The Memphis Tigers are set to travel to Annapolis Saturday for an AAC West showdown with the Navy Midshipmen. Memphis started 2018 with a bang by beating FCS opponent Mercer 66-14. The Midshipmen also lit up the scoreboard against a non-conference opponent but struggled defensively and were upset 59-41 at Hawaii. However, despite the setback on the islands and the exhausting travel schedule that accompanied it, Navy should still be considered a threat to dethrone the reigning division champs.
Memphis at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Both Memphis and Navy entered 2018 with relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, though both have huge potential. The Tigers lost 4,000-yard passer Riley Ferguson to graduation but called on highly touted former Arizona State signee Brady White to replace him. White shined in his first start, completing 22-of-28 pass attempts for 358 yards and five touchdowns (all five in the first half and to five different receivers) without an interception and adding 20 rushing yards on three carries as well.
Each of White’s first three TD passes came on a big play: a 45-yarder to Damonte Coxie, a 75-yarder to Patrick Taylor and a 62-yarder to Darrell Henderson. It’s a small sample size, but if Week 1 was any indication, Memphis should be just as explosive this year as it was last season.
In an attempt to make the most of his dynamic playmaking ability, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo gave Malcolm Perry three late-season starts at quarterback in 2017. Perry, who gained 1,182 rushing yards and scored 11 TDs split between QB and slot back, entered the ’18 season atop the depth chart despite the return of veteran signal caller Zach Abey.
Though he couldn’t lead his team to victory in Week 1, Perry got off to a strong start by gaining 108 rushing yards on 17 attempts, including a 75-yard touchdown. He was sacked three times and completed only one of three pass attempts, but it was a 19-yard touchdown.
2. Can Navy stop the pass?
It’s never a good sign when a team scores 41 points and loses by three scores. Navy achieved that ugly distinction last week in a game in which it allowed 522 yards of total offense — 436 of them through the air. The Midshipmen surrendered 10.4 yards per attempt in the season opener, placing them 113th among all FBS defenses. Last year, Navy allowed 8.4 yards allowed per pass, which tied for 114th overall.
With White behind center for the Tigers, Memphis has the potential to do even more damage in Week 2. White and backup Brady McBride combined for 428 passing yards a week ago. Last year, Memphis led the AAC and ranked No. 7 in the country with 335 passing yards per game, though Navy held the Tigers to 279.
3. Can Memphis stop the run?
The Tigers got off to a great start defensively in Week 1. Memphis held Mercer to just 174 total yards, 3.41 yards per play, and 60 rushing yards — all of those numbers currently top the AAC. However, Navy poses a much more difficult threat to the Tigers than Mercer did, especially on the ground. It’s also worth noting that Memphis is coming off a 2017 campaign in which it allowed 184.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked sixth in the conference and 85th nationally. The Midshipmen racked up 314 rushing yards against Memphis last year, the second most of any team against the Tigers.
The Midshipmen picked up right where they left off and amassed an impressive 326 rushing yards last week against Hawaii. That total currently ranks atop the AAC leaderboard, two yards ahead of Memphis, and sits seventh among all FBS offenses. Navy scored five rushing touchdowns last week and averaged 6.65 yards per carry. In addition to Perry’s 100-yard performance, Nelson Smith gained 86 yards on 10 carries and receiver/short-yardage quarterback Zach Abey scored four times on five attempts.
Navy is back home in Annapolis, but the Midshipmen might still feel the effects of the 9,600-mile round trip to Honolulu — the longest any FBS program will make in 2018. As a result, the Midshipmen must use a short week of preparation to find answers to the defensive issues that plagued them. To make matters worse, Navy is facing a Memphis offense that appears to be just as explosive as it was a year ago.
The Midshipmen should still be dangerous offensively, and the Navy rushing attack is in good hands with Perry, Smith and Abey. Nevertheless, Memphis is one of the strongest teams in the conference from top to bottom. The Tigers looked good against the run last week and should be able to score enough on a tired Navy defense to pick up a victory on the road in the conference opener.
Prediction: Memphis 45, Navy 31
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo by Joe Murphy/University of Memphis)