Navy defensive end and tri-captain Jackson Perkins made a statement this past week that was true on the surface.
To paraphrase, Perkins said it cannot be characterized as a strong defensive performance when the opponent scored 37 points.
However, Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry was accurate when he noted the final point total was not necessarily indicative of how well the unit played against Houston.
As was the case the previous Saturday, Perkins and company were forced to defend a short field all too often and rose to the occasion almost every time. The Midshipmen stood tall in the red zone, limiting the Cougars to three field goals during the first half.
Newberry acknowledged Navy has given up too many “explosive” plays this season and it was one of those that produced Houston’s first touchdown. Safety Mitch West got caught flat-footed and speedy wide receiver Marquez Stevenson got behind him for a 51-yard catch-and-run that gave the Cougars a 16-13 halftime lead.
Misfortune struck early in the second half when a hard pass from quarterback Dalen Morris bounced off the shoulder pad of fullback Jamale Carothers and right into the arms of safety Thabo Mwaniki. Houston took over at the home team’s 20-yard line and capitalized on the turnover with its second touchdown.
Trailing 23-13 after three quarters, the offense could not get going and the defense finally wore down, giving up two additional touchdowns that turned the game into a rout.
“We’ve gotten better each week — at least that’s what I’m seeing,” Newberry said this week. “We’re still growing and learning, but I do think we’re getting better. We’re headed in the right direction. We’re making less mistakes.”
Perkins and Newberry did agree on one thing. Navy’s defense must do much better Saturday night on the road against No. 22 SMU, which boasts one of the most high-powered offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Quarterback Shane Buechele leads the way for the Mustangs, who are averaging 37.7 points and 517.7 yards per game.
“It’s a lot like last week. You have to limit their explosive plays. You have to keep the ball in front of you and make them earn everything they get,” Newberry said. “It’s a very explosive offense with a lot of weapons. They’re very well-rounded, just like Houston was. Athletically, it’s going to be a bit of a mismatch, just like last week was.”
Newberry blamed an inability to get off the field in the second half as Navy’s undoing last Saturday. Houston went 1-for-7 on third down conversions in the first half, but was 5-for-6 in that department during the second half.
“When we get a team into third down and long, we have to get off the field,” he said. “There were three third downs in there that were critical. We made mistakes and allowed them to continue drives that wound up being touchdowns.”
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Buechele, who transferred from Texas, set SMU single season records for passing yards and touchdowns last season and has picked up right where he left off. He has thrown for 1,926 yards and 13 scores through six games.
“I think the quarterback is the complete package and does everything well. He has really good vision and gets the ball out quick,” Newberry said of Buechele. “He has a live arm and is very accurate. He’s certainly elusive back there and can avoid pressure.”
The Mustangs, however, have lost two of their top skill position players — tailback T.J. McDaniel and wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. — to season-ending injuries.
Ulysses Bentley IV has run for 546 yards and eight touchdowns for SMU (5-1), which suffered it first loss of the season in resounding fashion at the hands of No. 7 Cincinnati, 42-13, last week. Rashee Rice and Danny Gray have been the top targets in the passing game, combining for 52 catches totaling 817 yards.
SMU returned four starters along the offensive line and bolstered the unit with Auburn transfer Justin Osborne, who is starting at right guard.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge to defend this team. They have very talented players at the skill positions and a big, physical offensive line,” Newberry said. “I think it’s a really good system. It’s a balanced and explosive offense. They do a good job of hitting you with big plays. They’ll mix up tempo and go fast.”
Navy’s vaunted triple-option offense has looked like a mere shell of its usual self so far this season. After leading the nation and setting a school record by averaging 360.5 yards per game on the ground a year ago, the Midshipmen have looked mortal in 2020.
Morris has struggled to operate the triple-option and Navy ranks 31st out of 101 FBS programs with a rushing average of 186.3 yards. That marks a dramatic drop-off for the Midshipmen, whose lowest rushing average during the triple-option era was 270.8 yards. That came in 2002, the first season under former coach Paul Johnson after he reinstalled the unique attack.
SMU coach Sonny Dykes remains concerned about facing the triple-option despite the subpar statistics by Navy standards. Perhaps that’s because the Mustangs have struggled mightily to defend the Midshipmen, who have averaged 437 rushing yards in five meetings between the schools as members of the American Athletic Conference.
“They have a style of play that is unusual. It’s difficult to prepare for and it requires attention to detail and repetition,” Dykes said. “Option football has been the great equalizer for a long time. They’re as good as anybody that’s ever done it and won a lot of games because of it.”
When executed properly, the triple-option can become Navy’s best defense — hogging the ball, chewing up the clock and keeping the opposing offense off the field. Dykes has warned Buechele and the offense that they may not get as many turns as usual.
“Offensively, it puts pressure on you because you’re going to have fewer possessions, so there is less margin for error,” Dykes said. “You can’t afford to bust plays, drop balls or not execute at a high level because you’re not going to get the ball many times.”
Since 2009, Navy and SMU have battled for the Gansz Trophy whenever meeting on the gridiron. It honors the late Frank Gansz, who spent time at both schools.
Gansz was starting his second season as special teams coach for SMU when he died on April 27, 2009. He played center and linebacker at Navy from 1957 to 1959 then returned to serve as an assistant coach for his alma mater from 1969 to 1972.
Gansz spent 24 seasons in the NFL and 14 in the collegiate ranks, earning a reputation as one of the finest special teams coaches in history. Navy has won seven of eight meetings with SMU since the Gansz Trophy was created.
The Midshipmen routed the Mustangs 55-14 in 2015 then 75-31 in 2016. Since then, the series has been close with the last three games being decided by a total of 11 points.