Not more than a half-hour had passed following the Navy football team’s 28-14 loss to Air Force last weekend when Coach Ken Niumatalolo began turning his attention to Houston, calling the undefeated Cougars by far the stiffest challenge yet for the Midshipmen.
Navy players also spoke about moving on quickly from the sting of dropping the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition given their next opponent not only is ranked sixth in the nation but also features one the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country in Greg Ward Jr.
Of particular concern is if the secondary can regroup against the potential Heisman Trophy contender one week after allowing Air Force quarterback Nate Romine to throw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons were 123rd out of 128 schools in major college football in passing offense entering last Saturday.
Ward is sixth nationally in total offense (375.8 yards per game) and 13th in passing (331.3). The senior has won 18 consecutive games he has started for the longest active streak in the country and is one of three quarterbacks this year averaging more than 300 yards passing and 40 yards rushing.
“Well, we’re trying to petition to the NCAA if we can play 15 guys on the field,” Niumatalolo said when asked how best to contain Ward. “Nobody’s been able to slow him down. People have done a lot of different things to him: rush three, drop eight; try to press the pocket with four and drop seven. He was a really good player last year, and he’s even better this year.”
Midshipmen defenders back from last season recall how frequently they were at Ward’s mercy during Houston’s 52-31 romp at TDECU Stadium. Ward threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 83 yards and another touchdown against Navy to lead the Cougars to the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game as the West Division champion.
The Midshipmen (3-1, 2-0 AAC West this season) yielded a season-high 555 total yards to Houston, which went on to defeat Temple, 24-13, to claim the AAC crown.
This year, the Cougars (5-0, 2-0 AAC West) are averaging 506 total yards per game (19th nationally) and winning by an average margin of 33 points, including 33-23 against then-No. 3 Oklahoma in the season opener for both schools. Houston is 12th in scoring offense (44.2 points per game) and will be the highest-ranked opponent to play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium since No. 2 South Carolina in 1984.
“You’ve got to have great eyes,” Navy secondary coach Dan O’Brien said. “It’s something we’ve been working on out here. With their up-tempo offense, you get tired sometimes, but you’ve still got to have the mental toughness to transition your eyes from one thing to the next and recover and play.”
The Cougars’ visit comes on the heels of a season-ending Lisfranc injury to starting inside linebacker Daniel Gonzales, who hurt his right foot late in the second quarter against Air Force. Niumatalolo revealed the sobering news about the senior co-captain after Tuesday’s practice.
Gonzales had been tied for the team lead in tackles entering last weekend, and with Navy’s defensive leader out of the lineup, the Falcons were able to connect on a pair of long pass plays in the second half. The first covered 75 yards from Romine to wide receiver Jalen Robinette, who amassed 163 yards receiving on five catches.
Air Force grew the lead to 28-7 when running back Tim McVey caught a pass late in the fourth quarter, escaped from free safety Daiquan Thomasson and scored on a 62-yard touchdown. Thomasson had started the first three games this year but came off the bench against Air Force. Sean Williams, normally the strong safety, slid into his spot, with freshman Alohi Gilman starting at strong safety.
O’Brien indicated the rotation at safety figures to be in flux throughout the season, with all three players contributing significantly. This week, the entire secondary is bracing not only for Ward but also for Houston’s group of physically imposing wide receivers, including Steven Dunbar and Chance Allen, both listed at 6 feet 3.
“Preventing the big play is always important because that’s a game changer,” Navy junior cornerback Elijah Merchant said. “It’s definitely top on the priority list, and [the Cougars] have the ability to do that. Trust our keys, trust our coaches, and stick to the game plan. We can’t do anything different just because how fast they are.”