During the long flight back to Annapolis from Hawaii this week, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo and his football staff reviewed game film from a 59-41 loss to the Rainbow Warriors, paying special attention to defensive breakdowns. There were plenty.
Their conclusion was that despite yielding 522 total yards, the most glaring deficiency proved to be routinely failing to stop Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense on third and fourth downs.
The Midshipmen allowed conversions on 10 of 15 attempts (67 percent) in such situations, including giving up two touchdowns on fourth downs and another on a possession that was extended by a fourth-down conversion.
“We had opportunities to get them off on third and fourth down,” Niumatalolo said. “Not getting people off on fourth down is like a turnover. Those are 21 points right there when we had a chance to get them off the field. So those are some critical plays that we didn’t find a way to capitalize on.”
With Memphis bringing its potent spread attack to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams, the Midshipmen have been devoting a healthy portion of film study and practice time this week toward fortifying third- and fourth-down defense.
In its season opener last week, Memphis amassed 752 yards, albeit against lower-division Mercer, in a 66-14 victory behind quarterback Brady White, a graduate transfer from Arizona State. The Tigers were a combined 12 for 17 (71 percent) on third and fourth downs.
“Memphis is going to go a lot more up-tempo. They’re going to try to go a lot faster,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said in comparing the Tigers’ offense to that of Hawaii. “They have the same kind of weapons. I think they’ve got three really good running backs and three or four really good receivers, two really good tight ends that can run, so again we’ve got our hands full.
“We’ve just got to play cleaner and better than we did.”
Navy’s secondary in particular is gearing up for what’s expected to be another afternoon trying to prevent explosive plays. The Rainbow Warriors had three pass completions of at least 30 yards, including wide receiver JoJo Ward’s 75-yard touchdown catch and wide receiver John Ursua’s 50-yard scoring reception.
Both of those players finished with more than 160 receiving yards and added two touchdowns apiece.
“Just a little bit of inexperience and a little bit of miscommunication are all it really came down to,” said Navy safety Sean Williams, a senior co-captain. “We’re just trying to focus on our details and making sure we’re all on the same page and we’re all seeing the same stuff so when we get on the field, everything can be second nature, and we can just feel more prepared as a unit.”
Getting beat over the top had not been an issue on a regular basis last year, when Navy faced three of the top 19 passing offenses in the country and limited each one below its average.
Included in that group were the Tigers, who ranked seventh in passing offense at 335 yards per game. The Midshipmen allowed 279 to Memphis in a 30-27 road loss.
Navy also held the Tigers to 379 yards of total offense, 153 fewer than their average that ranked fourth nationally last season.
“We’ve just got to play with better technique, better body position,” said Midshipmen assistant coach Dan O’Brien, who oversees the safeties. “And then when we do have body position on receivers, when we have an opportunity to make a play, we have to make a play. One thing we’re harping on this year is turnovers, trying to get the ball back for our offense.”
The Midshipmen are seeking to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2012, when they opened with lopsided losses to Notre Dame in Dublin and Penn State at Beaver Stadium. That was the only season since Niumatalolo became head coach that Navy lost its first two games.
In home openers under Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen are 9-1. They also have a 28-5 record at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium over the last five seasons but are on short rest this week on the heels of the Hawaii trip.
The team didn’t get back on campus until Monday, and by Tuesday, players still were without their pads because of shipping issues, according to Niumatalolo.
“We’ve got to press forward. Memphis doesn’t care,” he said. “They don’t care that we traveled all that way. They don’t care we got whooped. They don’t care if we don’t have our pads. They’re coming to pummel us on Saturday. We’ve just got to find a way to get ready.”