When it comes to the option, Navy's got quarterback options

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Ken Niumatalolo put his faith in a feeling.

Not statistics. Not analytics. Not social media suggestions or scientific studies.

He trusted his gut, and guess what that got him?

It got him a win, for starters. Niumatalolo’s Navy team certainly needed it, after losing three consecutive games for the second consecutive season. The most recent loss, a 34-26 defeat to 4-5 Temple on Nov. 2, was most confounding. The Midshipmen rushed for just 136 yards and 2.6 yards per carry, uncharacteristically puny totals for a traditionally potent option offense.

Something had to be done. But this? This seemed crazy.

Crazy or not, Niumatalolo replaced junior quarterback Zach Abey — the team’s established starter and leading rusher, who the coach says “probably could have played” with a shoulder injury — with a slot back. In fact, sophomore Malcolm Perry hadn’t practiced at the quarterback position since the previous spring. That meant zero reps in fall camp, and zero reps throughout the first two months of the season.

But now, with 6-3 SMU looming and half a week to prepare, it was high time for Perry’s first career start?

Really?

“We had struggled a little bit on offense in three straight games, and we just felt like we needed a spark, because our offense kind of sparks our whole team,” Niumatalolo said. “So when we started to struggle on offense I think it affected our entire team.

“Malcolm Perry is our best ball carrier, our most dynamic ball carrier. The quarterback carries the ball a ton in our offense so we just wanted to put the ball in our best guy’s hands.”

That’s what Niumatalolo did, and the results backed his reasoning. In a 43-40 victory over SMU, Perry — a 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore — rushed for 282 yards, 8.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns, the most memorable a 92-yard breakaway score. In all, the Mids piled up 559 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

In the aftermath, Perry was named the Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week and the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week.

“The kid is obviously very, very talented,” Niumatalolo said this week. “That’s not to say he was perfect (against SMU). He missed some checks, missed some reads. But he’s so dynamic with the football.

“We haven’t had a guy like him before. He is the best ball carrier in all my years of being here. Here he is in his first start and he almost rushes for 300 yards.”

How’s that for a first career start?

Actually, here’s a more pressing question: how did Niumatalolo know that Perry would flourish at a new position?

“It was a huge risk. I didn’t know,” the 10th-year Navy head coach admitted on Monday. “You’re asking a guy to move to a position in three days at the quarterback position and be able to function and operate and do everything and run our offense. I didn’t know if he could do it.

“I operate a lot off feeling. It was just a feeling that I had when Zach got hurt that I was going to go with Malcolm.”

But when it comes to Navy’s quarterback conundrum, is Perry a Band-Aid or the cure? The sophomore left the SMU game late with an ankle injury and is questionable for the game on Saturday at No. 9 Notre Dame. Abey’s shoulder continues to cloud his status. Should either be unavailable, junior Garret Lewis — who has thrown two touchdown passes this season in limited work — could also conceivably start.

When it comes to the option, Navy’s got options.

But which one(s) will Notre Dame (8-2) be forced to defend on Saturday?

“You've got two quarterbacks of different styles, but one's the leading rusher that didn't play last week because he's banged up, and then Malcolm Perry comes in and rushes for over 200 (yards against SMU),” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, providing more analysis than answers.

“So, obviously, you have to be able to play the triple option. You still have to be able to play both of them, and that's what makes them very difficult to defend.”

That unknown element could pay dividends for Niumatalolo and Navy (6-3) on Saturday. If Abey starts, Notre Dame is faced with a 212-pound padded tank accustomed to falling forward for extra yards. If Lewis starts, Navy adds a passing threat to keep the Irish honest.

And if Perry starts? Now there’s no question how Niumatalolo feels.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry run in for his first touchdown in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against SMU Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Annapolis, MD. (Paul W. Gillespie/The Baltimore Sun via AP)