MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Navy and Memphis are two of the three undefeated teams in the American Athletic Conference.
The Midshipmen will take their triple-option offense to Memphis Thursday night and the winner will join SMU as the American’s last perfect teams.
“Both of us want to keep going,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “This is a big game, not only for our conference, but for each team.”
The game features a pair of stingy defenses early. In wins over Holy Cross and East Carolina, Navy (2-0, 1-0 AAC) allowed a total of 17 points. Opponents are averaging 226.5 yards against the Midshipmen, which ranks No. 3 nationally just behind Memphis.
“They’ve been completely dominant,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said.
Historically, Navy’s strength is on offense, and the Midshipmen are averaging a smidge under 500 yards a game so far with 372 rushing — tops in the country. Quarterback Malcolm Perry leads the balance attack averaging 92 yards rushing a game.
Perry has completed 11 of 16 passes all season. But one pass to CJ Williams went 80 yards for a touchdown against East Carolina, and Perry finished 5 of 7 for 151 yards passing in a 42-10 victory.
Like Navy, Memphis (3-0) had almost two weeks to prepare for its conference opener since a 42-6 win over South Alabama on Sept. 14.
New defensive coordinator Adam Fuller used the extra days to put together a strategy to offset Navy’s triple option, which has been troublesome for Memphis’ defense in recent years.
The Tigers have greatly improved on defense from last season when they ranked 94th in points allowed and 89th in total defense. So far, they’re giving up 226.3 yards this season.
Some other things to know about Navy and Memphis before kickoff:
In the four games in this series since 2015, the Midshipmen are 3-1, including last year’s 22-21 win at Annapolis in rainy conditions. Memphis turned it over four times that day. The Tigers’ only win came in 2011 in the last game in Memphis between the teams.
The Midshipmen allowed only 64 yards rushing to Holy Cross and limited East Carolina to 86 yards on the ground. It’s the first time Navy’s defense has held the opposition under 100 yards rushing in successive games since 2008. The pass defense has been sharp as well. East Carolina managed 222 yards in total offense, the fewest Navy has ever allowed against an AAC opponent.
Navy also is allowing just 8.5 points a game, good for No. 2 in the country.
“We’re certainly doing some good things, but we’ve got a long, long way to go to be a good defense and our players know that,” Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said.
Quite the comparison
Niumatalolo gave quite the nod to the Tigers because it’s not often that Memphis is mentioned in same breath as Notre Dame.
“We’re playing the best team, probably them and Notre Dame, two of the better teams athletically and size-wise that we’ll play all year,” he said. “It’s going to be a really tough game for us.”
Several of Memphis’ key defensive starters have at least played against the triple option. Even though it is difficult to replicate the speed of Navy’s offense, there is some familiarity for players like defensive end Bryce Huff and linebacker Austin Hall. Hall had seven tackles last year, including three for losses.
Fuller also has experience against the triple option from coaching at Chattanooga going against Wofford, The Citadel and Georgia Southern.
“The thing about the experience going against opponent is that guys have seen the speed of it,” Norvell said. “You can’t simulate the speed we are going to face.
This year marks the third time in four years under Norvell that Memphis has started 3-0. The Tigers lost their fourth game in both 2016 and 2017. Norvell can win his 30th game with the Tigers on Thursday night.