There’s no rest for the weary in a loaded American Athletic Conference.
Coming off a disappointing defeat at the hands of a talented Houston team, Navy must regroup and travel to Dallas to take on a ranked opponent in Southern Methodist University.
SMU fell from 15th to No. 22 in the latest Associated Press poll after getting soundly beaten Saturday night by No. 7 Cincinnati, which has emerged as the strongest program among the Group of Five conferences.
The Mustangs finally felt the loss of standout wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and starting tailback T.J. McDaniel, both of whom were injured during against Memphis Oct. 3.
SMU pulled out an uplifting 30-27 victory over Memphis, the defending American Athletic Conference champion, due largely to a huge game from Roberson, who had five receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
The Mustangs were able to overcome not having those two important offensive weapons in beating Tulane, 37-34, the following week. However, the absence of McDaniel and Roberson was felt this past Saturday night as SMU posted its lowest point since a 42-12 loss to Texas Christian University on Sept. 7, 2018.
“Going on the road and playing a ranked team is going to be a tough challenge,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “SMU is a good football team. They were undefeated for a reason.”
Following Saturday’s 37-21 loss to Houston, Niumatalolo went home and watched the SMU-Cincinnati contest. The visiting Bearcats, who boast one of the best defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision, outscored the Mustangs 28-3 in the second half. SMU was limited to 290 total yards in the loss.
Navy will need to play its best defensive game of the season to contain SMU, which has arguably the best quarterback in the AAC in Shane Buechele. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound senior was named first team All-AAC last year after setting single-season school records for passing yards (3,929) and touchdowns (34).
The Texas transfer is on pace for similar numbers this season, having thrown for 1,926 yards and 13 scores through six games. Despite the subpar performance Saturday night, SMU still ranks 11th nationally in total offense (517.7 yards per game) and 21st in scoring (37.7 points per game).
“It helps when you have a veteran quarterback that is very steady and knows what is going on,” Niumatalolo said of Buechele. “One thing that stuck out to me is that he’s throwing back-shoulder fades as good as anybody I can ever remember. He’s very accurate and as good as any quarterback we’ve seen in years.”
Six games into the season, Navy is still trying to find its stride offensively — ranking near the bottom of the FBS statistics (101 teams) in total offense (288.2 yards) and scoring offense (19.3 points). The Midshipmen are normally top three in rushing offense along with service academy rivals Army and Air Force but are only No. 31 right now.
After establishing a school record by averaging 360.5 yards per game on the ground a year ago, the Mids are averaging a mere 186.3 rushing yards this season.
“We have to continue to get better offensively,” Niumatalolo acknowledged. “We have to find a way to get better quickly.”
Quarterback Malcolm Perry accounted for 357 yards of total offense and had a hand in three touchdowns as Navy slipped past SMU, 35-28, last season in Annapolis. Perry, who is now in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, scored the game-winning touchdown by breaking loose for a 70-yard run.
That marked the third straight meeting between the schools that was decided by single digits. The Midshipmen nipped the Mustangs, 43-40, in 2017 when backup kicker J.R. Osborn made an 18-yard field goal as time expired.
SMU turned the tables on Navy in 2018, winning 31-30 in overtime when wide receiver James Proche, now with the Baltimore Ravens, caught a 4-yard touchdown pass. The Mustangs won with a two-point conversion pass to tight end Hunter Thedford.
Coach Sonny Dykes led Louisiana Tech to a 48-45 shootout victory over Navy in the 2016 Armed Forces Bowl and will now be facing the service academy for the third time as SMU coach.
“I think the thing that has made Navy successful is that they have a culture. They have a system their players believe in and it really carries over to what they do,” Dykes said. “When you play Navy, your culture has to be as good as theirs. You have to be excited to play and you have to play really hard. It’s going to be a physical brand of football, so you have to be hard-nosed.”
NAVY@NO. 16 SMU
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1090 AM
Line: SMU by 14