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Navy, Tulsa trying to move forward from emotional games

Navy players run onto the field before the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., October 5, 2019.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: October 12, 2019

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy and Tulsa are both hoping for a bounce-back performance, albeit for completely opposite reasons.

Tulsa must rebound from a 43-37 triple-overtime loss to Southern Methodist University, which is ranked 21st in the latest Associated Press poll. The Golden Hurricane entered the fourth quarter leading 30-9 but were outscored 21-0 over the final 15 minutes of regulation.

Fifth-year Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery put a positive spin on the situation this week, saying he was proud of his troops for almost upsetting undefeated SMU on the road.

“I thought our guys came out and set the tone and played exceptionally well for three quarters. We just have to find a way to finish,” Montgomery said. “I think we have an extremely good football team that continues to grow and get better each week. You look at us from Week 1 to now, we are decisively better.”

Meanwhile, Navy is coming off a thrilling 34-25 victory over service academy rival Air Force. Coach Ken Niumatalolo described the win as “monumental” and is worried about his team’s ability to reset and refocus.

“It’s definitely something you have to consider. Just the euphoria of a big win like that in one of your service academy rivalry games,” Niumatalolo said. “However, the euphoria of that is over with and we have to press on. In the words of Coach Belichick, it’s on to Tulsa. Hopefully, the leadership of our team will take care of that. We have to be mature enough to move forward.”

Niumatalolo was even more worried after watching a rather lethargic practice on Tuesday.

“I didn’t like the way we practiced. Some guys were half-stepping it. Too many pats on the back the last couple days,” the 12th-year head coach said. “Tulsa is a very good football. We better move on and get ready to go or it’s going to be a disappointing trip.”

The Midshipmen and Golden Hurricane are part of a loaded West Division of the American Athletic Conference. Memphis is ranked No. 23, two spots behind SMU, while Tulane is receiving votes.

Tulsa also must meet two tough East Division schools in No. 25 Cincinnati and Central Florida, which is receiving votes. Considering the circumstances and remainder of the schedule, both schools must look at this as a must-win game.

Losing at home to a Navy squad it considers an equal, would be devastating for Tulsa. Meanwhile, Navy desperately needs a road victory after losing 14 consecutive contests away from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

“(Navy) is coming off a big win and trying to carry that emotion into this game,” Montgomery said. “I know our team has to do a good job of bouncing back and getting ready for another physical game.”

Ironically, Navy’s last road win came at Tulsa on Sept. 30, 2017. The Midshipmen have won three straight meetings with the Golden Hurricane at H.A. Chapman Stadium. Despite that history, Niumatalolo considers the Mids an underdog.

“We’re still the Naval Academy. We haven’t won a game on the road for a decade,” said Niumatalolo, exaggerating the length of Navy’s drought.

Niumatalolo bristled when it was pointed out that Navy (3-1) cannot notch a winning regular season without stealing at least one game away from Annapolis this season.

“It has nothing to do with winning on the road or getting the monkey off our back. You just have to win the next game, no matter where it is played,” he said. “This is the next game and we have to find a way to get a W.”

Navy and Tulsa have combined for an average of 66-plus points in all four meetings since both became members of the American Athletic Conference.

“We’ve been in some real shootouts with Navy, some really high-scoring affairs,” Montgomery acknowledged. “They put points on the board, so you know you’re going to have to score. It’s not going to be a 10-7 game.”

Niumatalolo noted that both programs have a new defensive coordinator. Navy brought aboard Brian Newberry, whose aggressive and unpredictable schemes have produced superb results so far. The Midshipmen rank 12th nationally in total defense and 28th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 277 total yards and 19.3 points per game.

“Defensively, they are extremely different than what they’ve been in the past. It’s very much an attacking type of defense – bringing a lot of different pressures, giving you a lot of different fronts, a lot of different looks in the secondary,” Montgomery said. “They are doing a great job of changing things up and getting after quarterbacks.”

Most importantly, Navy ranks 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in third down conversion defense. Opponents are converting only 26% of such situations. Meanwhile, the Midshipmen stand fourth nationally in time of possession, holding the ball an average of more than 35 minutes.

“You put what they’re doing defensively with what they do offensively, it causes a lot of problems,” Montgomery said.

Tulsa has struggled to stop Navy’s triple option, giving up an average of 369 rushing yards in the last four games. Montgomery, who watched the Midshipmen amass 469 rushing yards in the 2015, talked about the task of preparing for the triple option in four practices after having gone against a spread passing offense.

“I don’t know if you can put into words the difficulty of installing a totally different mindset into your defense in less than a week,” he said. “They are very explosive with what they do offensively. Our defense has got to be very assignment-sound, very disciplined in what they do.”

Montgomery thinks it is imperative to stuff the fullback dive, first and foremost, when facing a triple-option opponent. However, he knows Navy’s most dangerous weapon is quarterback Malcolm Perry, who has accounted for 866 total yards and 12 touchdowns.

Perry leads the Midshipmen in rushing with 386 yards and nine touchdowns but has also been efficient throwing — completing 22 of 33 passes for 480 yards and three scores.

“Malcolm Perry is extremely talented and playing at a high level,” Montgomery said.

In four games against Navy, Montgomery has figured out there is no magic formula for defending the option. However, he has noticed that limiting the Mids on first and second down helps with getting them off the field.

“They’ve been doing it for a long time. That whole offensive staff has been together forever. You’re not going to surprise them with anything new,” he said. “You’ve got to do a good job on those early downs. If they continue to get third-and-medium and third-and-short, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Montgomery noted that opponents are averaging less than 60 plays per game against the Midshipmen. Memphis only ran 15 plays in the first half of its victory over Navy.

“You know you’re going to be limited to a low number of possessions, so you have to give yourselves opportunities to stay on the field offensively,” Montgomery said. “You have to make some good decisions when it comes to third-and-short or fourth-and-short.”

Quarterback Zach Smith is the trigger man of Tulsa’s spread offense, which is designed to stretch defenses. Smith has completed 102 of 176 passes for 1,364 yards and nine touchdowns.

Smith’s favorite target has been Sam Crawford Jr., who has 26 receptions for 370 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Keylon Stokes, one of the electric players in the AAC, has 24 catches for 403 yards and four touchdowns.

Tailback Shamari Brooks, who has rushed for 409 yards and four touchdowns, is another key figure in an offense that Montgomery mastered, while offensive coordinator at Baylor under coach Art Briles. Tulsa will mix quarterback-tailback option runs up the middle with short passes to the sidelines while occasionally taking deep shots downfield.

“They’ve got the old Art Briles offense of spread you out, but be balanced between running and throwing the football,” Newberry said. “They’ve big and strong up front and have a lot of talented skill position players. It’s going to be a real challenge. Offensively, I think this might be the best team we’ve seen so far.”

Newberry played defensive back at Baylor and has followed the program ever since.

“Being a Baylor fan, I’m very familiar with the Art Briles system,” he said. “Tulsa runs that offense really well.”

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