Navy travels to Memphis on Saturday for critical West Division matchup
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 11, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Ken Niumatalolo was falling asleep while watching the Memphis football game on Friday night. After nodding off for a while, Niumatalolo woke up and could not believe what he saw on the television.
“I was like: Is that a seven and a zero?” Niumatalolo said. “Unfortunately it was what I thought it was.”
Yes indeed, Memphis really did blow out Connecticut, 70-31, behind the sterling play of quarterback Riley Ferguson and the offense.
Ferguson threw for 431 yards and seven touchdowns in just three quarters of work while wide receiver Anthony Miller had 15 receptions for 224 yards and four scores.
Ferguson’s seven touchdown passes tied the American Athletic Conference record set by his predecessor at Memphis, Paxton Lynch, who is now with the Denver Broncos.
“Riley Ferguson is a tremendous talent. We’ve seen him in-person,” Niumatalolo said. He has a cannon for an arm and can really whip the football around.”
Memphis was pretty much unstoppable on Friday night, rolling up 711 total yards while improving its record to 4-1. Miller said the Tigers were mad about getting routed by Central Florida (40-13) the weekend before and took it out on the Huskies.
“Obviously, Memphis has a really good offense. They do whatever they need to do,” Niumatalolo said. “They are really, really good at throwing the football, and also run the ball real well. It’s going to be a tough challenge. Maybe we can petition to have 13 players out there on defense.”
Navy is coming off a thrilling 48-45 victory over service academy rival Air Force and entered the national rankings in both polls on Monday. However, Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen must come down from the high of winning the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition.
“There is definitely no time to celebrate. Memphis was the preseason favorite for a reason and is definitely living up to that billing,” Niumatalolo said. “Both teams recognize this is a critical game for the conference, especially the West side. We have to go through Memphis. It’s always tough to play on the road and this will be a real battle.”
Memphis was picked to win the West Division of the American Athletic Conference in the preseason poll, receiving 169 points and 22 first place votes. Houston (137/6) was chosen second while Navy was tabbed third (128/1).
Navy has not lost to Memphis since joining the American Athletic Conference two years ago. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain led the way as the Midshipmen used a ball-control strategy to stun the 15th-ranked Tigers, 45-20, before 55,212 at the Liberty Bowl in November, 2015. Last season, quarterback Will Worth rushed for 201 yards and accounted for four touchdowns to propel the Mids to a 42-28 win in Annapolis.
“We have to focus all our attention on an undefeated Navy team that is playing exceptionally well and is now ranked Top 25 in the country,” Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said during the weekly AAC teleconference on Monday. “Navy has competed for the conference championship. This is one of the best teams in the league. They have proven it for three years.”
Ferguson, who was named AAC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Connecticut, has completed almost 60 percent of his passes (116-196) for 1,535 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Miller is clearly his favorite target, recording 35 receptions for 516 yards and seven scores. No other receiver has more than 14 catches for the Tigers.
Memphis is not strictly a passing team, ranking a respectable 44th nationally in rushing offense with 192.6 yards per game. Darrell Henderson leads a loaded backfield with 448 rushing yards while Patrick Taylor (276 yards) and Doroland Dorceus are also dangerous runners.
“Memphis has a pretty sporty offense – a lot of great athletes, a lot of speed,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said on Monday.
Navy counters with plenty of weapons of its own as quarterback Zach Abey ranks fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 870 rushing yards. Fullback Chris High (360 rushing yards) provides an inside presence that forces opponents to respect the dive while slotback Malcolm Perry (346 rushing yards) delivers speed on the perimeter.
“Navy has some great playmakers. It’s a very impressive offensive unit,” Norvell said. “You have to defend the entire field against Navy. It all starts with trying to stop the dive. Then you have to deal with the quarterback keep and the slotback pitch while being accountable to all the play-action.”
This Saturday afternoon’s game at the fabled Liberty Bowl will be a homecoming for several Navy players from the greater Memphis area, including three defensive starters in linebackers D.J. Palmore (Christian Brothers) and Jerry Thompson (White Station High) along with safety Sean Williams (Cordova High, Memphis).
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