The Memphis Tigers face a must-win situation on Thursday evening as they host the Navy Midshipmen looking to end a three-game losing streak.
Gaining a lead had not been an issue for the Tigers (3-3) before last Saturday, as they were held scoreless in the first quarter against Tulsa for the first time all season. After a furious comeback in the second quarter that cut the lead to one at halftime, the Golden Hurricane controlled much of the second half, rattling off 21 points to extend the margin, resulting in a third-straight loss for Memphis. Staring at 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference, the Tigers need to turn their season around quickly if they are to remain anywhere near the vicinity of the current leaders.
As for Navy (1-4), the Midshipmen are 1-2 since the bye week drama that occurred in mid-September following the firing and then rehiring of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper but have improved immensely on that side of the ball over the last three games. After scoring just 10 points in the first two weeks of the season, the Midshipmen are averaging 26 points per game in the last three contests, including an upset win over UCF. Navy fell to SMU last week 31-24 in disappointing fashion after holding a two-touchdown lead at one point, but the marked improvements from the beginning of the year are apparent.
Navy at Memphis
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -10.5
When Navy Has the Ball
One reason for the improvements on offense in recent weeks has been the stability at the quarterback position where sophomore Tai Lavatai has taken every offensive snap over the last two games. This still isn't the Navy offense of old under the likes of Keenan Reynolds or Malcolm Perry under center, but 26 points per game in the last three weeks is a drastic upgrade from where the Midshipmen were at the start of the year.
The unfortunate part of running the triple-option as Navy does is the Middies can't take advantage of a Memphis secondary that is giving up 316 passing yards per game on the season, ranked 128th in the country, and with 15 touchdowns to just one interception. As has been the case since the beginning of time seemingly, the Midshipmen are within the top five in the country in run play percentage (82 percent), which is actually down from 88 percent over the previous three seasons.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Several Memphis offensive players set numerous career highs last week against Tulsa, including quarterback Seth Henigan, who threw for 463 yards and two touchdowns but also completed just 59 percent of his throws and turned the ball over multiple times. Turnovers have plagued the Tigers all season, sitting tied for 121st in the country in turnover margin (-7), including five fumbles during this three-game slide. Running back Brandon Thomas was benched briefly after going through some fumble issues, but he had a bounce-back performance against Tulsa, finishing with 77 yards on the ground and two rushing scores. Thomas ranks 17th in the country with 586 rushing yards and six scores on the year.
Star receiver Calvin Austin III also set a career high last week with 13 receptions for 200 yards and a touchdown against the Hurricane, and he now sits atop the country with 837 receiving yards on the season. When Memphis takes to the air, it's likely going in the direction of either Austin or tight end Sean Dykes, who is seventh in the country in receptions among those at his position.
Despite a 1-4 record, defense hasn't been the issue for Navy. The Midshipmen are 57th nationally in total defense and are allowing just 3.55 yards per carry in 2021.
It's a critical juncture for the Tigers, who not only need a win for morale but also to stay within a puncher's chance at the conference crown, however unlikely that might be at this point. Navy has clearly improved since the start of the season with the stability at quarterback, but don't have enough offensive firepower to keep up with Austin and Co. on the road. Memphis salvages its season for one week with a victory at home.
Prediction: Memphis 35, Navy 20
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.