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Navy Football: The Midshipmen fall to the Memphis Tigers

Both the Navy Midshipmen and the Memphis Tigers came into this Week 5 Thursday Night matchup with perfect records. Naturally, only one would exit undefeated.

NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Fast Start

On the very first play, Keoni-Kordell Makekau broke loose for a 41 yard run. That long drive resulted in a touchdown, giving Navy the early lead. However, Memphis quickly responded with an immediate 75-yard touchdown run by, Kenneth Gainwell, on their first offensive play.

Memphis’ ability to cut through Navy’s defense, like a hot knife through butter, made me begin to lose hope in this defensive unit that has gone through a complete remodel. Yet, that optimism was quickly regained as this touchdown was the lone score by the Memphis offense in the first half. Additionally, the defense recorded multiple sacks, forced 3-and-outs, and forced a fumble. The defense under new defensive coordinator Brian Newberry is showing significant flashes of what this unit is capable of the rest of this season and beyond.

NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the first half was characterized by phenomenal offensive play, which included impressive passing by Malcolm Perry. Perry completed 4-of-6 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. At half, the Midshipmen led 20-14.

The second half didn’t start as well as the first. After possessions that ended in a punt for each team, the Tigers took the lead, 21-20, on their second opportunity with the ball. The lead grew a few possessions later to 28-20 as Brady White, the Memphis quarterback, found Antonio Gibson on a deep post route.

The Midshipmen responded with a solid offensive drive, but were only able to come away with a field goal. On a positive note, freshman kicker, Bijan Nichols, was able to regain his confidence on this 49-yard kick after missing both an extra point and a field goal earlier in the game. Nichols shows great promise as the future of Navy’s kicking game.

Nichols field goal with 12:17 left in the fourth quarter was the last score of the night for the Midshipmen. The Tigers scored on the following possession extending the lead to 35-23, and the game ended with that score.

Injury Woes

Perry Olsen, Navy’s backup quarterback, was required to come into the game a handful of times as injury timeouts were called for Malcolm Perry. Perry took a couple of shots during the game, with the most serious coming at the end of the first half. He was sitting on the ground holding his arm in what appeared to be an elbow or shoulder injury. Olsen finished off the half and Perry took back over under center to begin the third quarter. It is uncertain how serious these injuries for Perry are; however, the Navy offense would be severely damaged if he is required to miss games or is not at 100 percent as the season progresses.

NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Navy’s starting fullback, Nelson Smith, suffered what appeared to be a concussion in the middle of the second quarter. Prior to this game, Smith was second on the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, following only Malcolm Perry. Navy triple-option offense relies heavy on the performance of the B-back (Navy’s fullback position) and losing Smith was extremely costly in this game. Isaac Ruoss, a sophomore, took over for Smith as the primary B-Back for the rest of the game.

Lastly, Keoni-Kordell Makekau, who had over 100 yards, was knocked out of the game during the third quarter. He appears to be one of the primary A-backs (Navy’s running back position) and was having a breakout game. We will have to keep an eye on the diagnosis to his injury as well.

Mids Slipping

There were multiple points during the first half that Navy players slipped and fell to the floor at costly times. On one Memphis passing play, two members of the Navy secondary fell nearly simultaneously, resulting in a wide open Tigers’ receiver. Another more costly moment was on a Navy kickoff that turned into a Memphis 99-yard touchdown return. The outside coverage man for Navy slipped, which opened up a running lane for Gabriel Rogers.

The Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, where the game was played, is lined with a “modern version of AstroTurf”. This is different from what Navy has for its practice facilities in Annapolis. Furthermore, the Midshipmen primarily practice on grass, vice traditional turf, which aides in the reduction of possible lower body injuries. Because of the lack of precipitation at game-time in Memphis, we can assume these stability issues for the Midshipmen were a result of the type of field and possibly combined with the type of cleat being worn.

NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Way Ahead

Last year after Navy’s home loss to Temple, I wrote that the season was essentially in the toilet. I was called out for “giving up on the team”. Maybe I was. But, I’d like to think I was simply being a realist and calling it how it was. Unfortunately, I was right. As someone who came into this 2019 Navy Football season quite pessimistic, I now feel a bit better, even after this loss.

Navy showed great life on defense and demonstrated that the offense can still produce a drive, or two, even with their best fullback and running back out, and with their star quarterback not fully healthy. Additionally, we were able to see a backup freshman quarterback play decently well in a huge, primetime game against the best team AAC West.

This Memphis team is going to be ranked in the Top 25 within a week or two. Being able to travel on a Thursday night and be ahead at halftime means that there is definitely potential for Navy to win 6 games this year. There’s potential for the Midshipmen to get back to a bowl game, and potential for them to reclaim the CIC.

The Air Force Falcons are on the horizon next week and will be another touch matchup for Navy, but this is a team clearly capable of having that bounce back season we were all hoping for.