- Time and date: Saturday, October 22 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium — Annapolis, MD
- Spread: Houston (-3)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 61.7% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 6-2
- Last meeting: Houston 28, Navy 20 — September 25, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 2 (2020-21)
Setting the scene
We’ve reached “football weather” season. At kickoff, the temperatures are supposed to hover below 60 degrees in Annapolis as Houston travels from its warmer climate to the mid-Atlantic region.
The Cougars (3-3, 1-1 AAC) enjoyed a much-needed bye week after erasing a 19-point fourth quarter deficit in their last outing to stun Memphis. That game marked the fifth time in six outings a Houston game came down to the final play, so Dana Holgorsen’s squad hopes to finally settle a ballgame without leaning on late-game heroics. The Cougars’ season seemingly turned around in 2021 after storming back from a 10-point halftime hole against Navy, and the Cougars look to once again solve the Midshipmen’s unconventional tactics in their final meeting as AAC opponents.
Meanwhile, Navy (2-4, 2-2 AAC) has recovered well from a concerning 0-2 start by posting solid showings against AAC competition. The Midshipmen served as a thorn in the side of East Carolina and Tulsa, showing the ability to score early and often against the latter opponent in a 53-point outburst. Navy returns home for the first time since blowing by Tulsa, hoping to remain alive in a crowded AAC race with its third conference win of 2022.
Houston Cougars outlook
Saturday’s matchup will be a pivotal one for the Cougars, which are aiming to find direction in a roller coaster of a season. Houston has three one-score wins all essentially decided on the final play of the game and two overtime losses which also transpired in nail-biting fashion. Simply put, Dana Holgorsen’s team has not really played a normal game this year.
A typical Houston thriller involves a slow offensive start and a rabid second half comeback. Thus, the Cougars must piece together stronger scripted drives from the get-go because establishing a first quarter offense is a priority. Houston has a -56 margin in first halves this year without holding a single halftime lead, so the team must focus on opening up the verticality of the offense and connecting on explosive plays out of the gate.
Quarterback Clayton Tune is fresh off his first 300-yard performance of the year after firing for 366 in Memphis. And he comes with a clear No. 1 option in his receiver room. Tank Dell has 43 receptions, 534 yards, and six touchdowns this year, remaining on an All-AAC pace for the second straight year. The gap between Dell and the next highest Cougar in each category is jarring, as the star slot receiver holds a 26-reception, 201-yard, and 4-touchdown lead on Matthew Golden, who ranks second in each category. However, Golden is unable to go Saturday with a rib injury so the team turns to former Big 12 receivers KeSean Carter and Sam Brown to carry the production outside of Dell.
Tight end Christian Trahan could be a focal point of the offense as well. After a lack of playing time to start the season, the veteran corralled a season-high five receptions for 73 yards against Memphis. In the running game, Brandon Campbell will be the bellcow back. The USC transfer is still searching for his first 100-yard game of the season, and he’ll certainly receive the reps required to get there after his counterpart Ta’Zhawn Henry underwent foot surgery which will keep him out for several weeks.
Houston has been severely banged up this year and the Cougars’ CVS receipt of injuries continues to lengthen. Cornerback Alex Hogan became the third defensive starter to suffer a season-ending ailment after suffering a left knee injury against Memphis. He joins outside linebacker Malik Robinson and defensive end Derek Parish among defenders Houston has been forced to replace. Hogan’s injury will place Abdul Lateef-Audu into the starting lineup. Lateef-Audu previously experienced starters’ minutes against Tulane when Art Green missed that contest. Now, Lateef-Audu and Green will work together in containing the boundaries to limit Navy from bouncing their high-powered rushing attack outside.
Although the cornerbacks will have their work cut out for them, the front seven plays an especially significant role in stopping the triple option. Saturday will be a crucial one for star defensive end D’Anthony Jones and middle linebacker Donavan Mutin — two of Houston’s healthy stars on that side of the ball. Jones enters the contest with 6.5 tackles for loss, ranking second to Parish in the category. His backfield penetration will be key while Houston will rely on Mutin’s presence at the next level to prevent Navy from explosive runs. Mutin leads the Cougars in tackles and registered eight against the Midshipmen in last September’s meeting — the most of any returning player.
Navy Midshipmen outlook
Navy’s 2-game conference win streak was snapped in a nationally televised primetime game at SMU last Friday. While head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team amassed 510 yards of offense and put together a valiant effort at the end to rewrite the score to 40-34, the game was essentially in SMU’s control from the third quarter onward.
Quarterback Tai Lavatai rushed for a season-high 120 yards against the Mustangs while also picking up 138 through the air. But if we learned anything from Navy’s rout of Tulsa, the Midshipmen offense operates at its best when avoiding the air completely — as they only needed two completions to compile 53 points that afternoon. Thus, Navy hopes to establish an effective ground game from the start, featuring heavy doses of fullback Daba Fofana. The 5’8”, 205 pound sophomore racked up 159 yards and three touchdowns against the Golden Hurricane and he retained the role as Navy’s most utilized back in the SMU game.
Another staple in the run game for the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing offense is wide receiver Maquel Haywood, who frequently motions behind the quarterback on sweep plays. Haywood enters Saturday fresh off a career-best 95 rushing yards and the sophomore also enjoyed a crucial role in the running game during Navy’s overtime upset win over East Carolina. Fofana, Lavatai, and Haywood are the team’s three top rushers as the only Midshipmen with over 250 yards on the season, and they collectively are responsible for two-thirds of the offense’s rushing touchdowns in 2022.
Navy’s defensive performances have been rather volatile this season, ranging from shutting down a capable East Carolina offense and holding Air Force to 13 points, to yielding 40 to SMU and surrendering over 500 yards of offense to Memphis. But as suggested by Air Force’s inability to generate ample production on Navy’s defense, the Midshipmen are very sound when it comes to containing the ground. Navy ranks seventh nationally in stifling opponents to 89.5 yards per game and ball carriers only average 3.1 yards per carry on this tenacious run defense.
The pass defense is a different story, however. SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai fired for an efficient 336 yards and three touchdowns last Friday and Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan managed 415 passing yards — establishing a trend of AAC quarterbacks feasting on the Navy secondary. Houston’s offense is more aerial based and with the on-field presence of Tank Dell, the Midshipmen must ameliorate these struggles to have a chance. Navy and Houston allow similar passing numbers per game, ranked 111th and 112th in aerial defense respectively. But the Midshipmen are more susceptible to giving up home run plays, as only four teams yield more passing yards per attempt than Navy’s 14.7.
The primary name to watch on Navy’s defense is John Marshall, who operates from the ‘striker’ position. A hybrid between a linebacker and safety, Marshall leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss while serving as the second-best pass rusher on the unit with 3.0 sacks.
Navy can pose some problems for Houston. The Midshipmen run plenty of motions and eye candy on offense similar to what Kansas employed in Week 3 against the Cougars, and Houston ended up on the wrong side of a 48-30 decision that day. Even last year, Navy held a double-digit halftime lead over the Cougars.
But still, Houston possesses enough disruption on the front lines with D’Anthony Jones and Nelson Ceaser playing the all-important defensive end roles against the triple option. Also, the Cougars’ passing offense matches up well against Navy, and the Clayton Tune to Tank Dell connection should have a productive day.
This one might be close for a while due to the lack of possessions, but Houston will pull away and improve to 4-3 when the final buzzer sounds in Annapolis.
Prediction: Houston 30, Navy 21