Behind a career-best performance from quarterback Will Worth and a defense that stiffened when it mattered most, No. 24 Navy held off Memphis, 42-28, on Saturday to remain unbeaten in the American Athletic Conference and establish more comfortable footing in its quest to win the West Division.
Worth ran for three touchdowns, including a one-yarder with 2:01 remaining for the final points. Moments earlier, Navy cornerback Elijah Merchant had forced a fumble that defensive end Tyler Sales recovered at the Memphis 43, setting up the possession that yielded Worth’s clinching touchdown.
Worth also passed for two touchdowns and finished with 201 rushing yards on 31 carries to lift the Midshipmen to a program-record 14th straight victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. In front of an announced homecoming crowd of 35,943, the senior who began the season as a backup became the first Navy player to rush for 200 yards in a game since the record-setting Keenan Reynolds in 2014.
“Our kids and our team have just taken on his personality,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of Worth, who took over the starting job when Tago Smith tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener. “He’s just a tough, hard-nosed, resilient kid, a really good leader.”
The Midshipmen (5-1, 4-0 AAC) rushed for a season-high 447 yards and moved within one win of bowl eligibility. Along the way, they have beaten two of the most demanding opponents in the West Division. In addition to knocking off Memphis (5-2, 2-1) for a second straight year, Navy upset then-No. 6 Houston, 46-40, on Oct. 8 in Annapolis.
A gamble involving Worth worked in Navy’s favor midway through the second half Saturday to produce a 35-21 lead. On fourth and four, Worth faked a handoff before completing an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Tyler Carmona, who was uncovered in the end zone as time expired in the third quarter.
Memphis had called a timeout with two seconds left in the quarter to force Niumatalolo to decide whether go for it or attempt what would have been roughly a 35-yard field goal into a strong wind.
“I mean, the triple option, we take what we can get,” Worth said. “Today, the quarterback run game was there. We took advantage of that and set up a couple pass plays to be able to score through the air, just executing the game plan.”
After forcing Navy to punt in a rare three and out, the Tigers needed just 64 seconds to go 70 yards and trim the deficit to 35-28 with 10:21 remaining. The final play of the possession was quarterback Riley Ferguson’s seven-yard pass to running back Patrick Taylor Jr. for a touchdown.
Navy claimed its first two-touchdown lead by scoring on the first possession of the second half. Worth did the honors with a four-yard run with 9:14 to go in the third quarter, capping a drive in which the Midshipmen ran on all 11 plays. Worth also had 12-yard rush early in the series, and slot back Josh Brown got Navy to the 5 with a 15-yard run.
A nine-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to wide receiver Daniel Hurd on the Tigers’ ensuing possession drew Memphis within 28-21 with 5:42 left in the third quarter. Four snaps before the touchdown, Memphis benefited from a penalty against the Midshipmen for having too many players on the field.
The Midshipmen went into halftime with a 21-14 lead thanks to Worth’s three-yard run with 1:19 to play. Worth kept the drive going by running for 22 yards on second and 14 one play before scoring his seventh rushing touchdown this season.
Early the second quarter, Navy had what was initially ruled a touchdown on Worth’s 29-yard run overturned following a replay review. Worth extended his arms toward the pylon as the ball came out of his hands, and officials awarded Memphis the ball on a touchback.
The Midshipmen made several defensive stands in the quarter, none more significant than when Memphis had first and goal at the 3. On fourth down from the 1, defensive end Amos Mason got into the backfield to tackle Ferguson for a two-yard loss.
The defense also held when the Tigers started at the Navy 30 following Alex Barta’s 24-yard punt into the wind. Memphis threw incomplete three straight times, and place kicker Jake Elliott missed a 47-yard field goal wide left. Elliott had made 10 of 12 field goals entering the game.
“That’s kind of what we practice for is to play good in the clutch times,” Merchant said. “It’s nothing more than what we do every day, which is just try to better ourselves and fight through it and just make big plays.”