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‘Can’t get worn down:’ Navy defense rises early and falters late in loss to Houston

Houston could have easily punished a Navy defense caught napping this week.

The Cougars arrived in Annapolis the 18th-best scoring team in America (37.5 points per game) and 20th in total yards (457 per game) in just two contests.

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For a while, Navy’s defense faced the Cougars with eyes open. But towards the end of the game, as Houston threatened to carve out a lead near-impossible to overcome, the defense began to drowse.

Unlike the first half, when Navy held the Cougars to mostly field goals, Houston almost exclusively marked its second-half drives with touchdowns — other than one turnover on downs. The defense surrendered far too many “ex-plays,” what defensive coordinator Brian Newberry calls explosive plays. Without the offense to back up its counterpart, the Cougars effectively buried Navy.

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“You can’t get worn down. You can’t say you’re a good defense, but you’re only a good defense for one half," said captain and defensive tackle Jackson Perkins, who recorded five tackles. “We got to get our conditioning up. Effort was there, but when the offense is struggling, we still got to do our job.”

For at least the first half, it seemed Navy’s defense was gearing up for one of its better performances this season.

The defense held Houston’s offense to just one touchdown before halftime. Houston struggled to convert on third-down (1 of 7), and had senior kicker Dalton Witherspoon not been so efficient by drilling 33-, 45- and 53-yard field goals, the Cougars offense would have been left dangling on its one lonely touchdown by the end of the first half.

“We gave up too many big plays, specifically in the second half. Didn’t get off the field on third down. We knew in order to win the game, we had to do those two things. It’s unfortunate," Newberry said.

Overall, there were positives to glean from Saturday’s loss. Houston’s offensive harvest ended up thinner on Saturday (420 yards) than its loss against Brigham Young University last week, when it amassed 438 total yards. Likewise, in its season opener against Tulane, Houston was able to put up 476.

With Navy defenders hounding them, the Cougars ran the ball like they were driving in rush hour traffic. The Houston offense managed an average of just 2.8 yards per attempt (31 carries for 86 yards) that actually depleted by game’s end. Its longest run was just 16 yards — a keeper from quarterback Clayton Tune.

The defense’s most visible accomplishment in the first half took happened when Mitchell West thumped into Cougars wideout Tre’von Bradley. The ball rattled loose, tumbling into sophomore striker John Marshall’s hands for a fumble that was, after official review, rightfully honored.

“I thought our defense gave us a chance to win,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We just gotta be able to move the ball, gotta be able to possess the ball on offense. We didn’t do that. Defense got worn down in the second half with just — we couldn’t string anything together on offense.”

Newberry said he truly believes his defense has improved every week, but a handful of plays in the second half and a few holding calls marred this week’s showing.

“It’s a collective loss," Newberry said. “I thought, some bright spots defensively, but it’s not good enough.”

The evening’s performance was not without its blemishes.

Houston capitalized on both of its red zone attempts, unlike the previous week, when Navy held East Carolina to just one out of five in scoring situations.

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Where it couldn’t feast on the ground, Houston flew freely in the air. Tune threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a 51-yard touchdown pass from Tune to Marquez Stevenson and a fourth-quarter 33-yard score to Kyle Porter.

Later, with five minutes to go in the game, Stevenson once again put Navy in its place with a catch and score on a screen pass.

In the third quarter, officials ruled sophomore linebacker Tama Tuitele’s hit against Tune targeting, disqualifying him from the game. In the same frame, Houston’s free drive off of its own defense’s interception resulted in its second touchdown on three-straight complete passes and an easy 1-yard rush into the end zone.

Granted, Navy didn’t have much room to move. Houston needed just 20 yards and five plays to score and extend the lead to 23-13.

"We just kind of never recovered,” Newberry said. “I think we’ll go back and look at the film and see three or four plays in the second half that were the difference for us.”

The Midshipmen fell short of Newberry’s “Get Six” goal, the defensive coordinator’s measure of a successful defensive performance that awards a point for a three-and-out, fourth-down stop or turnover. On Saturday, the defense recorded one point, on the fumble.

It seems like defenders are getting hit more than usual, Newberry noted. After Air Force, Navy lost five starters. Free safety Evan Fochtman (Archbishop Spalding) is still out indefinitely.

On Saturday, Michael McMorris exited the game early with an upper-body injury. McMorris posted three tackles on Saturday, adding to the 30 he’d already accumulated on the season. McMorris had a season high eight tackles last weekend at East Carolina.

While the status of McMorris is unknown, Tuitele must sit out the first half of next Saturday’s game against SMU because of the targeting penalty.

“That’d be a big loss for us. To lose your starting WILL linebacker, that’s tough,” Newberry said. “We’re a little banged up, but that’s football. That’s part of it. There’s a lot of others out there in the same boat. But, it’s a next man up mentality.”

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