will probably be back next week. We’re encouraged by his progress. They’re optimistic about him coming back for Houston,” said Niumatalolo, noting that team doctors initially feared Sullivan would be lost for the season.

MID BITS: ESPN College GameDay will air a feature piece on Jarren Jasper, who has been a source of inspiration for the Navy football team this season. Jarren, the 14-year-old son of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, is awaiting a heart transplant. Jarren had a heart assistance device implanted and has returned home after spending almost two months in the hospital. He has attended the last three Navy home games and is a routine visitor to practice. The Midshipmen are wearing a helmet sticker with the initials JJ inside of a heart in support of Jarren… Washington Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen of the Washington Capitals attended Saturday’s game against SMU to promote the upcoming “Coors Light Stadium Series.” Carlson and Niskanen helped unveil the Stadium Series logo then watched the game from the Navy sideline. Beforehand, they toured Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, which will host the 2017 Stadium Series game between the Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3 (8 p.m.).


NAVY @ NO. 8 NOTRE DAME

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 4, 11. RADIO: 1430 AM

LINE: Notre Dame by 17 1/2


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