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Memphis Hold Steady to Fend Off Navy’s Surge

Photo courtesy of Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal.

The Memphis Tigers stormed into the 2023 season, commanding attention with decisive victories over Bethune Cookman and Arkansas State. These early wins set the stage for their first conference game against the Navy Midshipmen on Thursday night. Since taking over as head coach in 2020, Ryan Silverfield’s record against the Midshipmen has been unblemished. Going into Thursday’s contest, Silverfield had compiled a 3-0 record against Navy. With the dust settled on the matchup, Memphis walked away victorious by winning 28-24 but learned valuable lessons along the way.

Memphis, now 3-0, had dominated their opposition by an impressive cumulative score of 93-20 before the Navy game. While expectations hinted at a rout against a Navy team that had fallen 42-3 to Notre Dame and had an unimpressive 24-0 win over Wagner, the Midshipmen sailed into the contest with a surprise up their sleeve. They stuck to their signature triple option and unveiled a revamped passing element, giving Memphis a run for its money.

Offensively for Memphis, the spotlight was on Blake Watson. The former Old Dominion star darted through the field, amassing 169 yards on ten carries and scoring once. He wasn’t limited to the ground either, reeling in six catches for an additional 68 yards, thus culminating in a night of 237 all-purpose yards. Roc Taylor showcased his reliability, grabbing six receptions for 64 yards and finding the endzone once. QB Seth Henigan’s streak of throwing for over 300-plus yards through the first two games ended on Thursday.

He finished the night by throwing for only 218 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. However, the emerging storyline is the ambiguity surrounding Memphis’ offensive identity. One gets the sense that Coach Ryan Silverfield aims for a ground-heavy scheme that sets up the deep play-action shot. Gone are the days of high-octane shootouts under Mike Norvell and Dustin Fuente. Memphis faithful might need to adjust expectations for the offensive trajectory.

Defensively, the Tigers had their hands full with the Navy’s ground game. The Midshipmen’s 299 rushing yards starkly contrasted with what the Memphis defense had showcased earlier this season. The defense, having not conceded a touchdown until this game, was caught off guard by Alex Tecza’s 75-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter. Furthermore, a defensive hallmark – the sack streak – was trimmed down to just one in the contest.

The final stanza of the game was a rollercoaster of emotions. Watson, nearing the endzone for what could have been the decisive score, fumbled, swinging momentum Navy’s way. Then, a crucial interception by Henigan threatened to undo their lead. The climax approached as the referees seemed on the verge of making a game-altering call on a Navy 4th down attempt. However, after review, the call was reversed, sealing the win for the Tigers.

In retrospect, this isn’t the kind of performance Memphis would hang in their hall of fame. Last year, such precarious games would slip away from them. This year’s grittier outcome hints at growth, albeit with a caveat. Their offensive puzzle still lacks a few pieces, and clarity might only emerge in the impending fixtures against Missouri, Boise State, and Tulane. For now, the Tigers can relish their unbeaten status, but the road ahead warrants introspection and refinement for a team with high aspirations.

What Lies Ahead? 

Memphis will now head up to St. Louis to take on the Missouri Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. The last time Memphis faced an SEC opponent, they lost by a score of 49-23 to Mississippi State. The game was initially supposed to be played in Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Still, it was switched to St. Louis after Missouri expressed interest in buying out the game, which would have cost the program $250,000 according to the terms of the agreement.

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