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Memphis overwhelms Navy football with bevy of big plays in 35-17 rout

It was clear after the first play from scrimmage Thursday night that the Navy defense was going to have trouble stopping Memphis.

Quarterback Seth Henigan opened the game by finding wide receiver Jason Ivory over the middle for a 49-yard catch-and-run. That was just the start as Henigan and the Tigers shredded the Midshipmen’s depleted secondary from start to finish.

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Henigan completed eight of 11 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns as Memphis routed Navy, 35-17, at the Liberty Bowl. Big plays were the story of the game as the Tigers (4-3, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) rolled up 415 total yards in ending a three-game losing streak.

Eddie Lewis got behind the Navy secondary for a 74-yard touchdown reception, while fellow wide receiver Calvin Austin III raced 69 yards for a score off a reverse. A 51-yard pass to wide receiver Koby Drake set up another touchdown.

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“We have to give them credit. They executed well,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the Memphis offense. “They just hit us on some big plays that kind of broke our backs.”

Navy, which previously lost starting bandit safety Mitch West to a season-ending injury, was without starting free safety Kevin Brennan on Thursday night. Brennan sat out with a shoulder injury and was spotted on the sideline wearing a sling.

Freshman Rayuan Lane, a Gilman graduate, was one of several young safeties who struggled in pass coverage. They repeatedly bit on play-action fakes and allowed receivers to get behind them. With Brennan out, defensive coordinator Brian Newberry did not employ the 3-3-5 alignment featuring three high safeties as much as he did in the previous three games.

“Having some young guys in the secondary probably contributes, but you have to give them credit, too,” Niumatalolo said.

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Quarterback Tai Lavatai directed two long touchdown drives for Navy (1-5, 1-3), which otherwise struggled on offense. Plagued by untimely penalties, sacks and other self-inflicted wounds, the Midshipmen were limited to 214 total yards.

Fullback Isaac Ruoss led the Midshipmen with 75 rushing yards, while slotback Carlinos Acie contributed 54. Lavatai and backup Xavier Arline were sacked a combined four times for minus-36 yards.

Navy’s initial touchdown drive was the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season in terms of plays (21). The Midshipmen methodically marched 75 yards and took almost 12 minutes off the block before fullback James Harris II bulled over from 2 yards out to tie the score at 7 with 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Memphis needed just one play and 14 seconds to respond as Austin showed why he’s an All-American sprinter in track and field, turning the corner on the reverse and racing untouched into the end zone to put the Tigers ahead to stay.

Navy inside linebacker Diego Fagot intercepted a Henigan pass and took it back for a touchdown, but the play was nullified by a penalty. Outside linebacker Tyler Fletcher had his helmet knocked off by a Memphis lineman and continued to participate in the play, which is illegal.

Moments later, Lavatai rolled out and found wide receiver Mychal Cooper in the end zone for another apparent touchdown. That play was wiped out by a clipping penalty on wide receiver Camari Williams, who actually fell to the ground before executing a block and inadvertently tripped a Memphis defender.

Navy had to settle for a 36-yard field goal by kicker Bijan Nichols and trailed 14-10 at the 8:21 mark of the second quarter.

Henigan’s 74-yard bomb to Lewis made it 21-10, then tailback Brandon Thomas barreled into the end zone from 3 yards out to cap a 12-play drive as Memphis took a 28-10 lead into halftime.

Navy opened the second half with another long, time-consuming drive, going 75 yards in 14 plays and taking almost seven minutes off the clock. Cooper got open on a crossing route and Lavatai led him perfectly for a 21-yard scoring strike that briefly cut the deficit to 28-17 with 8:09 left in the third quarter.

“I thought with the way we were moving the ball offensively, we still had a shot,” Niumatalolo said. “That first drive was what we wanted, grind the clock and keep [the Memphis offense] off the field.”

The Midshipmen could not put together another sustained drive for the rest of the game. Navy was 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions but was only 7-for-18 on third-down attempts.

Niumatalolo blamed himself for not sticking with the methodical approach of gaining 3 and 4 yards per play after the Midshipmen fell behind 35-17.

“Probably play-calling on my part. Probably not as patient. Just seeing the score and trying to make it up too quickly,” he said. “I mean, you’re down 18. I feel like maybe I tried to pick up the pace a little too much and did some things that were out of character for us.”

Lavatai left the game with an apparent concussion after his head hit the artificial turf hard after a sack. Team trainers took away the sophomore signal-caller’s helmet after he was evaluated in the injury tent.

NO. 3 CINCINNATI@NAVY

Oct. 23, noon

TV: ESPN/ESPN2

Radio: 1430 AM, 1090 AM

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