Navy offense finds a spark in 35-24 loss to No. 12 UCF

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

ORLANDO – Navy’s offense may finally have found its stride during the second half of Saturday’s game against 12th-ranked Central Florida.

Another big halftime deficit along with the continued inability to get a defensive stop doomed the struggling Midshipmen to a seventh straight defeat. However, there was a silver lining as the offense put together several long drives.

Quarterback McKenzie Milton put on a show with both his arm and legs as UCF remained unbeaten by handling Navy, 35-24, before an announced crowd of 44,738 at Spectrum Stadium.

Milton completed 17 of 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns to lead Central Florida, which raced to a 21-0 lead then simply outscored Navy the rest of the way. The talented 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior also ran for 62 yards and a score as the Knights improved to 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the American Athletic Conference.

Tailbacks Adrian Killins and Greg McCrae combined for 184 rushing yards for UCF, which punted on the game’s opening possession then did not do so again until late in the fourth quarter. Head coach Josh Heupel, who serves as his own offensive coordinator, did a superb job of mixing the run and pass as the Knights rolled up 497 total yards.

Quarterback Zach Abey directed three touchdown drives as the Midshipmen managed to move the chains consistently enough for offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper to get into a play-calling rhythm.

Jasper was able to mix triple-option plays with mid-line option calls while getting the quarterback, fullbacks and slotbacks involved as Navy amassed 374 rushing yards, second-highest total of the season.

“We got it going in the second half. I thought we played a really good second half,” Abey said. “Those guys up front did a really good job, we got confident, had some nice play calls and showed what we could do.”

Abey rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries to lead Navy (2-8, 1-5), which now has its longest losing streak since the 2002 season that resulted in a 2-10 record. This marks just the second losing season for the Midshipmen since that forgettable year, the first under former head coach Paul Johnson.

Slotback Tre Walker added 82 rushing yards with more than half coming on a long run that set up a field goal toward the end of an otherwise disappointing first half for Navy. Slotback Malcolm Perry contributed 69 yards on nine carries.

Navy’s fullbacks had their most productive outing since the season opener at Hawaii with Mike Martin teaming with starter Anthony Gargiulo to total 105 yards. Gargiulo ground his way up the middle for 54 tough yards on nine attempts while Martin was very effective in a limited role with 51 yards on just four totes.

“That’s who we are, that’s what we have to be,” Abey said of the balance among the various ball-carriers.

Abey led Navy on a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives that lasted 11 and 10 plays, respectively. The Archbishop Spalding product scored on runs of 5 and 8 yards as the Mids possessed the ball for more than 23 minutes in the second half.

“We’ve always had it in us. I know lots of people say we suck this year, but we don’t,” Abey said. “Halfway through the second quarter we realized we can play with these dudes. Our offensive linemen were knocking those guys off the ball. You could tell they were getting tired.”

Unfortunately for Navy, many of the issues that have derailed the offense throughout the seven-game losing streak cropped up during the first half.

Walker took a pitchout and raced 15 yards down the left sideline as the Mids approached midfield on their second possession. Abey followed with a nice gain into Central Florida territory, but had the ball stripped by free safety Richie Grant. Middle linebacker Pat Jaskinski recovered for the Knights, who capitalized on the turnover by scoring a touchdown.

Abey was making the right reads and doing a good job of distributing the ball as Navy drove into UCF territory on its next possession as well. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior gained 4 yards on fourth-and-three at his own 32-yard line to keep the drive alive.

The Mids faced another fourth down situation eight plays later and this time Abey did not convert. On fourth-and-one from the UCF 33-yard line, Abey dropped the snap from center Ford Higgins and was smothered for a 1-yard loss.

“We just had a lot of mistakes in the first half. We had two drives that we could have scored on and that would have made it a different game,” Abey acknowledged. “Those mistakes in the first quarter, mistakes by me, are what we’ve got to eliminate.”

Those two lost offensive opportunities were pivotal because Milton and company could not be stopped in the first half. Milton threw the ball accurately and killed Navy with well-timed scrambles out of the pocket as Central Florida put together touchdown drives of 86, 62 and 75 yards in grabbing the 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter.

“Zach didn’t start off so well. That turnover hurt us and so did the botched center-QB exchange,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Those two plays are huge. Those are two possessions you can’t lose against this team. If we score on those we’re right in the game.”

A perfectly-executed triple-option play wound up with Walker taking a pitch and rambling 46 yards to the UCF 14-yard line. Navy had second-and-goal from the 3-yard line when right tackle Andrew Wood committed a false start that proved costly. Instead of scoring a touchdown, the Mids had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by kicker Bennett Moehring.

“Yea, the second half was encouraging, but the first half was just the way this season has been going. We had some promising drives that we couldn’t finish,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.

“It’s been a tale of two halves all season long. We found some things and got it going in the second half, but we have to do that for a whole game. This playing well for one half is unacceptable,” Jasper added.

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