A thrill ride from the beginning to the end extended the University of Memphis’ early-season winning streak to three games and propelled the Tigers to their fifth straight win over the Navy Academy.
With a national audience viewing ESPN’s first Thursday night college football telecast of the season, Memphis held off Navy’s Midshipmen 28-24 in front of 25,551 fans. Memphis (3-0,1-0) is the only undefeated team in the American Athletic Conference.
Memphis easily could have lost the game, which ended with the Tigers’ defense stopping Navy inches short of a game-extending first down on a fourth-down stand deep in Memphis territory with nine seconds remaining.
“I am proud of the way we finished,” Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield said. “There are a lot of things we can do to clean up. I am proud of my guys. We found a way to win tonight. That is something we were not able to do last year.”
The Tigers’ Blake Watson rushed for a career high 171 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, Watson seemed set to seal the game and score a third touchdown, but he fumbled the football into the end zone on a short run up the middle and Navy made the recovery.
“Blake has some of the best vision that I have ever been around,” said Silverfield. “He kept running his legs. He had great balance. It (was a) tremendous effort by him (and) credit to the offensive line. We have high expectations for him.”
The Tigers got a scare in the first half when quarterback Seth Henigan hit his head on the ground and left the game, only to return one play later. Henigan completed 23 of 35 passes for 218 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He rushed for 33 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Memphis scored with ease on its on opening drive with ease but did not score again until the team’s last drive of the first half, which ended in a 14-14 knot.
The Tigers took a 21-14 second-half lead, which the Midshipmen erased with a touchdown. The score was 28-24 in the fourth when Watson’s fumble and Henigan’s interception put the game’s outcome in the hands of the Memphis defense.
“It is going to be ebbs and flows to any football game,” Silverfield said. “I should have called a better play (at the goal line.) Fumbling on the six-inch line makes your heart sink. We will learn from it and grow.”
On a fourth and 6 play with less than 10 seconds to go in the game, Navy quarter back Tai Lavatai’s pass to Jayden Umbarger initially was ruled a first down with six seconds left in the game and the ball on the Tigers’ 9-yard line. After an official review, the call on the field was overturned and the Tigers took over on downs.
Under first year head coach Brian Newberry, Navy (1-2,-0-1 AAC) is not using its traditional run-heavy, triple-option offense and passed the ball 20 times. Lavatai completed 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards and threw one touchdown. Running back Alex Tecza rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tigers’ defense entered the game with the nation’s second-best defense in yards allowed (158). The defensive unit took an early hit, allowing Navy to score 14 points in the first quarter and amass 432 total yards.
Memphis’ defense adjusted after the first quarter and played well, noticeably clamping down after surrendering big plays earlier. The defense recovered two fumbles and came close to recovering a third. Chandler Martin had 9 total tackles; Geoffrey Cantin-Aku had 8 total tackles and a forced fumble.
Senior Jaylon Allen, considered the heart and soul of the Tigers’ defense, also had a fumble recovery.
His thoughts on the last defensive play of the game Allen said,
“We just came in with a slogan, ‘The Wrench,’” Allen said, reflecting on the game’s last defensive play. “We want to be at the bottom of the barrel and fight out of it. That last drive is exactly how we wanted it.”
The Tigers were playing on a short week, having played their last game 5 days earlier. On Sept. 23, they play the SEC’s Missouri Tigers in St. Louis. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU.