Mem­phis seeks re­venge against Mids

Tigers went into free fall last sea­son af­ter get­ting routed

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Bill Wag­ner

Mem­phis was on a roll around this time last sea­son. The Tigers had a 15-game win­ning streak and had risen to No. 13 in the As­so­ci­ated Press Top 25.

A near-sell­out crowd of 55,212 packed into the Lib­erty Bowl on Nov. 7 ex­pect­ing to see Mem­phis con­tinue its march to an Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship. In­stead, the Tigers suf­fered a stun­ning up­set that started a down­ward spi­ral.

Full­back Chris Swain rushed for 108 yards and three touch­downs while slot­back DeBran­don San­ders ran for 82 yards and caught a 75-yard touch­down pass as Navy routed Mem­phis, 45-20, be­fore a na­tional tele­vi­sion au­di­ence.

That was the be­gin­ning of a three-game los­ing streak that knocked the Tigers out of con­tention for the AAC ti­tle and out of the rank­ings. Coach Justin Fuente bolted for Vir­ginia Tech as soon as the reg­u­lar sea­son ended, and Mem­phis limped to the fin­ish line, los­ing to Auburn, 31-10, in the Birm­ing­ham Bowl.

Mem­phis (5-1, 2-0) finds it­self in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion at the mid­way mark this sea­son and is hop­ing a de­feat of No. 24 Navy (4-1, 3-0) will lead to a stronger fin­ish than a year ago. One has to fig­ure the Tigers would be look­ing for a lit­tle re­venge against the Mid­ship­men, who played such a big part in spoil­ing last sea­son.

“I’m sure their play­ers want to get re­venge, but that’s not re­ally the deal in this game. It’s about the win­ner con­trol­ling their own des­tiny,” Navy coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

In­deed, which­ever school comes out on top in to­day’s game will have sole pos­ses­sion of first place in the West Di­vi­sion. Mem­phis’ An­thony Miller (3) runs with the ball as Mis­sis­sippi’s John Young­blood de­fends dur­ing the first half of an Oct. 1 game. Miller has a team-high 32 catches for 438 yards. Navy, which is com­ing off an up­set of now-No. 13 Hous­ton, would own the tiebreaker over the top two con­tenders in the West.

“We have put our­selves in po­si­tion for this week to be a huge game. We’re def­i­nitely ex­cited about it,” said Mem­phis coach Mike Norvell, whose team closes the sea­son at home against Hous­ton. “I don’t think I need to give any ex­tra mo­ti­va­tional speeches to our guys this week. As you sit there and you look at the next step that’s in front of us, it’s a big one. We know that there’s a lot on the line, be­cause we’ve been suc­cess­ful up to this point.”

This matchup shapes up the same as last sea­son, with Mem­phis bring­ing its high­pow­ered pass­ing at­tack to Annapolis and Navy coun­ter­ing with its me­thod­i­cal rush­ing game. The game will likely come down to which de­fense can make stops.

Quar­ter­back Pax­ton Lynch skipped his se­nior sea­son to en­ter the NFL draft and is play­ing for the Den­ver Bron­cos, but Mem­phis found a ca­pa­ble re­place­ment in Ri­ley Fer­gu­son. The ju­nior col­lege trans­fer, who started his col­lege ca­reer at Ten­nessee, has com­pleted 65 per­cent of his passes (129for-197) for 1,596 yards and 12 touch­downs.

“Real strong arm and has adapted to their of­fense real well,” Navy de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dale Pehrson said of Fer­gu­son. “He does a lot of good things — can throw the deep ball, has great touch on the in­ter­me­di­ate routes and screens.”

Fer­gu­son’s fa­vorite tar­get is wide re­ceiver An­thony Miller, who has a team-high 32 catches for 438 yards. Team­mate Phil May­hue isn’t far be­hind, with 24 re­cep­tions for 354 yards. The Tigers also use the back­field in the pass­ing game, with Dar­rell Hen­der­son, Sam Craft and Tony Pol­lard com­bin­ing for 33 catches.

“Just a tremen­dous of­fense — very, very ex­plo­sive. They’ve got great skill-po­si­tion play­ers — great re­ceivers, great run­ning backs,” Pehrson said.

Norvell spent four years as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Ari­zona State, where he honed his ver­sion of the spread of­fense. He hired Chip Long, the tight ends coach at Ari­zona State, as his of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Mem­phis, so it’s not sur­pris­ing to see the Tigers do­ing many of the same things as the Sun Devils.

Mem­phis will line up in mul­ti­ple for­ma­tions and uses con­sid­er­able mo­tion. Pehrson said the Tigers use a lot of run-pass op­tion plays, such as bub­ble screens, and fea­ture a zone run­ning game.

Mem­phis was mostly a pass­ing team un­der Fuente, but Norvell and Long have sought bet­ter bal­ance. The Tigers are pass­ing for 274 yards per game and rush­ing for 164. Start­ing run­ning back Doroland Dorceus has rushed for 427 yards and five touch­downs, and Hen­der­son and Pa­trick Tay­lor are also big-play threats.

“They’ve got three re­ally, re­ally tal­ented run­ning backs that can hurt you,” Pehrson said.

Navy used its triple-op­tion of­fense to run roughshod over Mem­phis in 2015. Quar­ter­back Keenan Reynolds had a bril­liant night of read­ing the de­fense and dis­tribut­ing the ball as the Mids rushed for 374 yards.

The Tigers re­turn six of seven starters along the de­fen­sive front and hope that ex­pe­ri­ence helps. De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Chris Ball had to be en­cour­aged by how Mem­phis limited Tu­lane and its zone op­tion to 169 rush­ing yards.

“It’s go­ing to come down to the fun­da­men­tals of foot­ball — read­ing keys, get­ting off blocks and mak­ing tack­les in open space,” Norvell said of stop­ping Navy’s triple-op­tion.

JONATHAN BACHMAN/GETTY IMAGES

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