Navy at Memphis

Sports Xchange

October 11, 2017 at 1:27 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET
SITE: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
TV: ESPNU
SERIES: Navy leads 2-0. The Midshipmen won 42-28 in 2016.
RANKINGS: Navy No. 25

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Midshipmen

–QB Zach Abey has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last six games and is averaging 174 rushing yards a game, No. 2 in the country. But it was his 16-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining that capped a 75-yard drive, taking just 1:38 off the clock, that provided the decisive score in the 48-45 win over Air Force last week.

–SB Malcolm Perry, who was moved from quarterback in the spring, has rushed for 100 yards or more in each of his last three games. He is he first Navy slot back with three consecutive 100-yard games since Shun White in 2008.

–LB D.J. Palmore has been Navy’s key playmaker on defense. He leads in tackles for loss (6.5), sacks (2.5), and fumble recoveries (3) to go with his 24 tackles.

Tigers

–QB Riley Ferguson leads the AAC and is No. 13 in the country in passing yards per game with his average of 307.0. He has 16 touchdown passes, which ties him for third in among FBS teams, with five interceptions in 196 attempts (116 completions).

–WR Anthony Miller, a former walk-on, has 177 receptions in his career for 2,644 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has a team-high 35 in this, his senior season, for 516 yards and seven touchdowns.

–LB Austin Hall leads the team in tackles with 34 and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 4.5 (LB Genard Avery). Playing the “star” position, he also has an interception and has been credited with breaking up two other passes.

–RB/KR Tony Pollard is someone to keep an eye on when Memphis is returning a kickoff. After recording kickoff returns of 95 and 100 yards in 2016, he started off 2017 with a 99-yard return against Louisiana-Monroe.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

As if Navy’s run-oriented, triple-option game didn’t cause enough headaches for opposing coaches, the Midshipmen added a new wrinkle to their scheme in last week’s comeback victory over Air Force.

And it left Memphis coach Mike Norvell impressed as he reviewed video in preparation for Saturday’s American Athletic Conference clash in Memphis. The newly ranked No. 25 Midshipmen (5-0, 3-0 AAC) and unranked Tigers (4-1, 1-1 AAC) will kick it off at 3:45 p.m. ET in the Liberty Bowl before ESPNU’s cameras.

Navy orchestrated its option attack out of the shotgun against Air Force and rushed for 471 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-45 victory. Running back Malcolm Perry had a 91-yard touchdown run, and quarterback Zach Abey had a 75-yard touchdown run for the Midshipmen, who are 5-0 for the first time since the 2004 season.

Abey finished with 214 yards rushing on 29 carries and led a game-winning drive in the final minutes that left his coach emotional in the post-game press conference.

“So proud of our players; what great, great kids,” a tearful Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the win. “I don’t know why I’m so blessed to coach these guys.”

Norvell was showing a different kind of emotion, one of concern about his Memphis defense, which that ranks 93rd in the nation against the run.

“I think they’re averaging 412 yards a game rushing,” Norvell said of the Midshipmen. “So it’s very, very efficient. And then last week, they had to have a two-minute drive to go win the game and they marched right down the field and were excellent in their conversion on that.

“This is a team that is definitely difficult to prepare for. Our guys are excited about doing our best in getting prepared for them.”

Memphis also is coming off an impressive offensive performance in a 70-31 rout of Connecticut last Friday. Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson threw seven touchdown passes and made Niumatalolo do a double take while scoreboard watching.

“Is that a 7 and a 0?” Niumatalolo said, joking with the media this week. “Unfortunately, it was what I thought it was: a high-scoring, really good team. Both teams recognize that this is going to be a huge game for our confidence.”

The only thing that really slowed down the Tigers against Connecticut was themselves. Memphis was called for 12 penalties, costing the Tigers 104 yards and drawing the ire of their coach.

“We’ve got to eliminate the penalties,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to continue playing with a better focus, and not putting ourselves behind the chains or making it easier for them by giving them a free down.

“It’s going to be a huge factor in this game. I think that when you look at it statistically, Navy doesn’t get called for many penalties. They play with really good discipline.

“That’s one of the strengths of their team, so if we go out there and we are penalized and they’re not, then those are the hidden yards that puts somebody in a position to have better success. So we’ve got to make sure we’re working to win that penalty battle.”

Navy rushed for 532 yards in a key, 42-28 conference victory over Memphis last year that propelled the Midshipmen to the AAC Western Division title.

The Tigers are hoping for revenge but are aware of the task they face.

“For us, everybody’s going to have a job,” Norvell said. “Everybody’s going to have an assignment, and then once you execute that assignment, you’ve got to do it in a physical nature, and you’ve got to make the play.

“I think there’s an excitement for the opportunity. They’ve competed for the divisional championship, and then the conference championship last year. We know this is one of the best teams in our league.

“They’ve proven it, they’re top 25. They’re undefeated. They’re doing an exceptional job again this year. So to say that for our team to look at it as anything more than just another opportunity, it’s a great opportunity because it’s against a great football team.”

Memphis could get two key players back with running back Patrick Taylor Jr. and linebacker Curtis Akins returning to the field. Taylor and Akins each sat out the Connecticut game with injuries, but Norvell said both will be evaluated in practice this week.