Midshipmen and Cougars face off Saturday in Annapolis in a bid to stay at the top of the AAC standings
The Navy Midshipmen and Houston Cougars will meet inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening for a pivotal American Athletic Conference matchup. It should make for an intriguing game between a pair of teams that play very different styles of football, with Houston's high-powered passing game paired against Navy's triple-option ground attack. Both teams enter Saturday's matchup unbeaten in conference play.
Perhaps no team in college football has faced more adversity due to the pandemic than Houston. The Cougars have already been forced to cancel or postpone five games so far this season due to COVID-19 related issues. The good news is that the Cougars' 2020 campaign is underway with two games now under their belt. Houston opened its season with a 49-31 road victory against AAC foe Tulane, before returning home last Friday night to face No. 12 BYU. Houston led BYU 26-21 before imploding in the fourth quarter in what ultimately resulted in a 43-26 loss. Now 1-1 (1-0 AAC) on the season, the Cougars will look to bounce back on the road against Navy.
It's been a roller-coaster season for Navy. The Midshipmen were outscored 95-10 in a pair of non-conference losses to BYU and Air Force. But they remain perfect in conference play with three closely contested wins against Tulane (27-24), Temple (31-29), and most recently East Carolina (27-23). Navy (3-2, 3-0 AAC) will attempt to keep its unblemished conference record intact and gain a stronghold on the AAC with a win against Houston on Saturday.
Saturday's game will mark the seventh meeting all-time between Houston and Navy, with the Cougars leading the series 4-2. Navy scored a resounding 56-41 win over Houston last season.
Houston at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Houston -14
When Houston Has the Ball
While Dana Holgorsen has become synonymous with the Air Raid, you might be surprised to know that the Cougars have turned to the run game on 59 percent of their offensive snaps through Holgorsen's first 14 games as Houston's head coach. A trend that is likely to continue Saturday against a Navy defense that ranks 76th out of 77 active FBS teams against the run, giving up a ridiculous 273.8 rushing yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry. That certainly bodes well for feature running back Kyle Porter (31 carries, 151 yards, touchdown), who should have a banner day on the ground against the Midshipmen.
But make no mistake, Holgorsen isn't going to shy away from the passing game. Junior quarterback Clayton Tune has already shown marked improvement this season, passing for over 300 yards and two scores in each of the Cougars' first two games, while completing 64.1 percent of his pass attempts. He's also been able to lean heavily on Houston's wide array of weapons, completing passes to 13 different receivers through two games. Deep threat wide receiver Marquez Stevenson (6 receptions, 137 yards, TD) is, without question, Tune's favorite target.
Pass protection has been an issue for a Houston offensive line that has given up seven sacks in two games. But that shouldn't be a huge concern on Saturday against a Navy pass rush that has only generated four sacks in five games. The Midshipmen have been solid defensively against opposing passing games. However, some of that stems from opponents leaning more on the ground game against Navy's soft run defense. Nevertheless, the Midshipmen have done well to limit opponents to just 154.6 yards per game through the air. Linebacker Diego Fagot (40 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks) leads the way for the Navy defense.
When Navy Has the Ball
Navy's offensive plan of attack never changes. The Midshipmen are going to utilize their triple-option ground attack in a bid to run the football down the opposing team's throat and control the clock. But that strategy has been a bit of a struggle so far this season with star quarterback Malcolm Perry no longer around to direct the offense. The Midshipmen averaged a whopping 360.5 rushing yards per game last season with Perry — 62 more than any other team. They are averaging 190.4 rushing yards per game this season without him.
Navy has already utilized five quarterbacks this season, and none of them are averaging more than 2.5 yards per carry. Senior quarterback Dalen Morris (13-of-21, 233 yards, 1 touchdown) has been Navy's most efficient passer. However, throwing the football is a rarity in this offense, and it certainly isn't what Navy does best. Morris has also struggled with injuries, including a concussion last week that could keep him out this Saturday.
The good news is that the Midshipmen have gotten plenty of production from the fullback position this season. Nelson Smith (55 carries, 342 yards, 6 touchdowns, 6.2 ypc) and Jamale Carothers (75 carries, 311 yards, 2 TDs) have both been bright spots in leading the way for the Navy ground attack. And they will likely be called upon to carry the load again on Saturday against Houston. Carothers ran for a career-high 188 yards and five touchdowns against the Cougars last season, while Smith is coming off the best performance of his career against East Carolina last week, rushing for 157 yards and a pair of scores.
The bad news is that Houston's defense hasn't looked at all like the one the Midshipmen ran all over last season. While the sample size is small, the Houston run defense has been stout through two games, allowing just 2.1 yards per carry. More importantly, the Cougars held two of college football's most potent rushing attacks to season-low totals, limiting Tulane to 70 yards on the ground and giving up just 78 rushing yards against BYU. That being said, those were conventional run games, and Navy's triple-option ground attack is a completely different animal.
Navy put on a clinic against the Houston defense last season, rushing for 447 yards and eight touchdowns. But this simply isn't the same Navy rushing attack without Malcolm Perry running the show. The Cougars will still have their hands full on Saturday, and it's unlikely that they completely shut down the triple-option attack. However, Houston merely needs to slow it down and rely on its high-powered offense to do most of the heavy lifting against a suspect Navy defense that will have a hard time keeping the Cougars out of the end zone. Turnovers could be the great equalizer for the Midshipmen, but if the Cougars take care of the football, they should cruise to an easy victory on Saturday.
Prediction: Houston 41, Navy 24
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Marquez Stevenson photo courtesy of Houston Athletics)