Game Week: Memphis
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Thanksgiving is, by far, my favorite holiday. Holidays tend to be either religious or patriotic, but a day set aside to give thanks for our abundance has clear elements of both. We celebrate family, friends, food, and of course, football. This year, thanks to the mayhem that is 2020 scheduling, that football includes a game in Annapolis, with Navy taking on Memphis in a game that was originally scheduled to be played on the 14th.
Memphis won the American Athletic Conference last season, and as is typical when a team finds success, someone with deeper pockets came along to hire their coach away. After Mike Norvell headed off to Tallahassee, Memphis replaced him from within, promoting offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield.
After one of the most successful seasons in program history, it made sense to strive for continuity. That’s especially true when you consider the players that were returning as well. Quarterback Brady White is back as a redshirt senior, looking to build on a 4,000-yard passing season in 2019. Wide receiver Damonte Coxie was second-team all-conference with 1,276 receiving yards. Running back Kenneth Gainwell led all FBS freshmen with 2,069 all-purpose yards and was the American’s Rookie of the Year. On top of that, the Tigers had three starters returning on the offensive line. The ingredients were there for another championship run.
Then, of course, 2020 happened. Gainwell decided to opt out of this season back in August. Coxie called it quits in October, leaving the team to prepare for the NFL Draft. Just this week, offensive lineman Titus Jones entered the transfer portal. Jones is the 20th Memphis player to either opt out, declare for the draft, or transfer. Not all of them were major contributors, but many were; enough to perhaps downgrade Memphis from “championship contender” to “very good.” And they are still very good; the Tigers will come into the Navy game at 5-2, including a thrilling victory over UCF.
Very good, but also different. Memphis has become one of the country's best running teams in recent years, churning out NFL-caliber running backs on a seemingly annual basis. In 2018, they were fourth in the nation in rushing with nearly 280 yards per game. That identity has changed a bit this year; while they still run the ball well, they are throwing more than usual. Perhaps this is due to the change in leadership, or maybe it’s because of losing Gainwell before the season started. It might also simply be a case of adjusting to the talent that’s on hand. White is playing the best football of his career, averaging 342 passing yards per game while completing 61 percent of his throws. Receiver Calvin Austin has stepped up as his go-to target, with 820 yards and seven touchdowns in only seven games.
For a Navy defense that has been spotty at best, this isn’t a favorable matchup. Statistics are a mess this year, but being 89th in pass efficiency defense isn’t good in any context. Giving up 244 rushing yards per game isn’t either; Memphis still runs the ball very well, even if it isn’t their core identity. The good news for Navy is that they will enter the game as healthy as one could hope for at this point in the season. The Mids have been much better against the run when both Diego Fagot and Tama Tuitele have been on the field. If they can stop the run on first and second down, create third and long situations, and get off the field once in a while, then perhaps the Mids can control the ball well enough when they have the ball to stay one step ahead.
Whether the offense can hold up their end of the bargain is a whole other question. Memphis hasn’t exactly been stout on defense this year, allowing 476.9 yards per game. The Mids, though, just haven’t looked like the kind of team that can take advantage of it. The Navy offense simply hasn’t operated with its usual efficiency, and as a result, the starting quarterback job was opened for competition. Dalen Morris has a live arm and has directed the offense well at times, but has never looked comfortable running the ball. Tyger Goslin started against Air Force, and while nothing went well in that game, he has played well in relief appearances. Also in the mix is freshman Xavier Arline, although he would need to make considerable strides in mastering the offense before jumping ahead of Morris and Goslin. Whoever wins the job will have the unenviable task of keeping pace with a Memphis offense that is scoring 36 points per game.
Fortunately, they should have a decent idea of what Memphis plans to do defensively. The Tigers’ defensive coordinator is Mick MacIntyre, who has a long track record against not just the option, but against Navy. He was Temple’s defensive coordinator when they faced Navy in 1997. He had the same job at Duke in 2008, then faced Navy twice when he was the head coach at San Jose State from 2010-2012. His record in those games was 3-1, with the lone Navy win coming in that ’97 Temple game. MacIntyre’s teams have gotten better with each game, with the best performance coming in San Jose State’s 12-0 win in 2012.
When MacIntyre was at Duke, he made frequent use of the squeeze and scrape, and we saw that in the San Jose State game as well. In this case, the playside guard did a good job of getting to the middle linebacker before he was able to scrape outside.
For most of the game, though, SJSU tried a different stunt. The Spartans defended the option from the inside-out, trying to force Navy into getting the ball to the pitch man. They did this by using the cross charge on every play. In case you don’t remember, the cross charge is where #1 and #2 in the count switch responsibilities. #2 plays the fullback, and #1 plays either the QB or the pitch. This is why Noah Copeland only had 8 carries that day, not because he couldn’t be “established,” but because the defense consistently ran a stunt that, when read correctly, tells the quarterback to keep or pitch.
With the quarterback getting a read to keep or pitch on every play, the MLB didn’t have to stay in the middle of the field, at least in theory. He was free to run outside to follow the play. With the safeties only 7 yards deep in run support, that meant that there were three defenders outside (MLB, safety, CB) vs. only two blockers (playside A-back, playside WR). Whichever defender was left unblocked would tackle the pitch man. The secondary would start with four deep but roll to three deep as they read the play's direction.
There’s no guarantee that Memphis will do the same thing in this game, but it does hint at how MacIntyre approaches the Navy offense. He targets the quarterback, trying to confuse him into making the wrong read. That makes the result of Navy’s quarterback competition, and preparing whoever wins, that much more important.
Then again, maybe none of that matters. Like everything else in 2020, we’re breaking new ground this week. Navy has gone almost a month without playing a game, and it isn’t like they were practicing the whole time, either. How much rust will they have to shake off? How long does it take to get back up to game speed after not practicing for two weeks? These aren’t questions that we’re accustomed to answering in the middle of the season. But if Navy is going to come out on top, they’ll have to adapt.