Perry runs, Bijan Nichols kicks Navy past Kansas State in Liberty Bowl
By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: January 1, 2020
MEMPHIS — The list of accomplishments Navy had already ticked off by the time it arrived at the Liberty Bowl on Tuesday was varied and profound.
The Midshipmen had already completed the rarest of swings, becoming just the fifth Football Bowl Subdivision program to go from double-digit losses (3-10 in 2018) to double-digit wins (11-2 in 2019) in a single season. They had already won their first Army-Navy game since 2015, snapping a deeply felt losing streak. They had already etched a quarterback, senior Malcolm Perry, into their school record books many times over.
That left little else to do but close the decade with some flair. To tick off that final to-do, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo chose to dial up a trick play on fourth down with less than 30 seconds remaining in a tie game. It set up the Mids' final win of the season, 20-17, over Kansas State.
No. 23 Navy's victory Tuesday provides the fifth win in the team's past six bowl games as well as a cap on a turnaround season that neutered last year's cries about a stale program.
This year, the Mids' will finish ranked in the top 25 for just the third time in the past 56 years. Perry, named the game's MVP, notched a school-record sixth 200-yard career rushing game by compiling 213 yards, setting an FBS single-season rushing record by a quarterback. With one final game in his home state, the senior closed his Navy career with 2,017 yards in 13 games, blowing past Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois' previous record of 1,920 yards (in 14 games) set in 2013.
"He'll go down in history as one of the best quarterbacks that's ever played for the Naval Academy," Niumatalolo said, a statement equally true about the 2019 season in the Mids' record books. This 11th win tied a school record set in 2015.
To do it, the Mids needed to show a little moxie.
On that fourth down, wide receivers coach Mike Yokitis suggested to Niumatalolo a halfback pass. Perry tossed to junior slot back CJ Williams, who lobbed the ball downfield to sophomore wide receiver Chance Warren for a 41-yard gain to put the Mids on Kansas State's 5.
Freshman Bijan Nichols sealed the win moments later - after Wildcats Coach Chris Klieman used all three timeouts in an effort to ice the kicker - on a 23-yard field goal that more than made up for a kick he missed earlier in the game.
"We gave them two plays. I was hoping we would have gotten the first down," Niumatalolo said. "I was like, 'OK, if we don't get the first down we're going to throw the halfback pass, but I was hoping we got the first down so it wouldn't come to that. When we didn't get it, I was like, 'Oh crap.' But Malcolm took some time off, showed great composure. . . . CJ threw a great ball and Chance came up with a great catch.
"Sometimes you take gambles, man. I can't explain it. There wasn't anything like a report or something that said, 'This is the time to do it.' We just did it."
Kansas State scored just one offensive touchdown all game - a quarterback sneak with a little more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter from Skylar Thompson after he found receiver Wykeen Gill for two big gains to get in position. At the time, it injected some drama into a second half Navy otherwise controlled after pulling ahead 17-10 early in the third quarter on a touchdown run from Warren.
Just before Thompson's score, Nichols had missed a 38-yard field goal that would have put the Mids up two possessions with less than nine minutes to play.
"Obviously, you never want to miss, but when you do, you want to make sure you have an opportunity to bounce back," Nichols said.
The Wildcats' other two scores came in the second quarter - a 66-yard punt return from Phillip Brooks and a 39-yard field goal from Blake Lynch. Thompson completed 10 of 14 passes for 124 yards for Kansas State.
"Their defense did a nice job of keeping us out of rhythm a little bit," Klieman said.
Navy held the Wildcats to a season-low 170 yards, including 80 rushing yards - a blight for a team that averaged 189 rushing yards. The Mids gained 421 yards of total offense in comparison, including 323 rushing yards.
Perry completed 5 of 7 passes for 57 yards but as usual, did his most damage on the ground.
"I still really can't believe it," the senior said about setting an FBS single-season rushing record. "At the same time I know the guys up front, the O-line, the a-backs and the wide receivers as well, blocked their butts off all season. So it's just a testament to how hard they worked all season, how hard they worked in the offseason and how it translated to the game."
The first half was a defense-dominated 30 minutes, with Blake Lynch closing the scoring with a 39-yard field goal with just over two minutes remaining to knot the game at 10. The drama was still to come in the fourth quarter.
"To beat a team like Kansas State, that beat Oklahoma, I mean, that's a good football team," Niumatalolo said. "I knew early on on offense it was going to be a grind. . . . It was a grind. It was tough. But I love the way our defense played, kept us in the game, gave us a chance to win. I mean, to hold those guys under 100 yards, that's phenomenal. They played really, really well."