The conference season is becoming more of a central focus for the SMU Mustangs, who will host their first AAC game of the season when they face off with the Navy Midshipmen on Friday night in Dallas. This Week 7 matchup will be the Mustangs' second of three midweek games, while it marks the Midshipmen's only non-Saturday showdown in 2022.
Navy started its season fairly slowly, combining for just 20 total points in a pair of disappointing home losses to FCS Delaware and Memphis. But the Midshipmen utilized their Week 3 bye to work out some of the bumps in the road and got into the win column with a 23-20 overtime win at East Carolina, and then followed a narrow 13-10 loss at Air Force with a dominant 53-21 win at Tulsa. Navy's 53-point output was its largest since a pair of 56-point showings in November 2019. The first of those two 56-point efforts — a 56-10 win over UConn — was the last time the Midshipmen won a game by at least 30 points.
SMU, on the other hand, has had essentially the opposite flow for the first few weeks of 2022. The Mustangs posted 48 and 45 points in wins over North Texas and FCS Lamar to open the season but scored just 80 total points across their next three games — all losses — to Maryland, TCU, and UCF. The 19 points against UCF made for SMU's lowest-scoring game so far this season (averaging 34.6 ppg).
One positive for SMU, however, is its recent success in this series. After the Mustangs won six of the first seven meetings between these two schools and seven of the first 11, Navy collected eight straight wins between 2002 and 2017. But SMU has come away victorious in three of the last four meetings, most recently a 51-37 home win in 2020 followed by a 31-24 win in Annapolis last season.
Navy at SMU
When Navy Has the Ball
Over their first four games of the season, the only one in which Navy had outgained its opponent was in Week 1 … the loss to FCS Delaware, when the Midshipmen outgained the Blue Hens by 117 total yards despite being held scoreless in the first half and losing three turnovers. But the script more than flipped last week when Navy not only gained 490 total yards of offense but did so with 455 of those yards coming on the ground, the Midshipmen's highest rushing output since Week 3 of 2018.
Leading the way in that effort was Daba Fofana, who ran 21 times for 159 yards and three touchdowns for what was by far the best game of his career. Coming into Week 6, the sophomore fullback had notched 46 carries for just 116 yards and had not found the end zone, rendering this quite the breakthrough game for Fofana.
Vincent Terrell II and Nathan Kent were next for the Midshipmen, with the pair combining for 19 rushes for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kent managed to find open space on a reverse for a 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, his first play as a collegiate athlete. Quarterback Tai Lavatai completed just one of his six passes for only nine yards but still managed to find the end zone in the passing game … as a receiver. Lavatai's lone completion went to Mark Walker, but it was running back Kai Puailoa-Rojas who found Lavatai on a trick play for a 26-yard touchdown to cap off Navy's first drive of the second half.
The Midshipmen's prolific rushing attack will be tough for SMU to stop, as the Mustangs possess a bottom-30 run defense nationally, allowing 176.4 yards per game on the ground this season. Where SMU has thrived, however, is in getting off the field on third downs. The Mustangs have allowed opponents to convert just 31.5 percent of third downs, so if they're able to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage and force the Midshipmen into some second- and third-and-long situations, they might be able to slow down the Midshipmen's offense.
When SMU Has the Ball
While the Midshipmen possess a top-15 rushing offense, the Mustangs enter this week with 500 total yards of offense per game, leading the AAC and ranking ninth in FBS. Tanner Mordecai likewise leads the conference with 336 passing yards per game, even despite struggling mightily in last week's loss at UCF, when he was held under 300 yards passing for just the second time this season. Mordecai also threw one interception and no touchdowns against the Knights, which snapped his streak of 16 straight games as a Mustang — every single game since he transferred from Oklahoma — with at least one touchdown, registering multiple touchdown passes in 14 of those 16 games.
One of his primary connections this season has been Rashee Rice, whose 137.4 receiving yards per game — on 9.2 receptions per game — stand atop the conference and second in FBS. Rice's 687 receiving yards for the season is the third-highest total across all FBS receivers and is just one yard behind Old Dominion's Ali Jennings III for the top mark among receivers on teams who have played just five games in 2022.
Look for Mordecai to likely rely heavily upon Rice's production and the pair's connection going forward. Recent transfer Jake Bailey — who missed multiple games early in the season due to a fall camp shoulder injury — broke through with an eight-reception, 163-yard effort with a touchdown against TCU before re-injuring himself against UCF. That injury, according to head coach Rhett Lashlee, "probably" will force Bailey to miss the rest of the season.
A return to a high-scoring production will be critical for SMU, as Navy has held four of its five opponents this season to 21 or fewer points, with Memphis' 37-point showing in Week 2 the lone exception. The Mustangs will need to tighten their grip on their possessions in order to do so, however, having lost 12 turnovers — seven interceptions, five fumbles — through five games, the second-most in the conference entering this week.
One area where Navy does hold a stark advantage is key: time of possession. Not only do the Midshipmen often find themselves among the FBS leaders in this category — and do so once again in 2022 currently in second at 37 minutes per game — but SMU has only had the ball for 26 minutes per contest, a number that tops only five other teams. If Navy can once again dominate possession while finding ways to get through SMU's subpar run defense, the Midshipmen should be able to carry forward their wave of momentum to another victory.
Prediction: Navy 31, SMU 24
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the editor-in-chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
*Price as of publication.