Scouting the Opponent: After 15 Years, There’s a New Era in Annapolis
After 134 years of playing college football as an independent institution, the United States Naval Academy joined the American Athletic Conference as a football-only member in 2015. In their inaugural season in the American, a crowd of over 55,000 filled Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium to watch the Midshipmen face off against the Tigers for the first time. Led by darkhorse Heisman candidate Keenan Reynolds, Navy knocked off the thirteenth-ranked Tigers in dominating fashion. The unique triple-option offense the Midshipmen bring to the table troubled the Tigers’ defense in their first-ever matchup, allowing Ken Niumatalolo’s team to maintain possession of the ball for nearly 62 percent of the game clock.
Every season since the two opponents became conference mates in 2015, the Tigers and Midshipmen have played one another, often yielding highly competitive games. Early on, Navy controlled the series, winning three of the first four contests. Starting in 2019, however, it’s appeared as if Memphis has firmly grasped that pesky triple-option scheme, winning four straight matchups. Ryan Silverfield is undefeated against Navy as a head coach, beating the Midshipmen by an average of 15 points since taking the lead job in 2020.
Thursday night, Navy will trot onto Rex Dockery Field under new program leadership for the first time in 15 years. Following the 2022 season, Ken Niumatalolo was not retained by Navy after going 11-23 from 2020 to 2022. Third-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry was named Navy’s new head coach just eight days after Niumatalolo was dismissed. Leading the Midshipmen to a third-best rushing defense and a top 35 defense overall in 2022, Newberry seemed to be an appropriate fit as the lead man at Navy. Serving as defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State for three years before arriving at Navy, the former Baylor defensive back has an extensive understanding of a blueprint that works at a service academy like Navy. “It’s hard to simulate what we do in practice,” Newberry said before the season, “It’s hard to simulate what we do schematically, and even harder to simulate the speed in which we do it.”
After playing Notre Dame in Ireland to start the season and soundly defeating a far-outmatched Wagner team last week, it will be intriguing to see what exactly the Midshipmen do in week three against the Tigers. Through two weeks, the Midshipmen have run the ball on nearly 79 percent of their offensive plays. The interesting wrinkle with Newberry’s team, however, is that the Midshipmen have attempted 25 passes so far this year, including 18 attempts last week against Wagner. Navy only attempted 119 passes in all of the 2022 season, so if the trend continues, look for the Midshipmen to go to the air a little more often in Newberry’s tenure.
Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai will enter the game as a three-year starter for the Midshipmen. He played in the first eight games of the 2022 season before suffering a knee injury that held him out for the rest of the year. Through two games, Lavatai is 8-for-13 passing for 161 yards and a touchdown. He’s also carried the ball 16 times for 65 yards. Last season, Lavatai put up a stellar stat line against the Tigers with 136 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Donald Berniard Jr. and Colin Ramos are two names to watch on the Navy defense, as both were rewarded with All-AAC honors following the 2022 season. Sophomore slotback Eli Heidenreich is coming off a hot performance against Wagner where he averaged 16.5 yards per carry with one touchdown.
Media personnel around Annapolis accurately observed that the Memphis game traditionally serves as a barometer for the remainder of Navy’s season. Two of the three times Navy has beaten Memphis, they’ve finished toward the top of the conference at year’s end. The last three seasons following a loss to the Tigers, the Midshipmen have ended the year well below .500. “If you can beat a team like Memphis, you feel like you’ve got a chance against anybody in this league,” HC Newberry asserted Monday, “In my mind, they’re one of the very best in our league.”
Brian Newberry has yet to defeat the Tigers in his coaching career, and after signifying that the Midshipmen started preparing for their trip to Memphis immediately upon arriving home from Ireland, he’ll hope to buck that trend this Thursday.
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