5 turnovers lead to Navy's 1st loss, 30-27 against Memphis
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 15, 2017
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — It appeared Zach Abey’s turnover problems were behind him. That issue reared its ugly head again on Saturday and was a big reason Navy suffered its first loss of the season.
Abey was responsible for three lost fumbles and two interceptions as No. 25 Navy was upset by Memphis, 30-27, before an announced crowd of 40,177 at the Liberty Bowl.
Abey tied a program record by surpassing 100 yards rushing for the seventh straight game, but his turnovers were too much for the Midshipmen (5-1) to overcome as the Tigers were repeatedly given a short field.
“We’re not going to beat anybody with five turnovers. I mean, you lose five drives,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I can’t remember the last time we had five turnovers. I’m surprised we were still in the game.”
Navy has not committed that many turnovers in a game since it totaled six in an ugly loss to Boston College way back in 2002. That was the first year under head coach Paul Johnson when the Midshipmen routinely beat themselves.
“We just have to take better care of the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “We won’t win another game if we keep turning the ball over like that.”
Quarterback Riley Ferguson passed for 279 yards and three touchdowns while kicker Riley Patterson booted three field goals for Memphis (5-1), which came away with a crucial West Division win within the American Athletic Conference.
Standout wide receiver Anthony Miller had 10 catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers, who snapped a two-game losing streak to the Mids. Tailback Darrell Henderson contributed 94 yards rushing as Memphis rolled up 397 total yards.
Abey rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns on a career-high 37 carries for Navy, which suffered just its third regular season loss in AAC play. Sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry had 68 yards on nine runs for the Midshipmen, who had little to show on the scoreboard for holding the ball more than 37 minutes.
Memphis made things tough on the Navy offense by employing an eight-man front and really stacking the box, but ultimately it was the turnovers that made the difference.
“It just comes down to execution. We were running the ball and it was just mistakes on my part,” Abey said. “Keeping control of the ball — that’s something I’m held accountable for. The defense played a heck of a game and we just didn’t do our job on offense.”
Abey struggled with turnovers early in the season, being charged with four fumbles (two lost) and two interceptions against Florida Atlantic and Tulane. However, the Pasadena resident took care of the ball and had zero turnovers against Cincinnati, Tulsa and Air Force. Niumatalolo was asked afterward if he was surprised to see the junior quarterback struggle with ball security.
“I definitely was. Zach’s played well for the last three games,” he said.
Abey’s rushing output enabled him to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau after only six games. The Archbishop Spalding product increased his touchdown total for the season to 12.
Senior outside linebacker D.J. Palmore, a Memphis native, recorded eight tackles to lead the Navy defense, which played pretty well considering all the tough spots it was put in. Inside linebacker Micah Thomas added seven stops as the defense prevented a blowout by forcing the Tigers to settle for four field goal attempts.
“Obviously, the defense played really well and gave us a chance to stay in the game,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy was coming off a thrilling 48-45 victory over service academy rival Air Force. That last-second win gave the Mids a leg up on reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and also vaulted them into the Top 25. Niumatalolo was worried about a hangover effect and it turns out those concerns were founded.
“I kind of felt this coming. I tried my best to prepare our team, to warn our team. After a big rivalry game, it’s hard to play the next week,” he said. “That’s not an excuse because we had a good team coming up and we had to get ready. I did a poor job because obviously we weren’t ready to play.”
It was a surprisingly low-scoring first half that saw both offenses sputter and make mistakes. Memphis totaled 178 yards while Navy had 175, but neither team had much to show for it.
The Midshipmen struck first after executing a sky kickoff to perfection. Bennett Moehring put the kickoff high in the air and aimed for a vacant area at the 10-yard line. Returner Doroland Dorceus was slow to react and Navy's Mason Plante, a sophomore slotback, pounced on the loose football.
That gave Navy first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, but the visitors were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Moehring.
The Tigers responded in a hurry, needing just 2 ½ minutes to move 75 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead. Henderson got things started with a 32-yard run on first down and Ferguson completed a 17-yard pass to tight end Sean Dykes to set up first-and-goal. Ferguson then connected with Miller on a 5-yard touchdown toss.
Navy answered right back with the type of time-consuming march the coaching staff knew would be necessary in this contest. The Mids took 8:20 off the clock with a 16-play drive that consisted entirely of running plays.
Things got off schedule early after Abey made a bad pitch that slotback Keoni-Kordell Makekau recovered for an 8-yard loss. John Brown III and Darryl Bonner gained 11 and 8 yards on consecutive pitches as the Mids overcame that setback.
Perry made two great moves on a 13-yard run that produced first-and-goal from the six and two plays later Abey plowed over from a yard out to make it 10-7 with 2:29 left in the opening period.
Defense took over for the remainder of the first half with Memphis squandering a decent drive into Navy territory after Palmore tripped up Ferguson from behind to force a turnover on downs.
Navy gave the ball right back after Abey fumbled on a keeper and it was recovered by cornerback TJ Carter. It appeared Abey was going to pitch and decided not to do so at the last-second just as he was hit by a defender.
Memphis could not capitalize on the turnover as consecutive incomplete passes by Ferguson led to another punt. Navy followed with an 11-play drive that ended just shy of midfield.
It appeared the Midshipmen had forced a three-and-out on the subsequent possession, but a roughing the punter penalty kept the ball in the hands of the Tigers. Linebacker Kevin McCoy was charged with the infraction, but it could have been any one of three Mids.
Memphis wound up driving into Navy territory, but stalled and saw a 41-yard field goal attempt by Patterson go wide right.
Abey fumbled for the third time in the game on the ensuing possession and that gave the Tigers the ball at the 28-yard line. Navy’s defense forced three straight incompletions and Memphis settled for another field goal, which this time Patterson made from 30 yards to tie the score at 10 with 40 seconds remaining in the first half.
Navy got into position for Moehring to attempt a 50-yard field goal, but it was short and wide as time expired.
Abey badly underthrew a pass to the flat on the opening possession of the second half. That poor throw went right into the arms of safety Austin Hall and he returned the interception 26 yards to the 12-yard line.
This time, Memphis did take advantage of the turnover with Ferguson finding Henderson wide-open along the left sideline for a 10-yard touchdown toss that put the home team back ahead, 17-10.
It looked like momentum had completely swung in favor of Memphis after Navy went three-and-out on its second possession of the third quarter. However, punter Owen White launched a 61-yard punt that was downed at the 13-yard line and proved huge.
Ferguson was flagged for intentional grounding while desperately trying to avoid a sack in the end zone and that resulted in a safety. Palmore and defensive end Josh Webb converged on Ferguson, who hurriedly threw the ball out of bounds.
It would prove a nine-point swing when the Mids scored following the free kick. Abey broke loose for a 25-yard run to bring the ball to the enemy 15-yard line. Two plays later, Abey got a great block from fullback Anthony Garguilo and scored on a 9-yard run to give the visitors a 19-17 advantage at the 7:30 mark of the third period.
Memphis reclaimed the lead for good at 20-19 off a 42-yard field goal by Ferguson with 5:15 to go in the third. That is when the Navy offense really began to falter, picking up just one first down before having to punt.
White got off another great punt, a 53-yarder that was downed by long snapper Ronnie Querry at the 1-yard line. Memphis then delivered the dagger, driving 99 yards for a touchdown that made it 27-19 at the 13:17 mark of the fourth quarter.
A face mask penalty on nose guard Jackson Pittman proved costly for Navy as Ferguson followed with completions of 12 and 20 yards to Miller and Phil Mayhue. That decisive drive ended with Ferguson finding Miller open on a crossing pattern for a 5-yard scoring strike.
Things got worse for Navy moments later when Abey fumbled for the fourth time in the game. Linebacker Tim Hart was credited with a forced fumble, but it appeared the ball was dislodged when Bonner ran into Abey from behind. Linebacker Curtis Akins recovered and another 42-yard field goal by Patterson made it a two-score game.
After struggling for most of the second half, the Navy offense came to life just in time to keep the outcome in doubt. Perry took a pitch and raced 18 yards to get the drive started and Abey followed with an impressive 28-yard run in which he broke several tackles and weaved his way down the field.
Makekau gained 11 yards off a pitch and a face mask penalty on Memphis cornerback Tito Windham gave Navy a first down at the 18-yard line. Abey finished the drive with a 1-yard plunge then Bonner ran for the two-point conversion and suddenly it was 30-27 with 3:25 remaining in the game.
Navy elected to kick the ball deep and hope its defense could get the ball back. The Midshipmen did indeed force a punt with returner Craig Scott making a fair catch at the 10-yard line with 1:52 to go.
Navy still had time to get into position for a potential game-tying field goal, but Abey badly overthrew his intended receiver on first down and Hall recorded his second interception of the day to end the suspense.
“I tried to throw across the field to the one route instead of the one that was open. That is something that is going to haunt me for a very long time,” Abey said of the final pass.
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