Memphis seeks revenge against Mids
Tigers went into free fall last season after getting routed
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.