Memphis finds confidence in Thursday Night Thriller versus Navy
Despite playing on a short week against a triple-option offense, the Tigers had the opportunity to put the Midshipmen away twice late in the fourth quarter on Thursday night. Following an electric 79-yard rush by Blake Watson, the Tigers fumbled the football on the 6-inch yard line and the Midshipmen recovered in their own end zone. Just four plays later, however, Simeon Blair flew from the secondary and laid a big hit on Navy QB Blake Horvath. The ball popped out and fifth-year senior Jaylon Allen recovered, giving the Memphis offense a second chance to practically put the game out of reach with four minutes remaining.
After the Tigers were stuffed on back-to-back run plays, Henigan threw his only interception of the night and the Midshipmen were 51 yards away from a Thursday night upset victory on ESPN. Passing the ball on six of their final ten plays, the Midshipmen found themselves on the 13 yard line in a 4th-and-6 situation with under a minute remaining in the game. Tai Lavatai completed a pass to Jayden Umbarger, who was promptly tackled by the Tiger redshirt freshman standout DJ Bell. The Midshipmen appeared clearly short of the line-to-gain from the stands and on the television broadcast, but the referees initially signaled that Navy successfully crossed the first down marker.
What transpired next was a situation that Ryan Silverfield said rarely happens at the collegiate level. “When’s the last time you saw (the officials measuring); I don’t think we’ve had a single time in the last three games where the refs have measured a first down questionable thing. They just don’t do it in college football as much,” Silverfield told the media. While petitioning the officials to measure the spot of the ball, Silverfield stated the Memphis coaching staff quickly started drawing up the next defensive play just in case the ruling didn’t go their way. “Hey get ready, because it’s going to be 1st-and-9 at the 9-yard line with I think 9 seconds left,” Silverfield continued. The ruling on the field was reversed and the Tigers escaped a game that was much closer than most believed it would be.
It was an appropriate ending to a game that was quite unlike any previous Memphis-and-Navy matchup, who have squared off every year since the Midshipmen joined the American Athletic Conference in 2015. Brian Newberry, in his first season as head coach in Annapolis, has added his own touch to that pesky triple-option offense. The Midshipmen attempted 20 pass attempts Thursday night, which is the most they’ve gone to the air since October of last season. “We saw things defensively that we had never seen from (Navy) before,” Ryan Silverfield said postgame. The Midshipmen were additionally only penalized twice for a total of ten yards throughout the game.
A scare from the Midshipmen Thursday night left many Tiger fans questioning whether this game serves as a reality check for Memphis or more of a sign that Navy will be much better than expected in season one of the Brian Newberry era. At times, Memphis flashed offensive potency Thursday night as roles are starting to become more solidified. Roc Taylor had one of the best games in his career with a 10.7 yard-per-catch average and a highlight reel touchdown reception. Blake Watson had 237 all-purpose yards and is emerging as the go-to option when the game is on the line. But still, turnovers reared their ugly head for the second time in three games and could’ve certainly cost the Tigers the game Thursday night. Seth Henigan left the game for one play in the second half after hitting the ground hard as he was heavily pressured by the Navy blitz.
After entering the game ranked 2nd nationally in defensive efficiency, the Memphis defense surrendered 432 yards Thursday night. They struggled to get off the field on 3rd down at times, allowing Navy to extend drives. Nevertheless, Chandler Martin and company stood strong when it mattered most. After allowing a touchdown on Navy’s first drive of the second half, the Tigers’ defense locked down, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs. They additionally held their opponent short on 4th-and-1 for the third straight week. Forcing two Navy fumbles, the Tigers continued to steal possessions from their opponent in a game where time of possession is critical.
In a game that many speculated the Tigers would’ve lost last season, Memphis successfully personified their offseason mantra on Thursday — “finish”. “We found a way to win a game,” Silverfield said Thursday, “it’s given them confidence that we can find ways to win games.”
The Tigers will have nine days to prepare for a trip to St. Louis where they’ll face off against Missouri for the first time since 2018.
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