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Oct. 11, 2017

Zach Abey said he’ll remember it the rest of his life, while coach Ken Niumatalolo openly wondered why he was so blessed to coach this group of Midshipmen.

It will be remembered as ‘The Drive,’ and no one who witnessed the eight-play, 75-yard march to victory will ever forget how improbable it seemed.

In the aftermath of a heart-pounding, 48-45 win over archrival Air Force – the most exciting Navy win in anyone’s recent memory – quarterback Zach Abey summed up the emotion of the moment perfectly, and he needed just four words:

“Wow…that really happened!”

Yes, it did. It happened because Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman was positioned to steal Saturday night’s stage. It took over 58 minutes, but he finally overcame three different 21-point deficits to lift the Falcons into a stunning, 45-41 lead. Staring at a potentially devastating loss, Abey had just 1:53 to play and was 75 yards away from redemption.

But instead of folding, Navy rallied and the events that followed will be told and re-told over and over as part of Navy lore. Abey drove the Mids down the field, throwing the game-winning, 16-yard touchdown to Tyler Carmona with 15 seconds left. Just minutes earlier, a stadium-record crowd of 38,792 soaked by the thick drama, was sullen. Now their emotions had been rescued from defeat, and they responded in delirious bedlam.

It’s too soon to tell if Abey cements his name among Navy’s legendary quarterbacking fraternity, but if he does, the Air Force game on Oct. 7, 2017 will be remembered as the day he staked that claim.

That it happened against the Falcons is important, because this is how a legend is born, from situations and games like Saturday’s. Notre Dame is a marquee game, and after 134 years as a major independent, American Athletic Conference games are important, too. But you cannot ascend to the lore – as a player or coach – without winning two games: Air Force and Army.

“If Army is the game you’re at Navy to win, Air Force is the game you cannot lose,” Niumatalolo said last winter during an interview for Navy Football: Return to Glory. And he’s right; the winner of Navy-Air Force has won the Commander-In-Chief Trophy the last 20 years.

After uncharacteristically losing to both Air Force and Army last season for the first time since 2001, the goal of regaining the CIC Trophy remains on track. That’s still possible only because Navy executed on the biggest play of the game – no, not Malcolm Perry’s 91-yard sprint for a score or Abey’s 75-yard touchdown – a 25-yard pass to Brandon Colon on fourth and 3 from the Navy 32.  It was a daring play call that required Abey to roll right to buy himself time before threading a rope to Colon, whose 39-yard reception keyed the game-tying drive at Tulsa the week before.

Without that conversion, Carmona’s catch doesn’t happen.

“We were on the sidelines before (Air Force) kicked it off, and we all knew … we didn’t really talk that much,” Carmona said of the winning drive Abey led. “We started doing signals … our old, classic offense … that fourth down was a big play.”

This is what a leader does. No matter who is watching, without yelling and screaming, they lead by example, their play speaking for them instead. As the clock dipped under a minute, Abey found a way to push Navy all the way down the field, reading the defense and refusing to abandon the run just because the clock created pressure to do so.

He handed the ball to Darryl Bonner three times, who picked up 20 yards. Chris High went 10 yards on a fullback dive, and he called his own number once for four more yards.
His stats on that final drive weren’t spectacular; he was just 2 of 6 for 41 yards, although one of those incompletions was intentionally spiking the snap to stop the clock. But a last-gasp, winner-take-all drive isn’t about how you get there. Finding Carmona on a post route for the game-winning score was merely the result.

“I overthrew a couple balls that would have allowed us to score earlier … but maybe it was a blessing we scored when we did, because we didn’t leave them too much time to answer,” Abey said. “It was a legendary drive and I’m glad to be part of it with the team. Whenever we drive past the stadium, or when we graduate at the stadium, we’ll remember that drive. It happened.”

Just thinking of Abey to Carmona evokes the memory of Navy players who emerged as last-second heroes against Air Force, a big chapter in Navy’s renaissance of the past 15 years:
*  2004: Geoff Blumenfeld boots a 30-yard field goal on the final play of a 24-21 win. This was the year Paul Johnson infamously said the Mids had the “worst kicking game in America” after missing four field goals and an extra point in their first four games.
*  2005: Joe Bullen’s career-long 46-yard field goal pushed the Mids past Air Force, 27-24. The Mids had trailed, 24-17, with 4:26 left but rallied with a Reggie Campbell touchdown and Bullen’s kick, which came with just four-tenths of a second on the clock.
*  2008: Blake Carter ran a blocked punt back 25 yards for a touchdown and blocked another punt that Navy covered for a touchdown in a 33-27 win.
*  2009: Joe Buckley boots a 38-yard field goal in overtime, and when Eric Soderberg’s 31-yard attempt for Air Force sailed wide of the left upright on the final play, Navy took a 16-13 win.
*  2012: Jake Zuzek, an offensive lineman, recovered Keenan Reynolds’ fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, and Wes Henderson batted down a fourth down pass to seal Navy’s 28-21 overtime victory at Air Force.
Considering Abey’s played 10 games and started just seven, he already sharing elite company within Navy’s storied history. His gaudy stats – players call them “video game numbers” – point to Abey’s emerging presence in the huddle and under center as a decision-maker. But watching Navy rally in epic fashion Saturday night made Niumatalolo reflect on Abey’s maturation right in front of his eyes.

“The kid’s a good football player, and we’ve known that,” Niumatalolo said flatly in the postgame press conference, his voice drained by the day’s emotion. “It’s been shown on Showtime (A Season With…), but the first game (against Florida Atlantic) I’m yelling at him and I didn’t realize he had 200 yards at halftime. … The kid’s come into his own, but he’s humble, he comes to work every day. You get on him and he just nods yes and keeps going.”
Now 5-0 for the first time since 2004 and just the fourth time since 1960 (the 1978 team started 7-0 under George Welsh) the Mids ready for 5-1 Memphis, who tore through Connecticut last week, 70-31. They’re also ranked for the first time this season, earning the No. 24 spot in the USA Today Coaches Poll and the final slot in the Associated Press’ Top 25 Media Poll.  With Abey hitting his stride as a play-caller, passer and leader, the Midshipmen are poised to continue to march as the hustle moves on to Memphis.

But if you’re wary of a letdown following the emotional high, Abey has other plans.

“This is what is expected of a quarterback, to be the leader, be the example to follow and set the bar high.”

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Navy Football: Return to Glory, which releases Oct. 9 from the History Press and available at all major retailers, in addition to iBooks and Amazon.


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