HOUSTON — Navy football played pretty much the perfect first half against heavily favored Houston on Saturday night.
The Midshipmen scored a lightning-quick touchdown on the game’s opening possession, then put together a pair of time-consuming drives that kept the Cougars’ potent offense off the field.
Meanwhile, Navy played ideal bend-but-don’t-break defense, stopping Houston on downs and forcing a missed field-goal attempt on two possessions that reached the red zone.
Unfortunately for the Mids, their offense went back into a shell in the second half and that put too much pressure on the defense, which just could not hold off the Cougars any longer.
Quarterback Clayton Tune completed 22 of 31 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown, while tailbacks Alton McKaskill and Ta’Zhawn Henry combined to rush for 128 yards and two touchdowns as Houston escaped with a 28-20 victory at TDECU Stadium.
Speedster Marcus Jones scored two touchdowns — one off a 73-yard punt return and the other off a 43-yard bomb — to spark the Cougars.
“I’m proud of our kids. I thought our guys battled,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said afterward. “You can’t turn the ball over and you can’t give up a punt return for a touchdown. I thought those were two pivotal plays in that game.”
Quarterback Xavier Arline rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown and completed three of six passes for 83 yards to pace Navy, which led 17-7 at halftime. Fullbacks Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II combined for 102 rushing yards for the Midshipmen, who were outscored 21-3 in the second half.
Navy is off to an 0-3 start for the first time since 2001, which was the program’s final season under former coach Charlie Weatherbie. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired Weatherbie seven games into the season and the Midshipmen finished 0-10.
It doesn’t get any easier next Saturday as Navy hosts Central Florida, which was picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference in a preseason poll of media. The Knights are 2-1 with an impressive victory over Boise State and a heartbreaking 42-35 loss to Louisville.
“We have to move on. We’re a proud program and we aren’t quitting. We’re going to continue to battle,” Niumatalolo said. “We have to move on and get ready for another good UCF team.”
Navy entered as a 20-point underdog and appeared poised to pull off a stunner after executing well on both sides of the ball during the first half. However, the Midshipmen’s upset bid was basically doomed by what happened during their three offensive possessions to start the second half.
Navy went three-and-out on the first and second possessions, losing yardage on each. A muffed quarterback-center exchange on the first play of third possession led to a turnover. Houston took advantage of that offensive lull to outscore the visitors 21-0 to take control.
“When we couldn’t move the ball, I think our defense got worn down. In the third quarter when we didn’t get any first downs… that is when we needed to keep our defense off the field,” Niumatalolo said. “When we started not moving the ball in the second half, it kind of steamrolled.”
Niumatalolo showed an aggressive mindset from the outset Saturday night — as in before the game even started. During his 14-year tenure as coach, the Midshipmen have almost always deferred whenever winning the pregame coin flip.
This time, Niumatalolo told the captains to take the ball, and that’s exactly what happened after Navy called the flip correctly. The Midshipmen wanted to get on the scoreboard first, and that’s exactly what they did thanks to a surprisingly fast opening drive.
Arline found a huge hole on the right side and took an option keeper 40 yards for a touchdown to cap a possession that lasted just three plays and 63 seconds. Slotback Carlinos Acie gained 25 yards off a well-executed pitch, and a horse collar penalty against the Cougars tacked on 15 more yards.
Navy’s defense came up with a huge fourth-down stop to put an abrupt end to Houston’s opening possession. Tune completed a 34-yard pass to tight end Christian Trahan to jump-start the drive and the Cougars got all the way to the Navy 15-yard line before stalling.
Navy free safety Kevin Brennan stepped up strong in run support and stopped running back Ta’Zhawn Henry for no gain on fourth-and-1, and Houston turned the ball over on downs.
Navy went nowhere on its next two possessions and Houston tied the score on the long punt return by Jones, who made would-be tacklers look like they were standing still while racing untouched into the end zone. It was the second straight game that Jones has scored off a punt return.
Navy responded with the type of drive it has become famous for during the triple-option era. Ruoss and Harris did most of the damage as the Mids wore down the Cougars with a series of short gains to keep the chains moving.
It wound up being a 15-play drive that took almost nine minutes off the clock, but Navy had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by kicker Bijan Nichols to retake the lead, 10-7, with 7:53 remaining in the second quarter.
Cornerback Jamal Glenn made a great read on a delayed screen pass and dropped Henry for a 4-yard loss that led to a three-and-out for Houston. That gave the Midshipmen one more shot and they made the most of it, taking on another touchdown with another lengthy drive.
Harris converted a crucial fourth-and-1 from his own territory with a bruising 13-yard run off tackle. Niumatalolo called for a play-action pass on the ensuing first down and it worked perfectly, with Arline finding wide receiver Mychal Cooper wide-open behind the secondary for a 37-yard pickup.
Cooper would have scored easily had he not had to wait on the pass to arrive. As it was, the 6-foot-5, 221-pound senior was dragged down at the 3-yard line. No matter, Ruoss barreled into the end zone from 1 yard out and Navy increased its lead to 17-7.
“I think we played Navy football in the first half — the best we have in a while,” Arline said. “That’s the result when you do your job, execute at a high level and play fast. I think we took a big step forward as an offense and now we have to build off it.”
Houston drove deep into Navy territory on the final possession of the first half, but Tune made a major mental mistake by scrambling in the open field when Houston had not timeouts. Tune was tackled inbounds and time ran out before the Cougars could get lined up to spike the ball and set up a field-goal attempt.
“I’m proud of the way the defense played,” Niumatalolo said. “If we don’t give up the touchdown on the punt, they don’t have anything.”
Navy’s defense came up with another big stop to start the second half. Houston drove to the 14-yard line of the visitors, but outside linebacker Nicholas Straw tackled McKaskill for a 1-yard loss on third down to force a field-goal attempt.
Kicker Dalton Witherspoon missed wide right on a 32-yard try and the Midshipmen dodged yet another bullet.
However, the offense put the defense right back on the field by going three-and-out and made it worse by losing yardage in the process. Punter Riley Riethman did not help matters by shanking a 34-yard punt to set up Houston with its best field position of the night — at the Navy 43.
The Cougars tried to self-destruct as false start and holding penalties pushed them back to the 40-yard line and set up second-and-20. However, Tune completed a 15-yard pass to wide receiver KeSean Carter to convert the first down and three players later Henry waltzed in from 2 yards out as Houston cut the deficit to 17-14 with 3:16 to go in the third period.
Navy went three-and-out on its second possession of the third quarter as well, and that failure proved costly. Tune converted two third-down situations with completions of 10 and 14 yards, then tossed the 47-yard bomb to Jones for a touchdown that gave Houston its first lead, 21-17 early in the fourth quarter.
After choosing not to blitz much up to that point, Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry brought the house and got burned. Tune found the speedy Jones running wide-open down the field as it appears safety Taylor Robinson got beaten badly on the coverage.
By far the costliest mistake came on Navy’s ensuing possession as Arline could not snag the snap from center Luke Coleman, leading to a fumble that Houston linebacker Malik Robinson recovered.
“That center-QB exchange is a killer. Those are the kind of things you just cannot do in close games,” Niumatalolo said. “That was a huge deal because we were still in the game.”
It appeared the Mids would force another field-goal attempt after linebacker Johnny Hodges broke up a pass on third down. However, Hodges was called for holding for grabbing Trahan’s jersey and the Cougars got first down at the 12-yard line.
An 11-yard pass to wide receiver Nathaniel Dell led to a 1-yard touchdown trot by Henry, and suddenly Houston was ahead 28-17.
Navy refused to quit and responded with a 13-play drive that feature a pair of gutsy fourth-down conversions. Fullbacks Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II both had nice runs on fourth-and-1. Arline found Cooper open in the left flat for a 27-yard gain that moved the ball into Houston territory.
However, the drive stalled, and the Midshipmen settled for a 36-yard field goal by Nicholas that made it 28-20 with 6:12 remaining in the game.
Navy’s defense rose up and got the stop it needed to give the offense a chance to tie the score. Nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. sacked Tune at the 50-yard line and Houston was forced to punt.
A touchback gave Navy the ball at the 25-yard line with 3:02 remaining, plenty of time to go downfield for a touchdown. Backup quarterback Maasai Maynor was inserted into the game since he’s a better pass than Arline and he almost delivered a big play.
Maynor found slotback Chance Warren open on the right sideline and threw a perfect pass. Warren had the ball in his hands and was prepared to turn upfield with lots of running room but dropped the ball.
Maynor was sacked on third down, then completed a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Mark Walker on fourth-and-18. Tune took a knee twice to run out the remaining clock and the Cougars avoided the upset.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
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