Tulane looks to remain unbeaten, while Navy hopes to get back on track in the conference opener for both teams on Saturday in the Big Easy. The Green Wave started their 2020 season last Saturday with a comeback victory over South Alabama. On the other sideline, the Midshipmen are reeling a bit since a 55-3 loss to BYU on Labor Day. With two weeks to prepare, Navy should fix some of the issues that plagued this team in the opener.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo did not have full-contact practices leading up to the opener against BYU. The Midshipmen struggled in that game with tackling and winning the battle in the trenches. After the loss, Niumatalolo promised to bring contact back in practice, so it’s unlikely Navy will have another showing like it did in the opener. Under Niumatalolo’s watch, the Midshipmen are 98-61 since 2007 and have won at least nine games in three out of the last five seasons.
The start of the 2020 season has been a busy one for Tulane coach Willie Fritz. In addition to navigating the difficulty of preparing for a season in the midst of a global pandemic, Fritz guided the Green Wave to a comeback victory over South Alabama last Saturday and inked a new contract extension on Monday. The seven-year deal will keep Fritz in New Orleans until 2026.
Tulane holds a 12-11-1 series edge over Navy. Each of the last four matchups has been decided by less than seven points. The Midshipmen are 3-1 against the Green Wave since joining the AAC.
Navy at Tulane
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at Noon ET
Spread: Tulane - 7
When Navy Has the Ball
How Navy replaced prolific quarterback Malcolm Perry was one of the big questions coming into the 2020 season. After one game, Niumatalolo and play-caller Ivin Jasper are still searching for answers. Dalen Morris got the start against BYU but completed two of four throws for 16 yards and ran for only two yards over seven carries. Perry Olsen was next up, but he entered the transfer portal after the opener. Morris is listed atop the depth chart for Saturday’s game. However, freshmen Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai, sophomore Maasai Maynor and junior Tyger Goslin could all push for snaps if Morris struggles on Saturday.
Navy’s offense was held to just 119 yards (3.1 per carry) in the opener against BYU. The uncertainty or lack of production at the quarterback position was certainly a factor, but the Midshipmen also need better play up front. The offensive line allowed five sacks and eight tackles for a loss. With three new starters in the trenches, this unit may need a couple of games to jell. With a week off and more contact in practices, Niumatalolo and Jasper could see a much-improved effort out of this unit on Saturday. And if that’s the case, the timing couldn’t be better. Tulane owns one of the top defenses in the AAC and held South Alabama to 83 rushing yards (2.4 per carry) and recorded five sacks last week. Edge rusher Patrick Johnson and end Cameron Sample wreaked havoc against the Jaguars, combining to record four sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss. The Green Wave have had some success against Navy’s option attack in recent years. Fritz’s defense held the Midshipmen under 200 rushing yards in two out of the last three games.
After struggling to win the battle up front against BYU, Navy’s hopes of an improved attack start with better blocking and finding more consistency out of the quarterback position. If both of those areas are solidified, the door will be open for the Midshipmen’s skill to be on display better than it was against BYU. Jamale Carothers, Nelson Smith, Chance Warren, CJ Williams and Myles Fells form a productive group in the backfield, with Mychal Cooper returning as the team’s top go-to option on the outside.
When Tulane Has the Ball
It’s no secret Navy is one of the best rushing teams in college football, and while the schemes and styles are different, the strength of Tulane’s offense also rests with this plan of attack. The Green Wave finished 11th nationally last season and ran for 203 yards in the opener against South Alabama. Redshirt freshman Tyjae Spears (105 yards) led the way last week, but Amare Jones (29), Cameron Carroll (26), and Stephon Huderson (15) are also going to see plenty of opportunities. Despite the slow start against South Alabama, Tulane still finished the game by averaging 5.6 yards a snap over 70 plays.
Quarterback Keon Howard and a revamped group of receivers were the biggest preseason question mark surrounding Tulane’s offense. Howard started his career at Southern Miss and played well in limited time last year. However, he needs to take better care of the ball and showcase better accuracy for the offense to exceed last season’s production (33.1 ppg). Howard connected on 14 of 30 passes for 191 yards and ran for 31 yards and a score in the opener last Saturday. Jha’Quan Jackson (three catches for 44 yards) was his main target, but eight other players caught passes, including four from running backs.
Navy’s defense struggled mightily in the loss to BYU, surrendering 8.2 yards per play and allowing scores on nine of 12 drives. This group ranked second in the AAC in fewest points allowed (22.3 per game) last season and returned seven starters. The Midshipmen also led the AAC in rush defense last fall but gave up 301 rushing yards to the Cougars in the opener. The defense is likely to benefit from the extra contact in practice, along with the off week to prepare for Tulane’s offense. However, while the Green Wave’s offensive line isn’t quite as good as the one BYU brought to Annapolis, this unit ranks in the top half of the AAC.
With the unusual offseason, it’s still too early to have a good grasp on where both teams are coming into this matchup. Navy isn’t as bad as it played in the opener against BYU, but can the question marks on both lines of scrimmage and under center be addressed in just two weeks? The recent history between these two teams suggests a close game on Saturday. With two teams possessing strong ground attacks, overall possessions could be limited. Turnovers will be an x-factor. Navy should have a better showing than it did in Week 1, but Tulane’s defensive line will create enough stops to be the difference.