A record-setting crowd of 55,212 watched No. 13 Memphis’ already slim playoff hopes disappear at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Saturday night, as the Navy Midshipmen used their triple option offense to pound their way to a 45-20 victory.
The Tigers (8-1, 4-1 AAC) played one of their worst games of the year, but while they could’ve played better in a number of areas, it may not have mattered, because this wasn’t about mistakes — Memphis just got beat by a team that played better football.
“(Navy) kicked our tail tonight and they deserved to win the ballgame,” Memphis head coach Justin Fuente said. “The bottom line is they played really well, and we made too many mistakes. Even if we had played mistake-free I don’t know how that would’ve played out, because they’re pretty darn good.”
Memphis attempted to break the trend of starting off games slowly this season by electing to receive the ball after winning the opening coin toss, and it paid off in the short term as the Tigers scored on a short 11-yard pass from Paxton Lynch to Anthony Miller after only a 81 seconds of game time. However, Navy (7-1, 5-0 AAC) came storming back behind its triple option offense, utilizing two touchdown runs from halfback Chris Swain to take a 17-10 lead into halftime.
Memphis appeared to be back in business after the half, with the defense making a stop to start the third quarter and then the offense knotting the game at 17 after a short rush by Miller, but Navy immediately bounced back via a 75-yard touchdown pass from Keenan Reynolds to a wide open DeBrandon Sanders.
The Tigers clawed their way back to within four points in the third quarter, but Memphis turnovers coupled with Navy’s seemingly unstoppable rushing offense saw the Midshipmen take full control of the game in the second half en route to the 25-point win.
The Memphis defense was never able to figure out Navy’s triple option attack, as the Midshipmen ran for 374 yards. The Tigers knew the rush was coming on nearly every down, but it was nearly impossible to predict where the ball was going to go. Eight different players logged rushing attempts for Navy, with seven of them gaining more than 25 yards. Swain led the Midshipmen on the ground, totaling three touchdowns and 108 yards on 18 attempts.
“When you’re hanging on by a thread on every play to defend the triple option, and then you get the toss, and then you get the belly, I mean they’re a nightmare,” Fuente said on defending Navy’s offense. “They’re well-coached, they’re very good, and they run much better than people say they run.”
On the Tigers’ end, Lynch played his worst game of the season for the Tigers, completing only 26 of his 42 passing attempts for 305 yards, a touchdown and an interception. At times the junior quarterback seemed out of sorts, overthrowing receivers on passes that fans have become accustomed to seeing him make. According to Lynch, this was more due to mistakes rather than anything special that the Midshipmen threw out on defense.
“What we expected that they were going to do, they did,” Lynch said. “There were a couple of bad throws that I should’ve made, that I usually make in the past, but you know, sometimes it’s just not clicking.”
Lynch didn’t play a poor game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a performance that wasn’t up to the extremely high standard he’s set during a season that has seen him soar up NFL Draft boards.
With undefeated No. 25 Houston picking up a 33-30 win over Cincinnati earlier in the day, it will now be significantly harder for Memphis to play in the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Game this season, and the Tigers could still be left at home even if they’re able to run the table and finish with a 7-1 record in the conference.
Memphis’ most difficult stretch of the season continues next week, when the Tigers will travel to Houston to take on the 9-0 Cougars.
Navy running back Demond Brown and the Midshipmen ran for 374 yards in its win over Memphis Saturday.