SMU will visit Annapolis to square off with Navy on Saturday afternoon, looking to win consecutive games in the series for just the third time and the first since the Mustangs won three straight in 1963, '66 and '93.
SMU (9-1, 5-1 AAC) enters after a bye week that followed three straight games decided by eight points or fewer. Two Saturdays ago, the Mustangs narrowly finished off East Carolina 59-51, as Shane Buechele threw five touchdown passes while Xavier Jones went over 150 yards rushing and found the end zone three times. Navy (7-2, 5-1), meanwhile, is coming off a 52-20 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend that wasn’t even as close as the score might indicate. The offense never found a groove, and the defense gave up by far the most points it had allowed in a single game this season, surpassing the previous high of 38 against Tulane.
Last year, SMU came away with a 31-30 win over Navy, its first against the Midshipmen since Nov. 21, 1998. Navy leads the all-time series 12-8, buoyed by eight consecutive wins from 2002 to '17 and has won 11 of 12 overall against SMU. The Midshipmen are a perfect 5-0 at home this season, averaging 39.4 points per game in Annapolis. SMU's only loss of the season came on the road, a 54-48 thriller to Memphis on Nov. 2. The Tigers (9-1, 5-1) are currently in first place in the American Athletic Conference West Division thanks to head-to-head wins over both Navy and SMU.
SMU at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Navy -3.5
When SMU Has the Ball
In most offensive categories, both SMU and Navy sit atop the AAC, or at least among its leaders, with SMU leading or trailing UCF in nearly every non-rushing facet. Shane Buechele sits tied with Memphis’ Brady White for the conference lead with 28 passing touchdowns and paces all AAC quarterbacks with 3,195 yards passing. His 414-yard, four-touchdown effort in the shootout against East Carolina hardly hurt his season stat line; it marked the third time in the last four games that Buechele had surpassed 400 yards passing.
The offense consists of far more than just Buechele, however. The nation’s sixth-most potent offense (522.2 total yards per game) is backed by two of the nation’s seven highest point scorers in Buechele and running back Xavier Jones. Jones’ 18 rushing touchdowns are the third-best mark nationally, and his 1,063 rushing yards are good for 12th in the FBS. He’s gone over the 100-yard mark in five of his last six games. James Proche leads the nation with 8.8 receptions per game, and through 10 games he’s averaging 100.8 receiving yards per contest. Last week, Proche erupted for 14 catches for 167 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Kylen Granson also had a big day, hauling in seven passes for 138 yards and Buechele’s other three touchdowns.
Navy’s defense — which entered among the 20 stingiest units in terms of both points and total yards allowed — surrendered 38 first-half points and 415 total yards to Notre Dame. The Midshipmen did not record a sack, nor did they manage to turn the Irish over all afternoon. To make matters worse, they allowed quarterback Ian Book to find his favorite target, senior wide receiver Chase Claypool, for a school-record four receiving touchdowns in a 7-catch, 117-yard performance.
When Navy Has the Ball
Navy’s triple-option offense could not find any semblance of rhythm against Notre Dame last week, mustering just three points by halftime and only two touchdowns in a 52-20 loss. Malcolm Perry accounted for 153 total yards, 117 of which came on the ground via 25 carries. He was ultimately relieved by Perry Olsen, who led the offense to just 207 yards.
Despite their struggles a week ago, the Midshipmen now rank 14th in time of possession at 33:03 — up from 19th heading into the week — which speaks to their ability to control the game and manage the clock like few other teams. They currently sit in the top 40 in total offense at 446 yards per game and 13th in the FBS in scoring at 37.9 points per game. A 10-win season is still possible but will take wins in the final three weeks, including in the season finale against Army in Philadelphia on Dec. 14.
SMU has had two weeks to prepare for Navy’s unique attack, and it undoubtedly needed every hour to recover and refocus given the way its defense has struggled in 2019. The Mustangs rank 91st in the FBS in total defense, allowing nearly 426 yards per game, and 103rd in scoring defense at 32.7 points allowed per game. One bright spot is the pressure they’ve been able to cause in the backfield, with their 4.2 sacks per game and 8.6 tackles for loss per game good for second and fifth, respectively, in the FBS. Last week didn’t help matters, as East Carolina (now 3-7) tallied 51 points and 644 yards of total offense in the loss on Nov. 9.
The renewal of a series that dates back to 1930 will feature two distinctly successful offensive mindsets, with SMU flying all over the field and Navy moving methodically via the triple option. Both have been quite successful this year, so it will also be interesting to see how much of a role momentum plays, with SMU coming off a bye following a big win and Navy trying to bounce back from a throttling defeat against Notre Dame that knocked the Midshipmen out of the top 25.
Prediction: SMU 41, Navy 34
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of SMU Athletics)