For all of the talk from players and coaches about just another game on the schedule, Memphis’ Thursday night encounter with Navy’s Midshipmen was far from that with the Tigers having lost their previous three games.
In need of stopping what head coach Ryan Silverfield had described as “the bleeding,” the Tigers (4-3, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) defeated the Midshipmen 35-17 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in front of 30,032 fans and a nationally televised audience via ESPN.
“A must-needed win,” said Silverfield after the Tigers had secured the victory. “The kids have faced adversity over the last three weeks. We did not see any guys in the portal (transfer), we did not see any guys tap out, we did not see any guys quit. They actually grew closer.”
The Tigers knew their offensive opportunities were going to be limited with the run-dominated triple option played by Navy and that they would need to be opportunistic. That is exactly what they did, leading 21-10 at halftime.
Memphis scored first on 7-play, 75-yard drive that took 2 minutes and 50 seconds and was capped. Off with freshman quarterback Seth Henigan’s 3-yard pass to tight end Sean Dykes. The Midshipmen (1-5, 1-3) answered with a 75-yard drive of their own that unfolded over 21 plays and took almost 12 minutes off the clock.
The Tigers’ next two drives only lasted one minute and one second. Calvin Austin III, who entered the game as the nation’s leading receiver, showed off his speed, again. This time he scored on a 69-yard reverse. Henigan then engineered an 86-yard touchdown that featured a 75-yard scoring strike to Eddie Lewis.
With Memphis having surrendered leads of 21 points and 17 points this season, many in the Tigers’ fan base were uneasy with the 11-point margin going into the second half. They need not have worried, thanks largely to the defensive unit turning in one of its best performances of the season.
The Memphis defense limited Navy to 198 net rushing yards and only 43 total passing yards. The unit recorded four sacks, including the first career sack by Quinton Johnson. Coming into the game the defense had recorded six sacks.
“It felt good getting back to the quarterback,” said defensive lineman John Tate IV, whose sack was part his four-tackle, two-assist game. “We know Navy is going to be a three-yard team and we wanted to knock them off their rhythm.”
Austin, who led the Tigers in rushing from his wide-receiver position, said he had joked with teammates during the week about needing to pump up his rushing stats. Amid the three-game slide, it was a week in which he worked “coach up the younger players.
“As I am coaching them, I am learning as well. I tried to be more vocal and do anything I can. I tried to encourage any guy that was down. I was doing everything I (could).”
Reflecting on the Tigers’ improved importance, Silverfield said, “It would be foolish of us if we did not change something schematically. The message did not need to change. We executed better than we have tonight. My concern would been if we (had) gotten blown out, finger-pointing and blame of coaches. There was none of that. That is going to pay huge dividends.
Next: Memphis goes on the road next week to play UCF (3-2,1-1).