Time and Date: Saturday, September 25 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Houston (-20)
ESPN FPI: Houston has 97.0% chance to win
All-time series: Houston leads, 5-2
Last meeting: Houston 37, Navy 21 — October 24, 2020
Setting the scene
Playing host duties this Saturday, Houston (2-1) is gifted with an opportunity to record its best start of the Dana Holgorsen era en route to a 1-0 record in AAC play. The Cougars have played five excellent halves of football through three games. Scrap the 31-0 result in the second half of Texas Tech game, Houston is outscoring opponents 110-14 this season. Speaking of lopsided deficits, Navy has been on the wrong end of multiple blowouts. The Midshipmen are currently winless after dropping their first two by a collective 72-10 score. There’s a chance to right the ship this Saturday after coming off a much-needed early bye week.
Houston Cougars outlook
The Cougars weren’t expecting a scare on the scoreboard against FCS opponent Grambling, but there were other reasons for concern in the 45-0 win. On the third drive of the game, third-year starting quarterback Clayton Tune got rocked by the defense while throwing an incompletion. Tune left the game with a hamstring injury — the same hamstring which looked noticeably shaken up during a 42-yard QB scramble at Rice the week prior.
Holgorsen inserted 2017 signee Ike Ogbogu into the game and the junior handled relief duties with poise. His first play resulted in an impressive third down completion to Nathaniel Dell, and he finished 14/22 with a pair of touchdown passes. How Tune fares in practice this week will determine Saturday’s quarterback, so Ogbogu’s first collegiate start might be in the works.
If Tune isn’t ready to go, Ogbogu should be supported by his improving backfield. Houston’s running backs couldn’t get anything going against Texas Tech, but true freshman Alton McCaskill emerged as the lead back in the Rice game and he hasn’t looked back since. McCaskill rushed for a career-high 114 yards against Grambling and registered two touchdowns to add to the three he contributed against Rice. McCaskill is not only a powerful runner — he is the exemplary halfback to bolster the passing game. He caught four passes for 51 yards in Week 2, and his receiving skills should allow Tune or Ogbogu to have a reliable checkdown option at all times.
In terms of downfield targets, it’s no question that Nathaniel “Tank” Dell is the preferred go-to for all Houston quarterbacks. Dell hauled in at least seven receptions in all three contests this year and his 22 receptions more than double anyone else on the roster. The potential All-AAC selection is well on his way to a career season, and he is filling Marquez Stevenson’s vacancy as the No. 1 receiver quite well. Tight end Christian Trahan is the only other Cougar with 10 receptions, and he has been an ideal target over the center of the field, roughly 5-15 yards from the line of scrimmage.
One wildcard player on Houston’s roster is Marcus Jones. Typically a starting cornerback, Jones moved to receiver in Week 2 and didn’t play a single down of defense. Wherever Holgorsen lines him up, he provides effective playmaking abilities with his speed and agility. Last week, Jones returned to the defensive side but his mark was especially felt on special teams, as he brought his second punt return touchdown to the house as a Cougar. Navy’s affinity to run the ball causes cornerbacks to take more of a backseat on defense, so it wouldn’t be surprising to watch Jones operate with the offense again this weekend.
No matter which side Jones plays, cornerback Damarion Williams possesses a major role in the defense. As the other cornerback, Williams has been particularly sharp in accruing open field tackles this season. The senior is fourth on the team in tackles, and his focus will shift to run stopping against a team which has only passed 26 times this year.
Houston has performed fairly well in containing the run, checking in at 39th in the country with an opponent average of 108 yards per game. Inside linebacker Donavan Mutin is essential to the Cougars’ ability to stop opposing halfbacks. Mutin already has racked up a team-high three tackles for loss this season and he forced a fumble in last week’s shutout victory.
But it’s not just the linebackers doing their part to contain running backs. Defensive tackle Logan Hall has been breaking through blockers this year to produce 13 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. With Sedrick Williams sidelined with ankle surgery, Hall needs to sustain this production in an especially important game for the defensive line.
Navy Midshipmen outlook
Remember when BYU pummeled Navy in a 55-3 final on Labor Day weekend in 2020, and it was clear the Midshipmen weren’t prepared for the season? The COVID restrictions were lifted, the team became 100 percent vaccinated, but still, the on-field product looks similar to 2020. Navy has yet to leave Annapolis in 2021, but the Midshipmen could use a change of scenery after disastrous results at home.
In Week 1, Marshall piled on 363 passing yards and six rushing touchdowns on track to a 49-7 victory in Annapolis. The following week, fellow triple option specialist Air Force ground its way to a gritty 23-3 win to set the Midshipmen at 0-2 for the first time since 2012.
Although the result wasn’t desirable, Navy showed major strides from game one to game two as a defense. While there were still several missed tackles against Air Force, the Midshipmen limited the fellow military academy to a 30 percent completion rate and 3.0 rushing yards per carry.
Navy presents an all-conference caliber inside linebacker in Diego Fagot, who hit the century mark in tackles two seasons ago while recording 5.5 sacks. Fagot is one of the best linebackers in the AAC and should confront the Houston running backs with a degree of force. One other name Houston’s defense must note is Kevin Brennan. The free safety is a menace in the turnover department, already loading his résumé with an interception and forced fumble this year. The Cougars have been quite interception prone with five picks through three games, so Brennan will look to pounce on any opportunity.
Although the defensive execution varied from week-to-week, one common theme of the two losses is the lack of scoring output. Navy moved the ball with regularity against Marshall, but costly red zone mistakes prevented the Midshipmen from going punch-for-punch with the Thundering Herd, and four red zone appearances resulted in just seven points. The Air Force game was a different story, and the triple option attack registered only 36 yards on 34 attempts. Navy was abysmal in critical down situations, finishing 1/12 on third downs on 0/2 on fourth downs in the 20-point loss.
Resurrecting the offense will be the main focal point for Ken Niumatalolo’s team. Xavier Arline will likely handle starting quarterback duties for the ground-heavy offense. He is responsible for the program’s lone touchdown of 2020 and his 107 rushing yards supersedes all other players on the roster. In terms of non-quarterbacks to look for in Navy’s rushing attack, fullback James Harris II has been the go-to read up the middle thus far. Harris, a senior from Mobile, AL, has 97 rushing yards under his belt and should be the No. 1 target for the Houston defensive tackles.
After enjoying a bye in Week 3, Navy will come out looking stronger than it did in its first two contests. But this isn’t going to be a shootout like 2019 at TDECU Stadium. Houston’s front seven won’t be perfect, but the unit should serve as a viable counter to the triple option after handling opponents’ rushing attacks with success season.
The Cougars’ offense has been hit or miss, but they enter this matchup with much more explosive potential whether Tune or Ogbogu gets the starting nod. Nathaniel Dell is by far the best receiver in this matchup, and after watching Marshall receivers light up Navy’s secondary, Dell should be in line to do the same. By virtue of the offense, Houston wins by several scores to jump to 3-1. Navy is handed with its worst start in 20 seasons.
Prediction: Houston 31, Navy 14