The stretch that will probably define the 2015 Memphis Tiger football team’s season has arrived.
The No. 15 Tigers (8-0, 4-0 American Athletic Conference) welcome its newest AAC foe the Navy Midshipmen (6-1, 4-0 AAC) to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in a crucial AAC West division matchup Saturday. It’s the beginning of a three-game stretch that will see Memphis play the Midshipmen, Houston and Temple on the road, both of which are nationally ranked.
While the Tigers have won 15 consecutive games dating back to last season, the team has its’ flaws. Memphis has fallen behind by double-digits in five of its’ eight wins this season.
Tiger football coach Justin Fuente said he doesn’t like starting games slow, though it’s only one of many things that concern him.
“Not just in reference to the match up with Navy, I mean the team as a whole,” said Fuente at his weekly media luncheon Monday. “I am talking about our discipline and our accountability level. The way we continue to fall behind in games. I do not like it but we have proven that we will fight back. It is not every game we start off like that so yes, it does concern me.”
However, his team – as it did against Tulane last week – continues to overcome early deficits. With an offense that averages more than 47 points per game (47.9), good enough for third in the country, Memphis is never truly out of any game.
While redshirt junior quarterback Paxton Lynch gets all the headlines, and rightfully so given his excellent 2015 campaign. Lynch has thrown for more than 2700 yards, 18 touchdowns and only one interception.
The last number – the one interception – is arguably the most important. Lynch and the Tigers’ offense have turned the ball over just six times this season. The Midshipmen will keep the ball and probably time of possession, given it runs the triple option, so limiting Navy’s possessions will be vital to a Tigers’ victory Saturday.
Memphis’ offense will have to prepare to sit on the sidelines for long stretches. Fuente said Tulane’s opening drive touchdown last Saturday, one which took nearly 12 minutes, was good preparation for Saturday.
“For me, the message was this is great training for the game we are about to play,” the fourth-year coach said. “Those scenarios could happen but you cannot get frustrated. You have to improve the execution level. We would have liked to have started the game better than what we did on both sides of the ball. You have to understand there will be limited possessions. You have to have the mindset that when you get your opportunity to get out there on either side of the ball that you must make the most of it. There will not be as many snaps in the ball game.”
On defense, the Tigers’, which despite giving up 13 consecutive points to the Green Wave in its’ win last Saturday, impressed but will have a much tougher task this weekend. The Midshipmen offense, led by star quarterback Keenan Reynolds, has rushed for an average of 319.7 yards per game this season and Navy’s lone loss in 2015 came to then-No. 15 Notre Dame.
“You have to trust the guy next to you to do his job,” said senior linebacker Wynton McManis when asked about defending the triple option. “You can’t try to do too much. You have to know what your responsibility is and focus on getting back, because they have a lot of moving parts, so it comes down to focus.”
Memphis and Navy will clash at the Liberty Bowl 6 p.m. Saturday. The game will also be televised on ESPN2.
--Tiger kicker Jake Elliott was named one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza award Thursday, which is awarded annually to the country’s best kicker. Elliott has converted 14 of 16 field goal attempts and made all 47 of his extra point attempts this season.
--Earlier this week, quarterback Paxton Lynch has been named one of five finalists for the Unitas Golden Arm award, which is given to the best four-year quarterback in the country. TCU’s Trevone Boykin, USC’s Cody Kessler, Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott join Lynch on the list.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch showed his ability to rush the ball well last Saturday against Tulane. He rushed for 43 yards on seven carries in the Tigers’ 41-13 victory.