ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo justifiably focused on fixing his team’s defense in the wake a season-opening 59-41 loss to Hawaii.
The result of his work will be tested Saturday, when the Midshipmen (0-1) face Memphis (1-0) in an American Athletic Conference matchup.
After losing two big-time playmakers, quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller, the Tigers simply reloaded. Graduate transfer Brady White appears to be a more than ample replacement at quarterback and Damonte Coxie has taken over as the go-to receiver.
White completed 22 of 28 passes for 358 yards and five touchdowns to lead Memphis to a 66-14 rout of Mercer in the season opener.
White appeared in just three games at Arizona State before suffering a foot injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the 2016 season and all of 2017. He has two years of eligibility remaining with the Tigers after arriving in January.
“The level of work that went into his preparation, the way he’s learned the offense, the time he’s spent building the relationships with his teammates. he’s a great young man,” said Memphis coach Mike Norvell, who recruited White at Arizona State while offensive coordinator in Tempe.
Navy was befuddled by Hawaii’s run-and-shoot attack on Saturday night in Honolulu, giving up 522 total yards. While the Rainbow Warriors looked sharp, Niumatalolo knows several AAC schools are capable of doing similar damage if the Midshipmen don’t get some things corrected.
“We need to get our defense right because we play a ton of potent offenses in our conference,” the coach said. “We’re not going to win another game if we give up that amount of points.”
Some things to know about the Memphis-Navy game:
PLENTY OF FIREPOWER
Memphis amassed 752 yards against Mercer, one yard shy of the school record. Coxie had four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown after performing well in a limited role last year.
Tailback Calvin Austin III broke loose for an 83-yard touchdown run, and Darrell Henderson rushed for 76 yards and a score.
Memphis has been picked to repeat as West Division champion in the AAC. Now in his third season, Norvell is 19-8 with the Tigers.
“You never know how your team is going to respond when the lights come on, so I like what I saw in Game 1,” he said.
WEST DIVISION SHOWDOWN
Navy and Memphis have both been in contention for the West Division title ever since the Midshipmen joined the conference four years ago. The Midshipmen beat the Tigers 45-20 at the Liberty Bowl in 2015 then won by a similar score (42-28) in Annapolis the following season.
Memphis forced five turnovers to nip Navy 30-27 last season and won the West with a 7-1 record.
Niumatalolo meticulously planned Navy’s road trip to Hawaii in hopes of lessening the impact of the long flights and ensuing jet lag on the players. The 11th-year head coach had a dual purpose in doing so: to ensure the Midshipmen did not tire against Hawaii and were able to bounce back on short rest for Memphis.
Navy’s return flight landed Monday morning and the coaching staff had to play catchup the rest of the day to prepare for Memphis. The Midshipmen were back on the practice field on Tuesday in an attempt to maintain a normal game week schedule.
“Hopefully, by Saturday we’ll be totally adjusted back to East Coast time,” Niumatalolo said.
FACING THE OPTION
Memphis coaches and players acknowledged spending time preparing for Navy’s triple-option during spring camp and preseason practice. Defensive coordinator Chris Ball said the Tigers have been gearing up for Navy, off and on, for six months.
We work on (Navy) all the time. We’ve got to beat this team for us to be successful in our division,” Ball said. “So they’re always on our mind.”
Last season, the Tigers limited the Midshipmen to 314 rushing yards, almost 100 below their season average. Memphis intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles.
Navy has 20 players from the state of Tennessee on its roster, including several from the greater Memphis area. Senior safety and defensive captain Sean Williams attended Cordova High in Memphis. Starting quarterback Malcolm Perry hails from Clarksville, the fifth-largest city in the state.
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