By Jeff Wilson
FORT WORTH, Texas – Nearly 58 minutes remained and 86 points were yet to be scored Friday afternoon when coach Ken Niumatalolo said the outcome of the 14th annual Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl tilted against the No. 25 Navy Midshipmen.
A pitch from quarterback Zack Abey bounded to the ground and into the hands of the other team on Navy's second offensive play of the game. Moments later they trailed by 10 points.
Though the Midshipmen ultimately took the lead later in the first half and were tied with only three second left in the game, their only turnover of the game gave Louisiana Tech an extra chance, stripped the grind-it-out Navy offense of a chance, and was the difference in a last-second 48-45 loss at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
"That turnover was huge," Niumatalolo said. "It just gave them the ball back. And they're so potent on offense. You don't want to give them the ball back. And before you know it, we get the ball back we're down 10-0. It was turnovers more than anything that killed us."
Abey, the third-string QB, ultimately accounted for three touchdowns and was selected as the MVP for the losing team after throwing for 159 yards on 7-of-12 passing and rushing 25 times for 114 yards.
He was much more comfortable than in the Dec. 9 loss to Army, his first career start. His TD pass covered 64 yards to Darryl Bonner, and he scored on TD runs of 3 and 2 yards. Chris High rushed for two scores, including a 24-yarder on the first drive of the second half to forge a 31-31 tie.
"I grew as a quarterback just knowing the mistakes I made, and I tried to capitalize that throughout the week in practice," Abey said. "I tried to practice knowing that I come in the game as a game situation. I felt pretty comfortable out there today. I feel like the guys trust me. I trusted the guys. So, it went well."
Down 45-38 in the fourth and with Abey on the sidelines nursing an injury, fourth-string quarterback Malcolm Perry ran 30 yards for the tying score with 3:46 remaining.
Navy, though, had no answer for the Louisiana Tech passing game, not just in the waning minutes but throughout the contest that pitted foes from the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA.
C-USA MVP Ryan Higgins went 4-for-4 on the final drive, including a 21-yard play to Carlos Henderson, to help set up Jonathan Barnes' 32-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Higgins repeatedly found wideout Trent Taylor, the Bulldogs' game MVP who set LMAFB records for receptions (12) and receiving yards (233). Navy knew that the Louisiana Tech featured the NCAA's third-ranked passing offense, yet couldn't stop the Higgins-to-Taylor combo.
"He's their leading receiver and he's been doing great all year," Niumatalolo said. "You know he's their primary guy, but he's tough to stop. They put him in the slot, and he does a lot of different things. Got some matchup problems. And everybody on our defense knows they're throwing the ball to him and still can't stop him."
When Navy thought it had slowed down the Bulldogs, penalties uncharacteristically bit the Midshipmen. Two pass-interference penalties kept alive a fourth-quarter drive then ended with Louisiana Tech taking a 38-31 lead.
The 70 penalty yards against the Midshipmen were the most in the Niumatalolo era.
"I hate doing that to LA Tech because they played a great game and their kids are really good and they made plays, but I thought there were a lot of bad calls," he said. "Two of the PIs I can see, I thought were bad calls. That's part of the game."
Navy, which battled injuries all season long, finished with three straight losses, and Louisiana Tech denied Navy of the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in program history. Navy's seniors were attempting to be the first senior class to go 4-0 in bowl games.
It all can be traced back to a turnover only 2:09 into the game.
"The turnover, [like] Coach said, it's something that we can't have early on in the game, especially knowing that they have a high-scoring offense," Abey said. "So, it's definitely on me. But I thought as a whole, we all fought hard."
Said cornerback Jarid Ryan: "I feel like this ballgame was the definition of our season. It was the next man up. Throughout the season we faced adversity through injuries, calls, or anything that faced our way. I think our team just fought through it. And that's the big part of our culture and big part of what we teach."