Two programs desperate for an AAC victory clashed Thursday night and contrasting styles defined the matchup in the Liberty Bowl. On one hand, Memphis trotted out its top 20 passing offense, renowned for taking deep shots and unleashing trickery on opponents. On the other side lined up Navy, a grind-it-out physical offense which lives and dies by its signature triple option.
Styles make fights, and the more glamorous of the two offenses threw the most punches. Piecing together big play after big play, Memphis (4-3, 1-2 AAC) snapped its 3-game losing skid to attain its first AAC win of the season. The Tigers never trailed in their 35-17 win over Navy (1-5, 1-3 AAC) and extended their winning streak over the Midshipmen to three games.
Memphis true freshman quarterback Seth Henigan only dropped back to pass 12 times, yet his limited opportunities created endless fireworks. Henigan connected on eight passes for 215 yards in the victory, averaging an absurd 26.9 yards per completion in the victory.
Head coach Ryan Silverfield elected to receive the opening kick with full confidence his offense was ready to ignite. On the first play of the game, Henigan fired a dart to wide receiver Javon Ivory, who split the Navy defense for a 49-yard gain. Six plays later, Henigan found beloved red zone target Sean Dykes for a quick touchdown to complete a sub-three minute drive.
The center of the field was open all game for Henigan, and the Navy defense struggled to contain that area with starting free safety Kevin Brennan sidelined with an injury. It was déjà vu for the Midshipmen when Henigan split the safeties again to complete a similar pass to Eddie Lewis in the second quarter, and Lewis’ downfield reception resulted in a 74-yard touchdown.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Henigan once again targeted the sweet spot and delivered a ball into the pocket of Koby Drake’s hands for a 51-yard completion. The Tigers scored on a Marquavius Weaver touchdown run three plays later to claim a 35-17 lead with 6:07 remaining in the third quarter, signifying the final points of the night by either team.
While Memphis’ offense flew down the field at warp speed, Navy preferred to drain clock and wear out the opposing defense. The Midshipmen hogged 39 minutes of possession time, and they initiated the game by logging the longest drive of the college football season. Navy’s opening sequence consumed nearly 12 minutes of clock and lasted 21 plays. No Midshipmen accumulated more than eight yards on the drive, but repeated conversions on third and fourth downs sustained the never-ending possession. Navy wound up tying the score on a fullback dive to James Harris II by the goal line.
In a perfect contrast between the two teams, Memphis responded to Navy’s endless drive in one play. The Tigers immediately ran a reverse to star wide receiver Calvin Austin III and the results couldn’t have been more fortunate for the offense. Receiving a powerful downfield block from Dykes, Austin sprinted to the house for a 69-yard score — one of four Memphis plays to exceed 45 yards Thursday night. Austin, the FBS’s leading receiver, added to his All-American worthy résumé by attaining his first rushing touchdown of the season. Now, he has made end zone appearances as a rusher, a receiver, and a punt returner en route to a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Only two FBS teams allow more passing yards per game than Memphis, so the Tigers’ defense looked vastly improved against a program which is reliant on the option attack. Memphis held Navy to 3.0 yards per carry, and the Tigers managed to out-gain their opponent on the ground. John Tate IV was an especially notable playmaker from the nose tackle position, generating two of Memphis’ six tackles for loss in the team’s best defensive showing of the season. Navy’s rare passing dropbacks didn’t produce the most desired results for Ken Niumatalolo’s team, and Memphis concluded the night with four sacks, while the offensive line prevented Henigan from absorbing one.
Memphis reprehensibly squandered early leads in each contest during its 3-game skid, and those stunning losses included 21-0 and 17-0 advantages. Up 28-10 at halftime Thursday night, the Tigers turned up the clamps defensively to ensure they wouldn’t fall victim to that scenario again. The Midshipmen scored a touchdown on their first drive of the second half in 14-play, clock-eating fashion. But after that instance, Memphis stifled Navy’s offense to just 35 yards on the final four possessions. The triple option attack never broke through to the final level of the defense, and Navy’s longest run in 65 attempts stood at just 15 yards.
The Tigers exited the Liberty Bowl with a sorely needed victory. After a roller coaster first half of the 2021 season, Memphis will continue the quest for its eighth consecutive winning season on Friday night in a trip to the Bounce House against a familiar rival in UCF.
Things won’t get much easier for Navy in the near future, however. In the midst of their worst start since 2002, the Midshipmen travel back to Annapolis next Saturday to face a Cincinnati team currently situated at No. 3 in the AP Poll.