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What if Will Worth and Toneo Gulley didn’t get hurt on the same play in the 2016 AAC Championship game?

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For SB Nation’s “What If?” week, we take a look at a play that altered the outcome of Navy’s 2016 season.

Navy quarterback Will Worth rounds the corner on a run during a 2016 homes game vs. Memphis.
(Mitchell Northam / Against All Enemies)

Will Worth wasn’t supposed to be Navy’s starting quarterback in 2016.

After record-setting and electric play-maker Keenan Reynolds graduated, the job was left for Tago Smith. Like Worth, Smith was a fellow rising senior heading into that season, but had the chance to prove himself in spurts playing behind Reynolds. When given the chance, Smith showed that he was capable of leading Navy to victories: like in 2014, when he scored four touchdowns in a win over Texas State. Worth never got that luxury. Before his senior campaign, Worth had logged one throw and three rushing attempts in his collegiate career. And with Smith at the helm, it looked like he’d be playing backup duty again for his final college football season.

Then, in the second quarter of Navy’s season-opener against Fordham, Smith twisted his knee. Onlookers immediately knew: this ain’t good. Indeed, he had torn his ACL. Smith was done.

Former Navy quarterback Tago Smith stands on the sidelines during a 2016 home game vs. UConn.
(Mitchell Northam / Against All Enemies)

Worth entered that game and — in his first of many heroics for Navy — Malcolm Perry came out of the stands to suit up as the third stringer, should the Mids need him.

Navy spanked Fordham, and the following week needed a last-second goal line stop to beat a not-so-good UConn team by four points (the Huskies would finish 3-9 in what was Bob Diaco’s last season on the job).

And Worth was okay in those two games, but not great, rushing for just 66 yards on 28 carries. He did, however, complete 9-of-11 passes for 208 yards and no picks, showing poise on Navy’s rare throwing attempts. Still, there was doubt in the potential of this team. In the fourth game of the season, Worth finished with negative rushing yards and two picks in a two-touchdown defeat at the Air Force Academy.

A week later though, Navy’s fortunes changed again. They ran out of the tunnel at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to Drake’s “Summer 16,” a hit at the time with a hook that rang out: “Lookin for revenge.” Led by 115 rushing yards and two passing scores from Worth, Navy upset a Houston team that was ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll, 46-40.

Navy quarterback Will Worth looks to pass during a 2016 home game against UConn.
(Mitchell Northam / Against All Enemies)

The Mids beat Memphis the next week easily, but then slipped up on the road against South Florida. They bounced back again though, beating Notre Dame by a single point in a game where Worth ran for 175 yards. The Mids then rolled over Tulsa, East Carolina and SMU. Heading into hosting Temple for the American Athletic Conference title game, Navy was ranked No. 20 and there was talk of the Mids potentially crashing the Cotton Bowl (at the time, Navy’s strength of schedule was much better than No. 17’s Western Michigan, and beating Temple and Army could’ve given Navy the nod over the Broncos — alas).

Those hopes faded quickly on that windy December Saturday.

Navy fell behind 21-0 early. Then, on a second-and-six play in the second quarter, Worth took the snap, darted into a hole and was tackled by a host of Temple defenders after gaining four yards. They fell into Toneo Gulley, Navy’s starting slotback and captain. Gulley limped off the field. Worth stayed on for one more snap before coming to terms with the fact that he could put pressure on his right foot.

Just like that, Worth and Gulley’s college football careers were over. Navy’s Cotton Bowl dreams vanished with a 34-10 loss to Temple.

“Mama said there would be days like this, and this is one of them,” Ivin Jasper, the Mids’ offensive coordinator, said after the game.

“Overall, it was just a good ol’ fashioned butt whipping,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “They beat the crap out of us and hit us in the mouth.”

A Navy coach talks to slotback Toneo Gulley during a 2016 home game vs. Houston.
(Mitchell Northam / Against All Enemies)

A week later, an inexperienced Zach Abey led Navy into battle with Army in Baltimore. As expected, he and the offense struggled. Navy finished with 112 rushing yards, Abey threw two picks and “The Streak” — Navy’s run of 14 straight wins against Army — came to a screeching halt. The Black Knights won, 21-17. Navy sang first for the first time since 2001.

Abey played much better in the Armed Forces Bowl, but not good enough for Navy to get a win over Louisiana Tech. The defense gave up 48 points and Navy lost.

Those final three losses of the 2016 season left people wondering: What if that freak accident didn’t happen? What if Will Worth and Toneo Gulley didn’t get hurt on the same play?

The answer? Navy probably still loses to Temple, but they definitely beat Army and probably get a win in the bowl game.

Navy was already in a big hole in the Temple game, trailing by three possessions in the second quarter — a deficit that Navy had not overcome all season. Even if Worth and Gulley remain in the game, the chances of a complete comeback are slim.

But beating Army? That likely wouldn’t have been a problem.

The case:

  • Abey threw for 89 yards, no scores and two picks (both in the first quarter) on 10 pass attempts. Worth was riding a five-game streak without an interception. All year, on 118 attempts, he threw just three. Worth also averaged 116 passing yards per-game.
  • Abey rushed for 73 yards on 19 carries for 3.8 yards per-carry against Army. Worth averaged 4.5 yards per-carry that season. Before the Temple game, he had eclipsed 107 rushing yards in seven straight games, averaging 5.4 yards per-carry (Worth was also second in FBS in rushing touchdowns in 2016 with 25).
  • Navy’s other two rushers against Army — Chris High and Shawn White — rushed a combined seven times for 39 yards. Gulley averaged 9.9 yards per-carry his senior season and eclipsed 39 yards on his own in a single game five times in 2016.
  • Also: Gulley never got the chance to run the ball against Army in his career at Navy. Had he been healthy, he might’ve been extra motivated to put his stamp on the series.
  • Also: When it comes to decision-making and running the triple-option, Worth — who had played in the previous 12 games — just simply would’ve made less mistakes than Abey did and put his team in positions to score more often.

Navy just needed to be a little it better to beat Army in 2016. With Worth and Gulley in the backfield, The Streak would’ve been extended another year.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo look on as his team beats Memphis in a 2016 home game.
(Mitchell Northam / Against All Enemies)

Against Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl? I dunno. I like to think that Worth and Gulley — two super-talented and super-smart seniors — could’ve found four more points somewhere to get the win on that day in Fort Worth, Texas.

At least that game gave Navy fans Malcolm Perry’s first collegiate touchdown, back when he was wearing No. 5.

Victories over Army and Louisiana Tech would’ve given Navy an 11-win season, which would’ve been their second in a row. It would’ve been a nice cap on Gulley’s football career, and a dynamite exclamation point on Worth’s lone season under center.

Instead, we’re just left with: what if?