One play early in the second quarter of last week's American Athletic Conference Championship Game revealed to Navy the fragile reality of playing a violent game.
Navy's Will Worth, who stunningly rose from third-stringer to record-setting quarterback, and slotback/co-captain Toneo Gulley each suffered season-ending foot injuries on the same play. What could have been a win sending the Midshipmen into the Cotton Bowl became a 34-10 loss to Temple that left them more vulnerable for Saturday's rivalry game against Army.
"We lost in more ways than one that game," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I've never been in a game like that before."
Navy's 14-game winning streak over Army now rests with sophomore Zach Abey, the team's third quarterback this season. He was fourth on the depth chart last spring before moving up to No. 3 in fall camp.
Tago Smith began the year at quarterback and suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of Navy's opening game. Worth replaced Smith, but Navy needed to pull No. 4 QB Malcolm Perry out of the stands while he was wearing his uniform whites since Abey was suspended for the game.
Now here is Abey, who grew up in nearby Pasadena, Maryland, wanting to play for Navy, turning the Army-Navy Game into his first career start.
"Just being around Annapolis growing up, seeing the Mids walk around, I've always wanted to show the pride they felt and wear the uniform on the field representing Navy on my chest," Abey said. "It's kind of a dream come true. It's really unbelievable."
Navy's latest injuries reflect the risk/reward of the school ditching its independent status to join the AAC in 2015. While Navy likes like that a conference brings extra money, exposure and incentive during the regular season, two of its best players are now out for Army.
"The AAC championship was great and all, but this is the game you look forward to playing here," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. "To miss that game, after both those guys were having such great seasons, it's tough. I feel for those two guys."
This marks the first time since 1941 that Navy has not had more than one week to prepare for Army. Navy will be playing its eighth straight game without a bye, while the Black Knights were off the past two weeks to prepare for Navy and then their second bowl game since 1996.
"I think for sure it gives us an advantage," Army linebacker Alex Aukerman said. "We've been preparing for them before Thanksgiving break. They've had to focus on two more teams. I definitely think it's something we should utilize for our advantage."
Starting in early October, Navy changed its routine from past years and prepared a little bit at practice each week for Army, knowing that a conference championship game might take up the Midshipmen's bye week. Most rivalry games across the country only allow for a week of preparation anyway. But Navy didn't want to be caught off guard for Army week since the Midshipmen have never experienced a one-week turnaround.
"I've thought about this many a night because the Army-Navy Game should be a standalone game, and we'd like to be in the conference championship game," Niumatalolo said. "Any way you cut it, it just doesn't work out great for us. Obviously, we would have loved to have won that [AAC championship] game, but even if you did, you still have to ramp it up one more time. It's kind of weird. It's like Alabama playing in the SEC championship and having to play Auburn the next week."
It's been a weird season for Navy (9-3), which preserved despite entering the year with the second most inexperienced offensive line in the country and then sustaining so many injuries. The Midshipmen have lost 10 players for the year with injuries, including six starters-- two of whom are co-captains and another two are quarterbacks.
At Army, cornerback Brandon Jackson tragically died in a car crash in September. The Black Knights (6-5) lost their four top cornerbacks during this season and are starting two freshmen safeties at corner.
"You call most defensive coordinators in the country and say, 'Hey, I'm going to take your top four corners away from you right now,' they wouldn't be able to function as a defense," Army coach Jeff Monken said. "Everybody is feeling that this time of year."
For Navy, Worth produced a storybook senior season no one saw coming. He was the FBS rushing touchdown leader (25 scores) and finished with the most efficient season ever by a Navy quarterback. Worth's 179.3 pass efficiency rating even topped Roger Staubach (168.6 in 1962) and Keenan Reynolds (162.1 in 2015).
Worth also broke Reynolds' single-season total offense record at Navy and had eight 100-yard rushing games, tying the school mark set by Reynolds, Napoleon McCallum and Eddie Meyers. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be a place-kick holder in 2016.
With Smith set to start at quarterback, Worth was the backup. But Jasper told Worth that Abey would likely play this season if blowouts occurred to groom him for 2017. In a sense, Worth was the backup in name only if something bad happened. And it did.
Smith, who waited his turn patiently behind Reynolds, tore his ACL in Week 1 during Navy's 52-16 rout of Fordham. Worth ran with the job and Abey became the No. 2 after returning from his suspension, which he attributed to a summer altercation.
"There wasn't much to it," Abey said. "I definitely wish I had that back because that's a game I could have gotten a lot more in-game experience. But I learned from my mistakes and move on."
This week, Smith and Worth are counseling Abey about Navy's triple-option game plan. Worth elected to delay surgery on his broken foot to help prepare Abey and be on the sideline in Baltimore.
"Will gets thrown in the game and everybody goes, 'Well, there goes the season,' but Will starts breaking records by himself," Navy wide receiver Jamir Tillman said. "Zach has been in that [quarterback] room for two years. It's not like we're just putting a baby in there that has no experience. Everybody is kind of questioning his abilities. I don't think so. The incredible part of what Coach Jasper does is he teaches them all equally. You would think there's a drop-off, but there's not."
Jasper said Navy's No. 2 quarterback gets as many reps in practice as the starter during the season, in stark contrast to most teams. Of course, most teams don't ask their quarterbacks to absorb the pounding of triple-option football.
Splitting reps in practice "is always important for me because that's as close to playing as you can possibly get," Jasper said. "Your body is learning to move with the muscle memory, you're learning to read keys, you're learning to train your eyes. You're not just sitting there getting mental reps."
Abey played in mop-up duties Nov. 19 and Nov. 26, including a 111-yard rushing performance on seven carries against SMU. Last week vs. Temple, Abey ran for 70 yards and completed 7-of-13 passes for 104 yards with two interceptions. Jasper blamed himself for one interception because of a play call and Abey didn't see a defender on another. He also made some misreads on option plays.
"I think the main thing is being comfortable with it," said Abey, who was a rugby player and wrestled in high school to keep in condition for football. "Will's told me you have to feel out what the defensive end is going to do, and it takes time in games to feel it out for yourself. Will told me it comes along as you get more game experience."
There's no more time for game experience. Army-Navy is here.
"It's not ideal losing your starter and another starter going down before your big game," Niumatalolo said. "But if there's anybody who can do it, it's Coach Jasper. The thing I feel fortunate about is I have the best option coach and quarterback coach in the country."
Now in his 15th year as Navy's quarterback coach and ninth as offensive coordinator, Jasper is one of the more underrated assistants in the country. Navy has been top 25 in scoring in each of the past two years and leads the nation in third-down conversions in 2016.
Jasper was among 40 nominees this year for the Broyles Award, which goes to the country's top assistant. Still, he has had only three head coaching job interviews through the years (Georgia Southern, Yale and Army).
"Would I like to be a head coach? Yes," Jasper said. "But at the same time, I don't want people outside this program thinking I'm sitting here and that it's my life goal and I'm pulling my hair out because I'm not a head coach. I'm happy where I am. Obviously, I know if it was a different offense [than the triple option], and we'd put up the same numbers, things might be different and I might have a head job.
"But I'm a realist. I know this offense isn't what people are looking for. People want to do things that are more exciting and throw the ball around. That's just the way it is. But I don't let it bother me. If the opportunity comes, it comes."
The opportunity has come for Abey, who initially committed to Buffalo but held out hopes for a Navy offer that later came. The opportunity has come for Navy to once again fit a new quarterback into its offense after four years of stability with Reynolds.
All that's at stake is Navy's winning streak over Army, which hasn't won this game since two months after 9/11.
"I feel like we have an extra chip on our shoulder to show everybody we still have that next man up mindset," Tillman said. "The biggest achievements come from the biggest adversities."