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Tulane running back Corey Dauphine (6) carries as Houston cornerback Shaun Lewis (39) pursues in the second half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Tulane won 38-31. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Tulane running back Corey Dauphine (6) carries as Houston cornerback Shaun Lewis (39) pursues in the second half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Tulane won 38-31. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Navy football will begin to find out whether it is truly a contender to capture the West Division of the American Athletic Conference this Saturday.

Tulane, which was off to an impressive start before suffering a stunning setback at Memphis this past Saturday, invades Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

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Fourth-year head coach Willie Fritz has directed a dramatic turnaround for Tulane, which compiled a 15-33 record in four seasons (2014-2017) after joining the American Athletic Conference. Fritz, who has enjoyed tremendous success at every stop of his head coaching career, has instilled a winning mentality.

Tulane closed the 2018 campaign by winning five of its last six regular season games to earn a berth in the AutoNation Cure Bowl, beating in-state rival Louisiana-Lafayette to finish 7-6. That marked just the sixth winning record over the last 37 seasons for the Green Wave.

That momentum carried over to this season with Tulane starting off 5-1 with the lone loss coming at Auburn, which is ranked ninth in the latest Associated Press Top 25. However, the Green Wave ran into a buzz saw on Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, getting blown out by a score of 47-17.

“It’s humbling. There’s no doubt about that,” Fritz said. “Fortunately, I’ve had a couple of games like this. You’ve just got to bounce back and fight through it. There’s nothing else you can do about it. When we get done watching the tape on Monday, we’ll flush it down the toilet and move on.”

Host Memphis outscored the visitors 34-0 and out-gained them 370-79 during that stretch in turning an expected West Division showdown into a laugher. The Green Wave (5-2 overall, 2-1 AAC) must regroup quickly as they go back on the road to take on the Midshipmen (5-1, 3-1), who have won three in a row and received nine votes in the latest AP poll.

“We’ve just got to move on. We have to learn from this. Last year at this time we were 2-5. We’re 5-2 right now and there’s a lot of football out there to play,” Fritz said. “We’ve got to lick our wounds, come back to work and see what we need to improve on. We have to turn the page and get ready for Navy.”

Navy is coming off consecutive impressive victories over conference opponents, routing Tulsa 45-17 on the road then pounding South Florida 35-3 at home. The Midshipmen have their patented triple-option offense operating at a high level and lead the nation in rushing with 345 yards per game on the ground.

“Navy’s got a great ballclub. They do things differently than Memphis does offensively,” Fritz said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us to shift gears and play that triple-option they run so well.”

Fritz is very familiar with option football, having employed a version of it as head coach at Blinn College (1993-96), Central Missouri (1997-2009), Sam Houston State (2010-2013), Georgia Southern (2014-15) and Tulane.

Navy struggled to move the ball for most of last year’s meeting at Yulman Stadium on Nov. 24. The Midshipmen only managed 117 rushing yards in a heartbreaking 29-28 loss that got the Green Wave bowl eligible. In 2017, Tulane only gave up 194 rushing yards in a 23-21 loss in Annapolis.

“Defensively, they’ve always had a good plan against option. They’ve always played us tough,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.

Earlier this month, Tulane rolled up 525 total yards en route to beating Army West Point, 42-33, at Michie Stadium. The Green Wave amassed 324 rushing yards in snapping a 15-game home winning streak by the Black Knights.

That was part of an impressive four-game winning streak that also saw Tulane knock off Houston (38-31) and blow out Connecticut (49-7). The Green Wave received 55 votes and would have been 26th in the AP poll that came out on Oct. 13.

“Tulane has been playing great the whole year. Coach Fritz is one of the best in the country and his teams are always tough and sound,” Niumatalolo said.

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Tulane boasts the eighth-ranked rushing offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 267.7 yards. Quarterback Justin McMillan and tailback Corey Dauphine have 390 and 377 rushing yards, respectively.

Dauphine left the Memphis loss with a wrist injury, while backup tailback Darius Bradwell sat out the game with a leg injury. Fritz expects both Dauphine and Bradwell to be able to play against Navy, which ranks No. 16 nationally in rushing defense (96.7 yards allowed).

Southern Methodist University (7-0, 3-0) leads the West Division and is now the frontrunner for the Group of Five conferences bid to a “New Year’s Six bowl.” Boise State had been the favorite to earn that “access” berth but was upset by Brigham Young.

Niumatalolo noted during Monday’s weekly teleconference that BYU had just been beaten by USF, the school Navy took behind the woodshed on Saturday. That was a subtle dig at the overall strength of the Mountain West Conference in relation to the American Athletic Conference.

The American has six schools either ranked or receiving votes in the latest AP poll with No. 16 SMU and No. 18 Cincinnati leading the way. Memphis, Navy, Central Florida and Tulane are all receiving votes.

“Our entire league is tough, and on the West there are a lot of teams that are still in the hunt,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re excited about competing on this side of the conference, but it’s definitely tough man.”

Navy sits in second place in the West Division with Memphis (6-1, 2-1) winning a tiebreaker with Tulane for third.

“Well, the whole league is tough, and our division is especially tough,” Fritz said. “It’s part of the American, which is a great conference from top to bottom.”

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