GREENVILLE, N.C. — For the second straight game, the fullback was the Navy football team’s best friend.
Pounding fullbacks Nelson Smith and Jamale Carothers between the tackles has become a winning formula for the Midshipmen, who have found it is an ideal way to wear down the defense and shorten the game.
Smith rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns as Navy slipped past East Carolina, 27-23, on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Carothers contributed 82 yards and a score for the Mids, who have a two-game winning streak for the first time this season.
Thoses two fullbacks accounted for 239 of 288 rushing yards for Navy (3-2, 3-0), which moved above .500 and remained unbeaten in the American Athletic Conference.
“I think right now on offense, the fullbacks along with the offensive line have sparked our team. They’re running physical and getting hard yardage,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I’m proud of the way the fullbacks are running and proud of the way the offensive line is blocking.”
Everyone knows the fullback dive is the No. 1 element of the triple-option, setting the table for the quarterback keeper and slotback pitch. However, Navy does not always run the fullback straight up the middle. On this day, the Midshipmen did most of their damage on the right side with Smith and Carothers running behind guard Peter Nestrowitz and tackle Billy Honaker.
“We like hugging Billy Honaker and Peter Nestrowitz. I love running behind those guys,” Smith said. “It’s just a testament to our offensive line. Those guys were blocking their butts off. They opened the holes for us and we just hit them.”
With starting quarterback Dalen Morris knocked out of the game, it was up to backup Tyger Goslin to get the job done down the stretch. Goslin directed the winning touchdown drive and led the Mids to a pair of first downs on their final possession to prevent the Pirates from mounting one of their own.
“I thought Tyger did a really good job and was a big part of our win today,” Niumatalolo said. “That was a tough situation and he stepped right in and played well.”
Navy converted on fourth down twice late. Carothers scored a touchdown on fourth-and-2 to put the Mids ahead to stay, while Smith picked up the clinching first down on fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter.
“There’s no analytics, it’s all gut feeling,” Niumatalolo said of the fourth-down calls. “Those were gambles and it’s fortunate it worked out for us. If you don’t get those, it’s bad decisions and I would be the goat.”
Inside linebacker Diego Fagot returned after missing last Saturday’s game with an injury and recorded 12 tackles to lead a Navy defense that did just enough to win the game. Cornerback Michael McMorris, safety Kevin Brennan and outside linebacker Nicholas Straw totaled eight tackles apiece for the Midshipmen, who forced three field goals.
“I thought the defense played awesome today. They gave us a chance when we were struggling to move the ball on offense,” Niumatalolo said. “I thought our defense played lights out. Things could have gotten out of hand if our defense hadn’t played so well in the first half.”
Freshman tailback Rahjai Harris rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown for East Carolina (1-3, 1-2 AAC). Starting quarterback Holton Ahlers sat out, reportedly due to a positive COVID-19 test. Freshman Mason Garcia started in his place and completed just 10 of 20 passes for 104 yards, but rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Navy’s defense bailed out its mistake-prone offense for most of the first half, which ended in a 13-13 tie.
East Carolina reached the red zone on three straight possessions and was forced to settle for field goals by kicker Jake Verity each time. The Midshipmen came up with third-down stops after the Pirates had reached their 23-, 8- and 14-yard lines.
Carothers committed a fumble deep in his own territory, while Daniel Davies shanked poor punts of 20 and 33 yards to repeatedly set up the Pirates.
Those three straight empty possessions enabled East Carolina to erase an early deficit that came courtesy of two plays. Carothers ripped off a 20-yard run to jump-start Navy’s second possession and that set up a 20-yard touchdown trot by Smith that gave the visitors a 7-0 lead with 8:21 left in the first quarter.
Verity’s field goals enabled ECU to move ahead 9-7, but he had a third attempt blocked by Navy defensive tackle Tobe Okafor, who got a strong push up the middle.
East Carolina did not squander the short field it was given early in the second stanza. This time, Garcia directed a 44-yard drive that finally produced a touchdown that put the Pirates ahead, 13-7. Garcia got things going with consecutive completions for 19 yards then capped the drive by scooting into the end zone untouched of a designed keeper.
Navy responded with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was desperately needed. Smith delivered the big play, bursting off tackle and rambling 32 yards into East Carolina territory. Morris found wide receiver Ryan Mitchell on a crossing route to set up the score.
Morris called his own number, lowering the shoulder on a would-be tackler to power into the end zone from 9 yards out. Kicker Bijan Nichols missed the extra point and that left the score tied going into halftime.
A significant moment came on Navy’s second possession of the third period. Morris absorbed a late hit from outside linebacker Jireh Wilson and was knocked out of the game. Goslin took over at quarterback and promptly led a lightning-quick touchdown drive.
Smith did most of the damage on back-to-back plays, ripping off runs of 24 and 29 yards — the latter for a touchdown. Both big gains came off tackle as the Midshipmen changed their blocking scheme to counter the way the Pirates were playing the traditional fullback dive.
Navy’s defense came up with a huge stop on the subsequent possession. East Carolina coach Mike Houston went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Navy 47-yard line and the gamble back fired. Garcia could not find an open receiver and was dropped for a 2-yard loss while trying to step up in the pocket.
Navy’s offense took advantage of the superb field possession, marching 50 yards in 12 plays to extend the lead to 27-13. Carothers and Smith did almost all the damage as the Mids moved methodically downfield 4 and 5 yards per play.
Facing fourth-and-2 from the 3-yard line, Niumatalolo elected to roll the dice and came out a winner when Carothers plowed his way into the end zone as time expired in the third quarter. Nichols kicked the extra point to make it 27-13 going into the final frame.
That two-touchdown lead was short-lived as Harris broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown run just two plays later. Harris burst through a huge hole on the left side and the Midshipmen lost contain, allowing the talented freshman to race untouched down the left sideline to cut the East Carolina deficit to 27-20.
Navy played bend-but-don’t-break defense for the fifth time in the game after its offense failed to pick up a first down and was forced to punt. The Pirates got as far as the 15-yard line before losing 7 yards on consecutive plays.
Verity came on to kick his third field goal, this time from 39 yards, as the Navy lead was reduced to 27-23 with 6:33 remaining.
Navy still controlled its own destiny, clinging to the four-point lead. Sure enough, the Midshipmen succeeded in salting away the remaining clock thanks largely to another gutsy call by Niumatalolo.
Confronted this time with fourth-and-2 from his own 44-yard line, Niumatalolo became riverboat gambler again. Just as happened on the goal-line play, the fullback came through with Smith squirting through a small hole to narrowly pick up the first down.
Had Navy failed to convert, East Carolina would have only needed to move 44 yards for the winning touchdown.
“A lot of people would see that as a risk, but to be honest I don’t. I have full confidence in the coaching staff and full confidence in my guys to get the job done,” Goslin said. “It was just another play call and it was our culture versus theirs at that point.”
An official measurement confirmed the call and that kept the chains moving and the clock running. Navy wound up punting with 28 seconds left and that was not enough time for East Carolina to go the length of the field for the touchdown it needed.
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“It was really a culture play for us,” Smith said of the fourth-down conversion. “Our linemen had to get down and dig into the ground and I had to hit it as a fullback to make sure I got past the down markers.”