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VOL. 133 | NO. 176 | Wednesday, September 5, 2018

For Memphis Defense, Navy is 'Always on Our Mind'

By Don Wade

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University of Memphis running back Darrell Henderson (8) finds a hole in the line during the University of Memphis Tigers' 66-14 win against the Mercer Bears at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 1. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

One day after losing 59-41 at Hawaii, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo conceded that his team’s vaunted triple-option offense could have played better.

But the coach told the Capital Gazette: “My focus is not the offense right now. That’s the least of my concerns. We need to get our defense right.”

Understandable approach. But as the University of Memphis practiced on Tuesday in preparation for its game at Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday, the Tigers were very focused on their own defense and the unique challenge that is Navy’s offense.

After falling behind 28-0 in the first half in Honolulu, Navy outscored Hawaii 41-31 the rest of the way. The Midshipmen pulled within 10 points in the second half as the offense got rolling and finished with 326 rushing yards, including 108 yards from quarterback Malcolm Perry and four short touchdown runs from last year’s primary QB, Zach Abey.

“Same old Navy,” said redshirt senior linebacker Jackson Dillon. “They’re gonna come at you and play football no matter what. They come out and do a job no matter if they’re up 50 or down 50. We’re just gonna have to deal with it and beat ’em.”

Memphis blew out FCS foe Mercer 66-14 in its opener at home and held the Bears to eight first downs. As Dillon said, “The numbers don’t lie, we played really good. But our opponent was nothing like we’re going to play in our conference.”

Last season, Memphis defeated Navy 30-27 here. The Tigers intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles. They held the rushing offense to 314 yards, or right at 100 yards below the season average of 414.2 yards per game.

“It builds some confidence,” said Memphis defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “You know, sometimes when you play a team like this there’s some anxiety because they come off the ball so hard, and they cut you. They’re very good at what they do. But once you have some success against it … our kids are more confident.”

Hawaii missed some tackles in the second half, and Perry proved especially elusive. His longest run of the game went 75 yards.

“Very, very explosive. He can break one at any time,” Ball said. “He’ll be one of the fastest, if not the fastest, guy on the field. Does a good job of running it, very shifty-type guy.”

Head coach Mike Norvell lauded the scout team for the job it’s doing in practice imitating Navy’s offense, but also said it’s impossible to replicate Perry & Co.

“Every year, you have to get used to the speed,” Norvell said.

And every year, coaches pound the same messages into the defensive players’ heads.

“Just do your job,” said linebacker Curtis Akins. “Don’t try to do anybody else’s job. They’ll get you to gamble. They’ll run, run, then they’ll pass the ball and get the secondary to be down on the first level (ready for the run).”

It’s only the season’s second week, but with Memphis and Navy both in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference it sets up as showdown game. The winner essentially earns a two-game lead in the division because it would hold the tie-breaker if the teams finished with the same record.

That’s why Memphis has been preparing for this game, off and on, for more than six months.

“They cause you to miss a lot of tackles,” Ball said. “We can draw up whatever schemes we want to draw up, but if we can’t get off blocks and tackle we’re not gonna be very good defensively. So we’ve got to be good tacklers.

“We work on (Navy) all the time. They’re that high-priority. We’ve got to beat this team for us to be successful in our division. So they’re always on our mind.”

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