Anthony Gargiulo would prefer to forget the 2017 Army-Navy football game.
It was one of those disappointing days that did not go well for Navy or its standout fullback.
Navy suffered a crushing 14-13 loss to Army when kicker Bennett Moehring’s last-second field goal narrowly missed. Gargiulo was helpless to impact the outcome since he did not get into the game for a single play, which was a surprising development to many observers.
Gargiulo, a fiery Italian with a wicked competitive streak, clearly was in no mood to discuss the events of December 9, 2017 when asked to do so during the Army-Navy media event at Lincoln Financial Field last week.
“What happened last year is in the past and now we’re preparing for this year,” Gargiulo said succinctly.
Gargiulo emerged as an important weapon in Navy’s offense toward the end of the 2017 campaign, taking over as the starting fullback and putting forth some strong performances. The 6-foot-2, 239-pounder rumbled for 145 yards and a touchdown in a big victory over SMU that got Navy bowl-eligible then added 87 and 71 rushing yards against Notre Dame and Houston.
Army-Navy football is traditionally a fist-fight since both defenses are so adept at defending the triple-option offense of the other. First downs are hard to come by and it seemed likely the Midshipmen would use their battering ram of a fullback to get the really tough yards up the middle.
As it turned out, Navy had a completely different game-plan – one impacted by a nagging injury that limited Gargiulo’s practice availability.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper moved Malcolm Perry from slotback to quarterback for the second time that season and had him operate primarily out of a shotgun formation.
It was hard to find fault with that game-plan after Perry ran for 250 yards and a touchdown while finding seams in a zone blocking scheme. It was almost a repeat of the SMU contest when Perry rushed for 282 yards and four scores.
Two factors played a role in the coaching staff’s decision to use Chris High and Josh Walker as the fullback’s against Army. First and foremost, Gargiulo had not been able to practice much within the unique formation that saw the fullback line up deeper in the backfield alongside the quarterback.
“Sadly, I suffered a minor injury during the bye week that kept me out of practice. I came back the week of the game and was able to practice a couple days,” Gargiulo said. “It was painful, but nothing that would have stopped me from playing.”
Skill set and playing style were the second factor.
Gargiulo is a pile-driver who does his best work out of the traditional triple-option set in which the fullback takes a three-point stance directly behind the quarterback about three yards from the line of scrimmage.
When Navy goes into shotgun, the fullback is positioned roughly six yards deep and does not put his hand in the dirt. High and Walker both possessed the athletic ability to hit the holes quicker while starting from further back.
“I think it was just a case of the coaches were feeling Chris on that day and wanted to see what he could do,” Gargiulo said. “Chris was definitely the faster fullback out of the two of us – the lighter and more agile one.”
Fullbacks coach Mike Judge said afterward the shotgun set and zone blocking scheme “wasn’t Anthony’s type of football game.” Asked this week about how things transpired, Judge also noted that Gargiulo was not 100 percent physically because of an ankle injury that occurred when an offensive lineman fell on it during a practice.
“We just felt like Chris and Josh gave us a better chance that day based off the conditions and the game-plan,” Judge said.
Fans watching in the stands or on television were unaware of those various reasons when wondering why Navy’s most productive fullback during the latter half of last season was not playing.
“Me and my family were very surprised,” Sal Gargiulo said when asked about being in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field and never seeing his son come off the sideline. “Anthony had such a great season and really beat up on Notre Dame. We fully expected Anthony would make a major impact on the Army-Navy game. I guess the coaching staff just didn’t feel comfortable that he was completely healthy.”
Niumatalolo understands it was a difficult situation and felt bad afterward that Gargiulo did not get a single snap.
“Obviously, you care about all your players and always want them to do well. Ultimately, you have to do what you think is right to win the game,” the 11th-year head coach said. “I really don’t want to dwell on what happened last year. Anthony is an important part of our offense and I’m excited that he’ll have a chance to help us beat Army this year.”
After Moehring’s 48-yard field goal attempt barely missed wide left in the wind and swirling snow, his own circumstance was the last of Gargiulo’s concerns.
“I felt bad for the seniors that they didn’t get to go out with a win over Army,” he said. “I felt bad for Bennett because we didn’t set him up in the best position. Those two offsides penalties pushed us back and made that kick more difficult for him.”
In terms of not getting the opportunity to play in the Army-Navy game, Gargiulo could only think of the misfortune of suffering a sprained ankle at the absolute worst point of the season.
“I did feel bad for myself because I got hurt and made it questionable as to whether or not I could play,” he said. “Thinking back to the practices leading up to the game, maybe I wasn’t pushing hard enough to show the coaches I was ready. Everything comes into question when things don’t go well.”
One of the reasons why teammates voted Gargiulo as the offensive team captain is because he always kept his head down and worked hard even when not playing on Saturdays. The New Jersey native never said a word to anyone about not getting to play against archrival Army.
“Once it happened you couldn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t about to question the coaching staff’s decisions or say we should have done this or that,” Gargiulo said. “There are a lot of things we could have done or should have done differently in that game, but what happened is what it is and we had to just keep pushing forward.”
What took place a year ago sets up a scenario in which Gargiulo can gain a measure of redemption. Navy’s battering ram of a fullback has battled through a sore quadriceps to reclaim the starting job and gained some tough yardage between the tackles the last three games.
“I definitely believe that I’m at the top of my game right now and I’m feeling really good physically,” Gargiulo said.
Judge agreed with that assessment, adding that Gargiulo has stepped up his game after briefly losing the starting job midway through the season to sophomore Nelson Smith. Navy’s senior captain enters the Army-Navy game with 389 rushing yards, almost half of which have come in the last three games.
“I think Anthony realized that his senior season was coming to a close and it was now or never. So I definitely believe there was a heightened sense of awareness,” Judge said.
“Anthony has been very focused in the meeting room and locked in during practice. I know Anthony is really looking forward to this last opportunity and I’m expecting him to really get after it and help lead us to victory.”
Gargiulo could bury the bad memory of last season’s result and having to watch it all unfold from the bench by having a big game against Army.
“Being that it’s the last game in general makes it more important. I definitely feel compelled to do better because this is it for me and the entire senior class,” he said.
“With the season we’ve been having, it would be huge to be able to beat Army and go out feeling good about ourselves. Honestly, I just want to win. I could be out there for two plays, but if we come out on top that’s all I care about.”
Sal and Lisa Gargiulo will have at least 14 family members in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field and are feeling confident their son will have a larger role this time around.
“My gut tells me that Anthony is going to have a big game,” Sal said.