Lehigh defensive tackle Harrison Kauffman had Malcolm Perry dead to rights.
Kauffman broke into the backfield clean and was bearing down on the Navy quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder was literally about to make the tackle when Perry feinted right, then instantly changed directions and ran left.
Kauffman was left grasping at air as Perry snuck out the backdoor and proceeded to elude several other defenders while racing down the left sideline for a 62-yard gain.
“That was almost a bad call that Malcolm turned into a good call,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.
Lehigh became the latest opponent to discover how difficult it is to tackle Perry, who can make you miss in a phone booth. Navy’s lightning-quick and speedy quarterback showed off his dizzying array of moves in yet another spectacular performance.
Perry rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns while directing an offense that clicked on all cylinders as the Midshipmen routed the Mountain Hawks, 51-21, in front of 30,011 fans at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
While it may have seemed on the surface like an impressive performance, head coach Ken Niumatalolo was surprisingly unhappy afterward. In fact, the 11th-year mentor almost sounded as though he had just lost.
“I’m grateful we got the win, but I didn’t think we played very well at all. I thought we had a lot of mistakes,” Niumatalolo said. “We had way too many penalties, turnovers and missed assignments. We’ll take the win and run, but not happy with the way we played or coached.”
Sophomore slotback Myles Fells scored off a 52-yard run on his first career carry as Navy (2-1) took a commanding 34-7 halftime lead and never looked back. Kicker Bennett Moehring booted field goals of 45, 37 and 29 yards for the Mids, who amassed 629 total yards.
Sophomore slotback C.J. Williams also had a big game, catching three passes for 104 yards while picking up another 41 yards on three carries. Despite the gaudy statistics, Niumatalolo did not give the offense a pass on his critical post-game assessment.
“To score 51 points and rush for as many yards as we did is always good. I just didn’t feel like we played clean. There were a lot of mistakes,” he said. “The standard for the offense is high. A lot of good things happened, but I thought we missed a lot of things. I thought the kids played hard, but we left a ton of points out there.”
Navy’s defense played a big part in the lopsided win by forcing five turnovers. Defensive end Jarvis Polu and outside linebacker Walter Little both forced and recovered fumbles for the Midshipmen, who limited the visitors to 270 total yards through three quarters.
“That’s something we’ve really been emphasizing the last couple weeks in practice is turnovers. We have some crazy stat that when we win the turnover margin we almost never lose the game,” said outside linebacker Elan Nash, who contributed an interception. “We’ve been really focusing on getting the ball out, as well as those effort plays of running to the ball. It was great to see it pay off the last two weeks and hopefully that will continue throughout the season.”
Indeed, Navy is now 31-4 over the last six seasons when winning the turnover battle.
Hurricane Florence did not make an impact on Maryland and this game was played under clear, blue skies in Annapolis. Perry, however, was his own force of nature in breaking loose on several highlight-reel runs.
Perry set up Navy’s first touchdown with a 35-yard run off an option keeper that featured a 360 degree spin. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder scored from 5 yards out on the next play, waltzing into the end zone almost untouched.
Perry scored Navy’s second touchdown on a 24-yard run, finding a big hole on the left side and juking one defender out of his cleats en route to the end zone. Sophomore safety Jake Springer set up that score by recording his first career interception at the Lehigh 28-yard line.
“Malcolm is definitely the most dynamic ball-carrier we’ve ever had here, at least during my time,” said Niumatalolo, who has been at Navy a total of 21 years. “Some of the runs he made … I mean nobody else can make those runs.”
Perry only completed two passes on the day, but the first went for a huge gain. Lehigh’s safety bit on play-action fake and C.J. Williams was wide open down the middle. Perry hit sophomore slotback in stride and Williams seemed headed for his first career score, but was tripped up at the 1-yard line.
That allowed short-yardage specialist Zach Abey to take over at quarterback and grab another touchdown, increasing the Navy advantage to 21-7 with one minute remaining in the first quarter. It was Abey’s sixth touchdown of the season on only 11 carries.
Perry completed just 2 of 9 passes for 65 yards, missing on several good opportunities. He had Tazh Maloy running wide open down the middle of the field and overthrew the slotback. A poor decision led to an interception as Perry waited too long and wound up throwing into double coverage while missing another receiver who was wide open on a post pattern.
“We’re trying to evolve Malcolm and he has to improve on his passing in order for our offense to improve,” Niumatalolo said. “Malcolm is a competitor and he knows he needs to improve. A lot of spectacular runs, but there are some throws he would like to have back.”
Fells opened the second quarter with his 52-yard touchdown run, taking a pitch from Perry and turning the corner before turning on the afterburners and out-racing several chasing defenders.
Perry then completed his big day with a 30-yard touchdown trot in the third quarter – faking a pitch to shake one defender, making a sharp cutback to blow by another then side-stepping a third at the goal-line.
Niumatalolo wisely pulled Perry after that possession, which made the score 41-7 with 5:27 to go in the third period. Perry finished with a phenomenal average of 11.7 yards per carry.
It marked the third time Perry ran for 200 yards or more in a game. The Tennessee native established career-highs by rushing 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU last season then gained 250 yards versus archrival Army.
Garret Lewis took over at quarterback and immediately led another touchdown drive. Little laid a big hit on wide receiver Sasha Kelsey to cause a fumble that gave the home team a short field and Lewis completed a 39-yard pass to Williams along the right sideline to move the Mids into the red zone.
Lewis finished that 52-yard drive with a 4-yard run off a keeper and it was 48-7 going into the final frame. Navy emptied the bench in the fourth quarter as Niumatalolo gave a slew of reserves valuable playing time.
Freshman tailback Rashawn Allen had one of the few highlights for Lehigh (1-2), breaking loose for a 75-yard touchdown run on his team’s first offensive play from scrimmage. Allen got stuffed trying to run up the middle and was able to break outside when Navy outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie and cornerback Micah Farrar lost containment.
“That was a bad way to start on defense. We had a missed assignment there at the beginning,” Niumatalolo said.
Lehigh added two meaningless touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make the final score somewhat more respectable. The Mountain Hawks scored with 13 seconds left after recovering a fumble by third string quarterback Dalen Morris at the Navy 32-yard line.
“We couldn’t beat a high school team with the way we turned the ball over with fumbles and interceptions. That is something I am very disappointed about,” Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said. “Had we not been as sloppy with some of those things I think the game may have been a little more competitive.”