The start to the 2021 college football campaign was pretty dim for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. But three wins in the last four games — including two in a row — provide quite the momentum for Tulsa (3-4, 2-1 AAC), who comes off of a bye to host Navy. The Midshipmen (1-6, 1-4) have struggled even more this fall with a pair of three-game losing streaks bookending their lone win on Oct. 2 against UCF.
These two teams first met in 2004 in Tulsa, a 29-0 victory for Navy. After the Golden Hurricane bounced back two years later with a one-point win in Annapolis, the Midshipmen won the next five meetings — annually from 2015 to 2019 — by an average of more than 14 points. But it was Tulsa who grabbed the win last season, snapping the losing streak and securing a 19-6 victory last December. A win this week would be the Golden Hurricane's first at home against the Midshipmen, as Navy has won all four previous matchups by an average of 22.5 points.
Navy at Tulsa
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Tulsa -11
When Navy Has the Ball
In true Navy fashion, the Midshipmen stand atop the conference with more than 211 yards rushing per game this season. The issue is that the offense — despite the fourth-highest time of possession in the FBS at more than 35 minutes per game — has failed to exceed 250 yards in three of its seven contests. Why is that? Well, the passing attack has only eclipsed the century mark once this season, as Maasai Maynor, Tai Lavatai, and Xavier Arline have yet to find much of a rhythm in the air to provide any real balance to the run game.
It was nearly a dramatic upset last week against Cincinnati as Navy's fourth-quarter rally fell just a touchdown short. Isaac Ruoss rushed 19 times for 80 yards but was held out of the end zone for the third straight game, while Lavatai notched both of the Midshipmen's touchdowns with his legs. Ruoss leads the team in with 98 carries for 388 yards, while James Harris II (67 carries, 273 yards) and Lavatai (34, 214) sit behind him and just barely combine for more rushes than the senior fullback.
One of the main concerns with Navy's run-heavy option offense is the potential to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage, and Tulsa has thrived in that department while struggling to stop the pass. The Golden Hurricane have notched 16 total sacks and 6.6 TFLs per game thus far in 2021, both good for third in the AAC entering Week 9. Justin Wright leads the team with 3.5 of the 16 sacks, while cornerback Travon Fuller has picked off a pair of passes and broken up eight more, looming as a factor whenever the Midshipmen — even if only sporadically — go to the air.
When Tulsa Has the Ball
The Golden Hurricane have allowed nearly as many yards through the air on defense as they've gained on offense so far in 2021. Tulsa's offense has been quite vertically focused as they've averaged nearly 14.2 yards per completion, with Davis Brin trailing only Memphis' Seth Hanigan (15.6) among AAC signal-callers and sitting top 15 in the FBS. But Brin has been picked off eight times in the last five games and 10 times total, the most interceptions thrown by any AAC quarterback thus far in 2021.
When Brin finds his own teammates, though, the results tend to be pretty big plays. Sam Crawford Jr. (19.0), JuanCarlos Santana (14.4), and Josh Johnson (13.5) are all among the top 15 in the AAC in yards per reception, with Crawford pacing the conference thanks to his 67 yards and a touchdown on just four catches against South Florida two weeks ago. The Golden Hurricane also had one of their best games on the ground against the Bulls, rushing for 269 yards as Shamari Brooks (23 att., 145 yds.) and Deneric Prince (19, 110) each found the end zone in Tulsa's comeback win in Tampa.
That momentum in the run game will be up against one of the stiffest defensive fronts in the conference on Friday night, though. Across the AAC, only Houston (102.9) has given up fewer yards on the ground than Navy's 131.4. But while the Midshipmen have limited their opponents' yards rushing in front of the line of scrimmage, they've had a much tougher time making plays behind the line. Navy has mustered just six sacks in its seven games — and enters Week 9 with fewer than four TFLs per game. Cornerback Michael McMorris has been a playmaker in the secondary with three forced fumbles, while Kevin Brennan, Diego Fagot and Taylor Robinson have recovered one apiece.
Both of these teams have allowed roughly 32 points per game entering this week, so whichever defense can step up should provide a big boost to its team's chances of coming away with a win. Another key to watch will be penalties, as Navy leads the AAC and is top-five in the FBS in fewest penalties committed and penalty yards assessed. Tulsa, meanwhile, is last in the conference and among the bottom-15 nationally in penalties committed and penalty yards accrued. Tulsa's offense may be the more prolific, but discipline — or lack thereof — could play a major role as the night unfolds.
Prediction: Tulsa 27, Navy 16
— 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.