TAMPA — Navy proved little match for South Florida’s quick-strike offense and dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers early, yielding touchdowns on the Bulls’ first six possessions. The No. 22 Midshipmen then staged a methodical comeback in the second half that fell short in a 52-45 loss on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.
The Midshipmen allowed their most points this season in dropping their first American Athletic Conference game yet still have the inside track on winning the West Division. Navy (5-2, 4-1) owns the head-to-head tiebreaker in the West over Houston, last year’s AAC champion, and Memphis.
Its remaining opponents in the division, Tulsa and Southern Methodist, are a combined 3-3 in the AAC entering Saturday’s games.
Navy’s two-game winning streak (it included an upset of the then-No. 6 Cougars) ended emphatically thanks to the Bulls (7-2, 4-1) amassing 629 yards of total offense, 464 of which came in the first half. Flowers accounted for 395 yards and four touchdowns overall, frequently leaving Navy defenders grasping at air in rushing for 176 yards on 13 carries.
Tailback Marlon Mack added 125 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries , marking the fourth time both he and Flowers have amassed 100 rushing yards each in the same game. Further indications of South Florida’s overwhelming supremacy included a school-record 412 rushing yards and converting its first 12 third-down tries.
“We ran into a buzzsaw,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “They just had so many things going. They just presented so many problems for us. We knew that coming into the game. We just had a hard time stopping them.”
The Midshipmen’s first stop on defense didn’t come until the final seconds of the first half when they recovered a fumble at their 1-yard line. By that time, South Florida had built a 42-14 lead and was well on its way to a fourth triumph in five games, rebounding from a 46-30 loss to Temple last week in a matchup of front-runners in the AAC East.
Navy didn’t score until the first play of the second quarter, when quarterback Will Worth reached the end zone on a six-yard run. The senior, who grew up roughly 20 miles outside of Tampa in Valrico, Fla., finished with a school-record 428 yards of total offense and a career-high four rushing touchdowns one game after setting a career high by rushing for 201 yards in a 42-28 win against the Tigers.
Worth has scored in every game this season after ascending to the starting job when Tago Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the season opener.
In front of an announced crowd of 31,824, Navy scored five touchdowns in the second half but never drew closer than the final margin following the break. Still, the Midshipmen amassed 616 total yards overall, including 317 rushing after gaining a season-high 447 rushing last week.
“There was a lot of points we left out on the field tonight,” Worth said. “Spotting them that big a lead, it’s tough to come back.”
There was little doubt about the outcome after the first quarter, with the Bulls scoring on all four of their possessions, including a 63-yard touchdown run by Flowers for a 7-0 lead. South Florida got the ball back soon after when Navy elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from its 49, but Worth got tackled in the backfield for a loss of two.
A seven-play drive capped by a 23-yard run from D’Ernest Johnson (107 yards, two touchdowns on 16 carries) grew South Florida’s lead to 14-0 with 7:25 left in the first quarter.
The margin swelled to 28-0 on a pair of touchdowns in a conbined 48 seconds. The first of those came on Mack’s 85-yard run, and after the Midshipmen went three and out, Flowers followed with a 41-yard scoring pass to tight end Elkanah Dillon for the most first-quarter points Navy has allowed since 2002.
“We weren’t tackling well,” Navy defensive end Amos Mason said. “We were just letting [South Florida] get outside and just take off running. We weren’t communicating that well. They weren’t doing anything special. We just weren’t doing our job.”