In his two regular-season starts at quarterback, Navy sophomore Malcolm Perry ran for a total of 532 yards against SMU and Army West Point, displaying such speed and elusiveness that it was hard not to draw comparisons — however premature — with NCAA all-time scoring leader Keenan Reynolds.
There was only one question after he rolled up 250 yards against the Black Knights on a snow-covered field in Philadelphia three weeks ago. Since both terrific performances were achieved running largely out of a wildcat formation, would Perry have the same kind of success conducting Navy’s complicated triple-option offense?
It didn’t take long to get the answer. Perry ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns in little more than two quarters as the Midshipmen ran away from Virginia in the first half and scored a resounding 49-7 victory in the Military Bowl on Thursday afternoon before an announced 35,921 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
It also didn’t take long for junior quarterback Zach Abey (Archbishop Spalding) to make a very strong argument in his own favor, which bodes even better for the Mids going forward, since two highly effective quarterbacks would certainly be better than one.
“Just what you saw today is what you’re going to see,’’ coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “They’re both really good football players and we have to find a way to use them both. Just what you saw is what you’re probably going to see next year.”
Perry would leave the game early in the third quarter with a foot injury, but Navy fans still got a long look at their team’s future at quarterback. Abey also had a huge afternoon, scoring five touchdowns to break the Navy record for rushing touchdowns in a bowl game and tie the FBS record for rushing touchdowns in a bowl.
Here’s the final combined performance by both quarterbacks: 29 carries, 202 yards, seven touchdowns.
That probably doesn’t take all the sting out of losing the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy by a narrowly missed field goal earlier this month, but it helped the Mids finish the season with a winning record (7-6) and allows them to look ahead to a 2018 season of greater promise.
Niumatalolo indicated after the Army game that Perry likely would be the starter going forward, and nothing that happened Thursday figures to change that. Niumatalolo said recently that Perry is the most “dynamic” runner he’s been associated with in the two decades he has spent at the Academy as an assistant and head coach.
“The kid is phenomenal,’’ Niumatalolo said. “He brings a new dimension to our offense. To Zach’s credit, he played really, really well when he was in there, too. [Offensive coordinator] Ivin [Jasper] did a really good job preparing them both.”
Abey’s performance was historic. His five touchdowns are the third-most in Navy football history and he was named the Military Bowl’s Most Valuable player — but two of those touchdowns came on short runs at the end of drives engineered by Perry, who left the game on the fourth play of the third quarter with Navy leading 28-7. There was a bit of irony in the fact that Abey’s injury late in the season opened the door for Perry and it was Perry’s injury in the third quarter that allowed Abey to close out a huge and decisive victory over a Power Five opponent.
“I think it’s obvious that we’re two different styles of quarterbacks,’’ Abey said. “Obviously, Malcolm is more of an outside runner. He’s got the speed and the quickness, and I’m more of a between-the-tackles kind of runner. The game plan we had for this game and Army was basically, for short-down yardage I had a package in for short yardage and I would run just the normal plays we run for short yardage, and Malcolm will take the driving-down-the-field plays. That’s something I have to get used to, but at the end of the day I just wanted to come in and play the way I’ve been playing all year.”
There has been some speculation that Abey might change positions next season so that Navy can get more out of both players, something Niumatalolo would not entirely rule out. Abey said that he would be OK with whatever works best for the team.
“I don’t mind,’’ he said. “I’ll do anything. I told coach I’ll play receiver. I’ll play D-back. I just want the team to be in the best position to win the football. So, if coach thinks that we have to have a two-quarterback system, that’s fine with me.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.