Navy has developed a habit getting a first-half lead, only to see it fall apart in the second half. Against Air Force and SMU, the Midshipmen had a significant enough advantage that they were able to withstand their second-half collapse. That trend came to an end on Friday against Houston.
The Cougars (7-4, 5-3 American Athletic Conference) outscored Navy 17-0 in the second half to earn a 24-14 win over the Midshipmen (6-5, 4-4) on Senior Day in Houston. D’Eriq King completed 21 of 27 pass attempts for 277 yards while adding 57 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Malcolm Perry led Navy with 82 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Navy was held to only 217 rushing yards as a team, being kept under the 300-yard mark for the fourth time in the last five games.
Navy had a seven-point lead at halftime, but it could have been more. Navy had opportunities to put points on the board but failed to convert. On their first drive, Navy drove 52 yards on 12 plays, but Bennett Moehring missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. Later, the Mids recovered a fumble on a kickoff return to get the ball at the Houston 21, but that drive fizzled as quarterback Zach Abey was stopped short of the line to gain on fourth down at the two-yard line. Late in the second quarter, the Navy defense forced a three-and-out, and Craig Scott’s 14-yard punt return gave the Mids the ball in Houston territory at the 49-yard line. The Mids drove to the Houston 28-yard line and looked like they picked up another first down, but a chop block penalty made it 4th and 16, and Navy was forced to punt. Navy had a chance to go up by two scores but came away with nothing.
Navy had another chance to open a two-score lead early in the third quarter. On the opening drive of the second half, Tyler Sayles forced a D’Eriq King fumble that was recovered by Winn Howard at the Houston 46. Navy could only pick up one first down before losing yards on the next three plays, and had to punt on fourth and 16 from the Houston 41.
Houston answered on their next drive. Starting from their own 10, the Cougars moved the ball to midfield in only two plays after a 34-yard pass from King to Steven Dunbar. It appeared that the Midshipmen had Houston stopped at the 14-yard line, but Taylor Heflin was penalized for targeting on a questionable call that kept the drive alive. Two plays later, King carried the ball into the end zone to tie the game at 14.
Navy couldn’t answer. The offense was able to move the ball close to midfield on the ensuing possession, but the drive stalled after Zach Abey was sacked. The Mids had to punt the ball away, giving Houston the ball at their own 27. Three plays later, King found Dunbar again, this time on a 61-yard touchdown pass that gave Houston the lead for good.
The story of the game for Navy was the inability to capitalize on Houston’s mistakes. Navy’s only turnover on the afternoon was Garret Lewis’ desperation fourth-down heave as the game was winding down. Navy finally forced a couple of turnovers of their own, but neither of them led to points.
Defensively, Houston didn’t put eight players in the box the same way that many of Navy’s opponents have this season. Both Zach Abey and the Navy coaching staff have received criticism this season for the number of carries from the quarterback position. Some felt that Abey was reluctant to pitch the ball, while others felt that Ivin Jasper’s play-calling had gotten stale. That wasn’t the case today. With Houston lining up in a different defense, the offense was much less quarterback-centric. Abey had only 16 carries, while most of Malcolm Perry’s 15 carries came at slotback. Defenses can dictate who gets the ball in an option offense, and this year, with so many defenses lining up the same way, the quarterback has been the primary ballcarrier. That was not by design, and we saw some of that today.
What we also saw was a dominating performance from the Houston defensive line. Ed Oliver showed why he’s an All-American, with 14 tackles, two sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. He wasn’t alone, either. Navy was able to move the ball at times, but Houston linemen made their way into the backfield far too often, pressuring the quarterback and meeting ballcarriers almost at the mesh point.
The key play for the Navy defense came early in the second half with the injury to cornerback Tyris Wooten. With Wooten out, and Micah Farrar already injured, defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson was reluctant to continue using man coverage. He switched to a predominantly zone defense, and Houston took advantage. After being held to only 119 yards in the first half, Houston had 261 yards in the second half, led by King’s 13-for-16 passing effort. Navy’s other starting cornerback, Elijah Merchant, was also injured in the second half, which only made matters worse.
The big question for Navy coming into the game was who would start at quarterback. With Houston defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s extensive history against the option, it made sense that Abey got the start since he has the best grasp on the offense at this point. Malcolm Perry did move to quarterback later in the game, but couldn’t change Navy’s fortunes.