History suggests Navy will need to outscore Houston during Saturday’s American Athletic Conference contest.
Four of five meetings between the schools as members of the American Athletic Conference have been shootouts. Navy has beaten Houston 46-40 (2016) at home and 56-41 on the road (2019). Meanwhile, the Cougars have also captured two high-scoring affairs — 52-31 on their home field in 2015 and 49-36 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in 2018.
The only low-scoring game between the schools came in 2017 when Houston defeated Navy 24-14 at TEDCU Stadium.
Houston, under second-year coach Dana Holgorsen, has its typically high-powered offense this season with quarterback Clayton Tune the trigger man. The Cougars are averaging 37.5 points and 457 total yards, ranking 18th and 20th among 77 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in those categories through two games.
It will be the stiffest test to date for the Navy defense, which is allowing an average of 34.2 points (No. 61) and 428.4 yards (No. 48).
“We’re playing a Houston team that is extremely athletic at the skill positions, big and physical up front and has an experienced [quarterback]. Of course, Dana Holgorsen is a fantastic play-caller,” Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said. “We have a great challenge ahead of us and will need to play much better than we have been to win.”
Meanwhile, Navy’s offense has been inconsistent and its numbers five games into the season are below average compared to standards established during the triple-option era. The Midshipmen rank 69th nationally in scoring offense and 73rd in total offense with 19 points and 271.4 yards per game.
Navy normally ranks top three nationally in rushing average but is only 24th this season with 190.4 yards per game.
“We have to play our best game to have a chance against Houston,” coach Ken Niumatalolo declared. “We’ve won three games, but we know we have a lot of room for improvement everywhere. We definitely haven’t reached our ceiling, that’s for sure.”
The Midshipmen (3-2, 3-0) sit alone atop the American Athletic Conference standings thanks to beating Tulane, Temple and East Carolina by a combined nine points.
“We’ve found a way to win three close, tough games, which shows the character and toughness of this team,” said Niumatalolo, noting the Mids could easily be 0-5. “We’ve put ourselves in position that every game in our conference matters now.”
A 40-7 loss to Air Force put an end to the No. 1 goal of the Navy program: the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy championship. However, Navy can achieve another major goal by capturing the AAC championship. Last season, a 35-23 loss to Memphis on Sept. 26 prevented Navy from winning the West Division.
“Losing one game can be the difference between a first or second place finish. We saw that last year,” senior captain and starting offensive tackle Billy Honaker said. “Losing that one game to Memphis cost us a chance at the championship game. We need to make sure the young guys understand how vital all these games are.”
In two games this season, Tune has completed 64% of attempts in passing for 629 yards and four touchdowns. He has two dangerous targets in Marquez Stevenson and Keith Corbin, who have combined for 241 receiving yards, and tailback Kyle Porter has brought balance to the attack, rushing for 151 yards and a score.
“I’ll say this about their offense: When they throw the ball, they do a really good job of spreading you out and getting you in space, especially underneath defenders. In the run game, they’re going to try to create numbers with pulling guards and such,” Newberry said. “They do a good job of keeping you off-balance.”
Newberry described Holgorsen as a “really innovative offensive mind” and noted he always sprinkles in some wrinkles. Last season, Houston showed Navy some empty backfields and unbalanced lines that had not shown up on tape.
This is Tune’s second season as the starter in the spread system Holgorsen himself has developed over the years. He replaced D’Eriq King, who decided three games into 2019 to take a redshirt and then transferred to Miami.
“I think [Tune] is a complete quarterback and runs the offense very well. He’s efficient, accurate and throws a really nice deep ball. He’s athletic and good enough to beat you with his feet,” Newberry said. “Whenever [Tune] starts to scramble, the eyes go downfield and he finds receivers.”
Stevenson was a first team All-AAC selection last season after leading Houston with 52 receptions for 907 yards and nine touchdowns. The 6-foot, 190-pound speedster has amassed 133 catches, 2,099 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career despite playing in just two games as a freshman and missing the entire 2017 season with an injury.
“His speed is frightening. It’s the first thing that jumps off when you watch the tape,” Newberry said of Stevenson. “We’ve got to know where he is at all times. He’s a guy you’ve got to give a little more space than others because he’ll go by you in a hurry. He did that to us last year a few times.”
Navy has been outgained in its three wins — a disturbing trend. The Midshipmen have mostly ridden the shoulders of fullbacks Nelson Smith and Jamale Carothers while controlling possession.
Chewing up the clock and keeping the Houston offense off the field would be the ideal formula. However, if series tradition continues, the Midshipmen will need more offensively.
So far, the triple-option has been one-dimensional with the quarterback keeper and slotback pitch elements missing in action. Smith and Carothers have combined for 653 of the team’s 952 rushing yards, almost 70%.
Starting quarterback Dalen Morris has 30 rushing yards, while the top four slotbacks (Myles Fells, C.J. Williams, Chance Warren and Carlinos Acie) have just 173 yards among them.
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper seems unconcerned about the glaring lack of production from the quarterback and slotbacks.
“You can say it’s a concern, but I’m not going to complain about it. We’re winning, which is all that matters,” Jasper said. “That’s not our strength right now. Our strength is running the fullback and throwing the ball.”
Jasper and running game coordinator Ashley Ingram believe the recent success of the fullbacks, who ran wild against Temple and East Carolina, will force opponents to load the box — thereby opening the perimeter.
“There are no issues at all. We’re getting the ball to the perimeter; we’re just not making a lot of yards,” Jasper said. “We’ll get into a game where a team gives us the perimeter and we’ll take it. I’ve always said this offense is like Novocain: give it time, it will always work.”
Morris was knocked out of the East Carolina game by a late hit to the head after scrambling. Backup Tyger Goslin entered the game and did a solid job of reading the triple-option as the Mids closed out the contest.
Niumatalolo said earlier this week Morris is in the concussion protocol but seemed confident he would be cleared to practice and start against Houston.