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COLORADO SPRINGS, CO. - With the annual Air Force-Navy rivalry set to renew tomorrow afternoon at Falcon Stadium, it’s anybody’s guess who’ll be under center for both teams.
It’s not an either-or-scenario for the Mids and Falcons but rather a who’ll-get-the nod situation for both squads.
Air Force senior Arion Worthman began the season as the starter and went the whole way in the 38-0 shutout over Stony Brook in the opener. Junior Isaiah Sanders got the nod in the loss at Florida Atlantic. Worthman started last week against Nevada but it was sophomore Donald Hammond III that came on in relief and nearly rallied the Falcons past the Wolfpack.
Navy doesn’t know who they’ll see the most of Saturday and Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun remained coy this week when asked refusing to tip his hand.
“What we always do is the work we do on Tuesday and the work we do on Wednesday, those days are the strongest determinants at who starts at any position, certainly quarterback, too,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun’s answer was as good of a stiff arm as you’ll see all afternoon by either team.
All three Air Force quarterbacks bring something a little different to the table but the one commonality is their ability to run the Falcons’ offense. That includes Hammond and his limited experience but oozes potential with his size and strong arm.
“The things we are going to ask a quarterback to do and where there are some similarities are certainly to understand the offense quite well and be very strong in their ball handling,” Calhoun explained. “They are going to have carries and then times when the ball has to be delivered downfield, too. With all three guys, we feel comfortable that way.”
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson and the staff have a game plan for each Air Force quarterback. But it was Hammond who caught his eye on film after Sanders was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
“You watch all three and they’re all good quarterbacks. They can really run, all three big physical kids. All three can run their entire offense,” Niumatalolo said. “I know whoever plays they’ll have him ready.
“(Hammond) threw that last Hail Mary, the ball traveled almost between 65 or 70 yards and threw it off one leg while scrambling around a little bit, so you know he has a cannon. One of the runs he went up the sidelines toward the end zone. The corner was waiting on him and he sort of ran over the corner and kept on running. I was impressed.”
Niumatalolo’s decision is a bit different, dealing with the injury bug to hit his team in the SMU. The Mids were forced to play four different quarterbacks in the overtime loss to the Mustangs.
Starter Malcolm Perry, fourth in the country in rushing yards per game (132.5), was knocked out of the game in Dallas with a concussion. Backup Zach Abey, who’s used in short yardage situations, suffered a sprained ankle. Third-string Garret Lewis is the best passer of the group and nearly rallied Navy to victory, though he was briefly out for a few plays with Dalen Morris coming on in relief.
With two weeks to prepare thanks to a bye week, Niumatalolo could opt to throw out a few new wrinkles tomorrow. Last year, Navy ran more zone option than straight triple option and caught Air Force a bit off guard.
Perry’s small 5-foot-9 stature and propensity for taking big hits with the large amount of carries he’s already had (86 with the next closest being 33 carries) have some whispering that a move back to slot back could be the best long-term move for the offense.
“You take the two service academy games from last year, (Perry) was absolutely extraordinary,” Calhoun said. “He’s a tremendous player and very, very dynamic. He’s a tremendous football player.”
Abey leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns this season but is still listed a questionable for tomorrow.
“I think has had a really good season,” Niumatalolo said of Abey, now a starting wide receiver. “He’s played as well as anyone on our team. Obviously, if we knew for sure if he’d be available, it would definitely help us.”
Injuries and game planning have made the quarterback questions a focal point of the first Commander-In-Chief Trophy matchup of the season. Navy’s annual team goal is to win the CIC Trophy but the Mids haven’t brought it back to Ricketts Hall in Annapolis since 2015.
“It all starts with this game,” Niumatalolo said. “You gotta win this one first and our guys recognize how important the Commander-In-Chief Trophy is for our program.”