Navy offense churning along behind senior QB Will Worth

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Will Worth had a feeling.

No, Navy’s 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior quarterback did not expect to be thrust into a starting role in his senior season, a year after serving dutifully as the team’s holder and third-string quarterback. He didn’t predict a sudden ascension, either, to the tune of a team-high 618 rushing yards and 13 scores in Navy’s first seven games. The Valrico, Fla., native certainly didn’t foresee a 299-yard passing performance in last weekend’s loss at USF, an astonishing outlier in the run-dependent option offense.

He thought maybe he’d play — but not this much, and not this well.

“I had a feeling that something might happen senior year to get on the field, but I never thought it would be this drastic or that early in the season, either,” Worth said this week. “It’s definitely been a roller coaster this year. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of it.”

Unfortunately, Worth’s opportunity came at Tago Smith’s expense. Smith, who was set to assume command of the Navy offense following longtime standout Keenan Reynolds’ graduation, tore his ACL in the season-opening victory over Fordham.

But while the quarterback kept changing, Navy’s offensive efficiency never did.

“They just keep rolling offensively,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “They lose their starting quarterback. Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off. You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there's going to be a drop-off, but the production has been unbelievable.”

In Worth’s first career start, against UConn, the suddenly irreplaceable senior rushed for 44 yards and two scores and completed 6 of 8 passes for 130 yards, leading the Midshipmen on a touchdown drive to close the game and secure a 28-24 comeback victory over Bob Diaco’s Huskies.

It was a satisfying ending to a surreal, unforgettable week.

“That first week was a huge mix of emotions — being heartbroken for Tago and then excited also about the opportunity,” said Worth, whose grandfather initially attended Notre Dame before leaving when he was selected for Navy's ROTC program.

“I was just trying to take advantage of the opportunity to be able to lead the team. It’s worked out pretty well so far. I’m just trying to keep it rolling.”

How’s this for rolling? After defeating Tulane on Sept. 17, Worth became the first Navy quarterback to lead his team to back-to-back, fourth-quarter comeback victories since 2007. He rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown and passed for 76 yards and two scores on Oct. 8, helping the Mids topple No. 6 Houston. He was named American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week for the second consecutive week following Navy’s 42-28 victory over Memphis on Oct. 22, in which he rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 85 yards and two more scores.

Most importantly, Navy is 4-2 with Worth as the starting quarterback. The Midshipmen rank fifth nationally in rushing (296.6 rushing yards per game) and 32nd in scoring (35.4 points per game).

Not to mention, the guy can throw.

“Really, that’s one of his strong suits,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said of Worth, who has passed for 987 yards and six scores in seven games. “We just knew coming in, he’s a good passer. He’s a tough, hard-nosed runner. He’s not the flashy runner that Keenan and Tago are. But he’s more of a hard-nosed, tough, grind-it-out runner.

“But he’s always been a good passer. That has not been a surprise. We knew he could throw the football.”

Now, USF knows it. Memphis knows it. Houston knows it.

Notre Dame certainly knows it, too.

“Clearly the last few weeks, there has been a lot of man coverage (against Navy), opportunities to throw the football. Very difficult to run the ball,” Kelly said. “You didn't see as much option. You saw a lot of toss sweep because, again, (defenses) were in some pressure fronts.

“But they scored enough points to beat the No. 6 team in the country in Houston and almost came back and beat South Florida by scoring 45 points. So I don't know if that was necessarily the answer, either.”

Against Navy’s signature option offense, regardless of who the quarterback is, the answers are rarely obvious.

As for Worth, he’ll return to his home state of Florida on Saturday looking to rudely introduce himself to Notre Dame.

“I just try to not really think about anything outside of the field and take it day-by-day and keep working as if I was still the third-stringer,” Worth said.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Navy quarterback Will Worth (15) reacts after a play in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Memphis in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. His rushing touchdown attempt was called back after review. Navy won 42-28. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)