Navy football just cannot put together a complete game. That applies equally to offense, defense and special teams.
Breakdowns in all three areas of the game have consistently hurt the Midshipmen, who are now 1-5 overall and 1-3 in the American Athletic Conference.
That inability to play well in all three phases for the full 60 minutes was on display again during Thursday night’s 35-17 loss to Memphis. The defense was missing in action during the first half, the offense only managed two sustained drives and the special teams were mediocre.
A national television audience watched Navy do what it has throughout this season — show flashes of solid football without being able to sustain it.
It was announced just before kickoff Thursday that starting free safety Kevin Brennan was unavailable because of a shoulder injury and one knew that loss was going to prove costly to Navy. The Midshipmen started junior Taylor Robinson and sophomore Eavan Gibbons on the back end, but a pair of plebes — Gilman School graduate Rayuan Lane and Marcus Moore — saw significant action at the safety spots.
Gibbons and Moore began this season on the scout team.
It did not appear defensive coordinator Brian Newberry employed the 3-3-5 alignment featuring three high safeties as much against Memphis. That might have been due to the absence of Brennan, the clear-cut leader of the unit who usually makes a lot of the defensive calls.
However, Newberry might have used a different game plan to contend with the run-pass option element of the high-powered Memphis offense. He was also very concerned about wide receiver Calvin Austin III, an All-American track and field sprinter with game-breaking ability.
Navy had used the three-safety look to contain the Houston, Central Florida and SMU offenses. However, Newberry obviously did not feel that strategy would work as well against Memphis.
“We did some other stuff, too. We tried to take away [Austin]. I don’t want to elaborate too much on what our thoughts were,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan did an outstanding job of waiting until the last possible moment to pull the ball from the running back on a lot of the run-pass option plays. That succeeded in holding the Navy safeties, who too often got caught flat-footed and looking into the backfield.
That is how wide receiver Eddie Lewis was able to get behind the defense and haul in a 74-yard scoring strike. Hennigan set up two other touchdowns with long completions of 51 yards to Koby Drake and 49 yards to fellow wideout Jason Ivory.
“I could probably go into a bunch of what-ifs and this or that. I could have made better plays, the people to the right and left of me could have made better plays,” said John Marshall, who has been playing outside linebacker and safety this season.
“Point blank, we gave up way too many points in the first half and that’s attributable to everyone on defense and not just one screen or one call.”
Marshall did mention Henigan’s ability to sell the handoff on the run-pass option as causing some issues. Tailbacks Marquavius Weaver and Brandon Thomas combined for 121 rushing yards and the safeties were certainly needed in run support.
“Memphis has a good RPO, and they were waiting pretty long tonight with the run fake,” Marshall said. “They did a really good job of hitting the gaps [in Navy’s pass coverage] when they were open. They were making plays on the ground, too. So, you had to respect both of their options. It was kind of hard to play either or.”
Memphis scored touchdowns on five of six possessions to open the game and Navy just could not keep pace. The Midshipmen regrouped defensively at halftime and gave up just seven points in the second half, but by then the damage had been done.
“Our second half was much better than the first half. We made some defensive adjustments and got people into the holes we were getting hit at in the first half,” Marshall said.
Navy has yet to show this season it can win the type of high-scoring shootouts that predominate in the American. The Midshipmen are averaging only 17.5 points per game and have surpassed 24 just once this season.
Quarterback Tai Lavatai directed two long drives Thursday night, but the Midshipmen had four punts and a missed field goal on five other possessions. Two of their possessions don’t really count as they came at the end of the first and second halves and lasted 40 and 9 seconds.
There was another possession created by an interception by Diego Fagot that ended with a 36-yard field goal by kicker Bijan Nichols. That was part of a momentum-changing sequence that just killed the Mids.
It was a pick-six for Fagot, who made a great read then stepped in front of the intended receiver. The standout senior inside linebacker raced 28 yards for an apparent second defensive touchdown in the span of two games.
However, the touchdown was nullified because freshman outside linebacker Tyler Fletcher was whistled for participating without a helmet. A Memphis offensive tackle knocked off Fletcher’s helmet by committing hands to the face, a penalty that was not called.
Fletcher followed the play toward the end zone without his helmet, which was technically illegal but could have easily been overlooked since he was nowhere near another player.
For a moment, it seemed as if that personal foul would not cost Navy, as Lavatai found wide receiver Mychal Cooper in the end zone for another apparent touchdown. That score was called back because of a clipping call on wide receiver Camara Williams that was particularly egregious.
Williams actually fell and was laying face down on the ground when a backpedaling Memphis defender tripped over him. Multiple replays showed it clearly was not clipping.
Meanwhile, Fagot was blatantly blocked in the back while trying to chase down Austin on a 69-yard touchdown run off a reverse and no penalty flag was thrown.
“Maybe if we were able to get those calls, we might have still been in it,” Niumatalolo said afterward.
There is no doubt Navy was a victim of some questionable calls Thursday night, but ultimately the inability to put together sustained drives and score points is the reason for the latest loss.
Navy’s opening drive, which tied the score at 7, was a work of art. Lavatai led a methodical 75-yard march that lasted a whopping 21 plays and took almost 12 minutes off the clock. It was the longest drive in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season in terms of plays and time of possession and the longest for the Midshipmen since their epic 26-play, 94-yard scoring drive during the 2004 Emerald Bowl.
“That first drive was what we wanted: grind the clock and keep [the Memphis offense] off the field,” Niumatalolo said.
Unfortunately for Navy, it was only able to mount one other similar drive. In the third quarter, Lavatai directed a 14-play, 75-yard campaign that concluded with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Cooper on a well-designed twin crossing route.
That was pretty much all the offense the Midshipmen mustered, and 17 points was never going to get the job done against the Tigers.
Navy’s brutal stretch if games against the schools picked first through sixth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll continues. Coming to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium this Saturday is undefeated and third-ranked Cincinnati (5-0), which is in contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff after beating Notre Dame.
“We have to keep swinging. We have Cincinnati, the best team we’ll play all season, coming into hour house,” Niumatalolo said.
Because of the Thursday night game, Navy will have extra time to prepare for its toughest challenge. “We’re banged up, so we need to get healed up. We’ll have a couple days off this weekend, so hopefully we can get some rest,” he said.
NO. 3 CINCINNATI@NAVY
Oct. 23, noon
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