Armed Forces Bowl matches sliding Navy, La Tech

The Sports Xchange

December 20, 2016 at 6:53 am.

Navy fullback Shawn White (31) could be in line for a big game against La. Tech. Photo Credit: Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

Navy fullback Shawn White (31) could be in line for a big game against La. Tech. Photo Credit: Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

Injury-marred Navy will try to keep pace with Louisiana Tech and its high-flying offense when they meet Dec 23. in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Midshipmen (9-3) lost two starting quarterbacks and both co-captains this season, which led to the late slump. They will face a potent Bulldogs (8-5) squad that is ranked fifth in the nation in total offense and reached the Conference USA title game.

Both teams have dropped their two previous games are looking to finish the season strong.

“Every time you play in a bowl, you are representing not only your school, but your conference as well,” Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz. “This is a chance to show the nation that Louisiana Tech has a good program and that Conference USA plays good football.”

Navy also had one the nation’s most powerful attacks before starting quarterback Will Worth and slotback Toneo Gulley were injured on the same play in the 34-10 loss to Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Navy then had its 14-game winning streak against Army snapped the following week with sophomore quarterback Zach Abey forced into action in the 21-17 loss.

It was the first time the Midshipmen dropped back-to-back games since 2014 when they lost three in a row to Rutgers, Western Kentucky and Air Force. Nonetheless, a win in the Armed Forces Bowl would give the Navy back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

“This is a big game for us,” Navy offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said. “We have to win this football game. We’ve had a great year. We’ve had some losses here and there, but at the same time, we’ve won nine games with a chance to win 10. We’re not going to hold our heads down. We’re going to find a way to win this football game.”

Despite the injuries, Navy enters the game averaging 310.9 rushing yards per game. The Midshipmen will lean heavily on fullbacks Shawn White and Chris High to keep Louisiana Tech’s offense off the field.

The Bulldogs average 44 points per game and are led by quarterback Ryan Higgins, who has thrown for 4,208 yards — third best in the nation. Higgins also has 37 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. He is ranked sixth in the country in passing efficiency (166.6) and eighth in completions per game (25).

“What Higgins has been able to do as a fifth-year senior is very impressive,” Holtz said. “His development has been one of the big reasons for our success. Higgins has done a great job of protecting the football and making good decisions. He understands the offense and has a very accurate arm.”

Higgins’ two favorite targets are receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. Taylor has 124 receptions for 1,570 yards with 10 touchdowns, while Henderson enters the game with 72 catches for 1,406 yards and 17 touchdowns — second in the nation. Henderson is also averaging 30.4 yards per kickoff return with another two touchdowns.

Jarred Craft leads Louisiana Tech’s ground attack with 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns on 174 carries.

The Bulldogs started the season 1-3 before going on a seven-game winning streak. Louisiana Tech then lost Southern Mississippi 39-24 in the regular season finale and fell to Western Kentucky 58-44 in the Conference USA title game.

The Midshipmen are allowing 429 yards and 29.7 points per game. Navy suffered a key loss on defense when linebacker and co-captain Daniel Gonzales suffered a season-ending foot injury against Air Force on Oct. 1.

The rest of the Midshipmen have tried to carry the load. They know a big challenge awaits against Louisiana Tech.

“They have a great offense, great receivers and great line,” said Navy linebacker Micah Thomas, who who leads the team with 98 tackles. “We just have to play hard. They’re going to catch the ball. They’re going to get a some yards on the ground. It’s going to happen. We just have to play with our fundamentals and tackle well. Then, I think we should be okay to slow them down a little bit.”