Abey's career will come full circle with second start against Army

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Zach Abey will always be part of Army-Navy history.

In 2016, Abey became the first quarterback to ever make his first career start in the Army-Navy game. The Archbishop Spalding product was thrust into the spotlight on short notice after season-long starter Will Worth suffered a broken foot in the American Athletic Conference championship game the previous Saturday.

Don Abey coached his son in youth football and has attended every one of his games on the high school and college levels. In all those years, Zach Abey had always been calm, cool and collected going into a game.

“There is no doubt the magnitude of the Army-Navy game got to Zach that year,” Don Abey said. “It was the first time since Zach started playing football that I could look at him prior to the game and see he was really nervous.”

Abey had appeared briefly in two games that season before having to replace Worth in the second half of the AAC championship game against Temple at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Because Navy played on what was normally a bye week, the Pasadena resident had just three full practice sessions to prepare for the biggest game of his life up until that point.

Making the occasion even more momentous was the fact Army-Navy was played at M&T Bank Stadium in 2016. That venue is about a half hour away from where Abey grew up and he had a large contingent of family and friends in the stands.

Abey clearly had a case of the nerves during the first half, throwing two ill-advised passes that resulted in interceptions and also making some bad decisions in the option game. However, the untested sophomore looked like a completely different player in the second half, rushing for 73 yards and two touchdowns while leading a comeback that briefly gave Navy the lead.

“Obviously, I was really nervous,” Abey admitted when asked this week what he remembers about his first Army-Navy game. “In the second half, I started to slow things down and realized this is just another football game. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 6 years old. I was able to trust my ability and just played the way I know how.”

Unfortunately, Abey will also be remembered as the starting quarterback for Navy the year its historic 14-game winning streak against Army was snapped. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw directed the game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter as the Black Knights beat the Midshipmen, 26-17.

Abey spent that Saturday night at home and the disappointment he was feeling was visible, his mother said.

“After that game, Zach was really sad and upset. It seemed like he had the whole world on his shoulders,” Jeanne Abey said. “Zach felt like he didn’t do what he was supposed to do and let his brothers down. All we could do was hug and console him and tell him it was okay.”

A few days later, Don Abey tried to pick up his son by pointing out the perseverance and poise he displayed during the second half.

“After what happened in the first half, Zach could have crumbled. Instead, he pulled it together and played with a lot of composure,” Don Abey said. “I told Zach that he didn’t realize how much he had done for his military career by showing so much courage and determination in that game.”

Those words proved prophetic because a postcard arrived within the week from a four-star admiral based in Seattle saying exactly that.

“It basically said Zach showed a lot of character and grit and that he was the type of officer the Navy needed in the fleet,” Don Abey recalled.

After some twists and turns as well as some ups and downs, Zach Abey’s career has now come full circle. In a remarkable parallel, the last start of Abey’s career will come in the same setting as his first – the Army-Navy game.

“It is rather amazing how things have worked out. This is a chance to put an exclamation point, a final statement of sorts, on his football career,” Don Abey said. “Regardless of what happens on Saturday, we are really, really proud of Zach. He has done a lot of great things and represented the Navy football program the right way these last four years.”

Much has happened between Abey’s two starts at quarterback against archrival Army. The Spalding graduate excelled as the starting quarterback as a junior, suffered a shoulder injury that derailed the season, was benched, switched to wide receiver, endured a leg injury then returned to his former position.

Malcolm Perry started at quarterback during last year’s Army-Navy game and rushed for 250 yards and a touchdown. Abey was slated to serve as the short-yardage and goal-line quarterback that day, but wound up appearing for just two plays.

“We had a different game-plan with Malcolm going into last year’s Army game. My role was to be the short-yardage guy and I just had to respect the coach’s thoughts,” Abey said.

That plan continued into this season and Abey performed the job quite capably. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior made six starts at wide receiver and was effective as a blocker. He replaced Perry in short-yardage or goal-line situations and either picked up a first down or scored a touchdown on 17 of 25 carries.

Abey’s dual role ended on Nov. 3 when he started at quarterback against Cincinnati. He was understandably rusty and made some mistakes as the Midshipmen were dominated by the Bearcats defense during a 42-0 loss.

However, the triple-option offense began to click during the second half of the Central Florida contest and has operated rather effectively the last three games under Abey’s leadership.

This Saturday delivers the ultimate test as Army defends the Navy triple-option better than any opponent on the schedule.

“I feel very confident going into this biggest rivalry game with Zach as our quarterback. He’s healthy and has played well the last three games,” Niumatalolo said this week.

Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper recently watched the 2016 Army-Navy game and acknowledged thinking “it’s kind of weird how time goes by and things change.”

“Zach has come a long way since that game. He has grown up and matured,” Jasper said. “This is Zach’s last game and he’s ready to go. He’s had two good weeks of practice and is focused. He just needs to go out there and give everything he’s got.”

Jasper feels a responsibility to put Abey in the best position to be successful on Saturday. It would mean a lot to the veteran quarterbacks coach to have his most recent pupil play an important part in snapping a two-game losing streak to Army.

“Obviously, I want Zach to go out on a good note. I’m going to do the best I can to help him do just that by calling a smart game and playing to his strengths,” Jasper said.

This game has traditionally been a fistfight since Army and Navy know how to defend the triple-option better than any other teams in the country. It tends to be played between the tackles with both offenses having to earn every single yard. It would seem the perfect type of game for Abey, who loves nothing more than pounding the ball inside and running over or through would-be tacklers.

“Zach is a very physical runner so we have to take advantage of that. At the same time, we have to do some things differently and find a way to get the ball to our best players,” Jasper said. “We want to pound the ball inside with the fullbacks and Zach, but we also want to get the ball to our fast players on the outside.”

There will no doubt be some jitters when Abey trots out for the first series at Lincoln Financial Field, but he will not be nearly as nervous as he was at the start of the 2016 Army-Navy game.

“I’ve learned a lot over the last two years and I’m definitely much better off as a quarterback,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s just a game. You don’t want to over-hype things too much. That being said, I am really excited to play this game and I can’t wait until Saturday.”

Abey understands the challenge of moving the ball against the Army defense, which will crowd the line of scrimmage and sell out to stop the run. Standout inside linebackers James Natchtigal and Cole Christiansen will have their sights set on No. 9 and hitting the quarterback as hard as possible on every keeper.

Abey has faith his offensive line and fullback Anthony Gargiulo will create some holes.

“It’s going to be a grind-it-out kind of game. I think our guys up front are going to do a good job so I just need to follow them and follow Garge,” said Abey, who is prepared to absorb some punishment. “That’s what you get as a running quarterback so I’m ready for it. My body feels healthy and strong right now.”

Navy (3-9) enters the annual showdown against Army (9-2) with its worst record since the 2002 meeting. After obliterating the previous series record by winning 14 straight, the Midshipmen find themselves in the unaccustomed position of trying to salvage a season.

“Obviously there is a different feeling with this game. It’s our Super Bowl and it’s their Super Bowl. It means everything,” Abey said. “To come out with a win on Saturday would definitely turn the season around.”

Abey was asked this week how he would explain this great rivalry to someone who knows nothing about it.

“There’s a lot of pride that goes into this game. Most of us were under-recruited, but when we get out there on that field on Saturday we play like we were five-star athletes by our sheer will of wanting to beat the other team so bad,” Abey said.

“I think that pride really shows up in the Army-Navy game. We’re all going to serve our country so you play for the name on your chest. We’ll be enemies on the field this Saturday, but afterward we’re all fighting the same fight.”

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