The Navy Midshipmen meet the South Florida Bulls for the first time in an American Athletic Conference game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium this Saturday. Navy is unbeaten in league play and defeated the Tulane Green Wave 31-14 last week. The game was a lot closer than the final score indicated. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds ran for a pair of touchdowns and the Midshipmen forced three straight turnovers in the second half to secure the victory. South Florida is riding a three game winning streak after beating SMU 38-14. USF's young team is led by its talented dual threat sophomore quarterback, Quinton Flowers, and has already matched its victory total for all of last season. Navy needs a victory to become bowl eligible.
NAVY'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. USF'S PASSING DEFENSE
Navy had to rely on Keenan Reynolds’ passing last week. It was the first game since 2010 against Army that Navy won while amassing more passing yards than rushing yards. Reynolds completed 7-of-11 passes for 134 passing yards despite being under constant pressure and sacked four times. Reynolds set up 17 points with his passing. On the season Keenan has completed 23-of-42 passes (54.8%) for 415 passing yards with two passing touchdowns. Reynolds favorite target Jamir Tillman (11 rec, 174 yrds, 15.8 ypc, TD) struggled early against Tulane bobbling one pass and dropping another before rebounding and hauling in a 41-yard bomb that set up a Navy field goal. Fellow wide receiver Thomas Wilson (4 rec, 65 yds., 16.3, TD) had two key catches last week and is emerging as another option in the passing game. Slotback DeBrandon Sanders (3 rec, 85 yrds, 28.3) hauled in a 36-yard reception off a play action pass last week to set up Ezell's touchdown run. Sanders is the most dangerous slotback out of the backfield as a receiver. Navy's offensive line was manhandled last week and allowed four sacks against Tulane.
The USF passing defense ranks 96th in the nation while allowing opponents an average of 252 yards per game. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen employs a 4-2-5 defense they nicknamed the “Bull Sharks”. Senior safety Jamie Byrd is an impact player with 50 tackles, seven for a loss, four sacks and two picks. Byrd led the team with 95 tackles last season. Byrd made a team-high 10 tackles and two forced fumbles while posting two sacks for the second consecutive game last week. The Bull’s defense is very aggressive and has already posted twenty sacks matching their total for all of last year. The defense has also produced eight interceptions. Junior Nate Godwin has started every game since arriving on campus and has 153 career tackles. Senior defensive end Shawn Hill can get up the field and has 5 1/2 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Navy will want to avoid a lot of third and long situations against this defense that can bring pressure from everywhere. The Bulls have had 14 different players record or assist on sacks this season.
NAVY'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. USF'S RUSHING DEFENSE
Navy's spread option offense is ranked fifth in the nation in rushing but they are coming off a rough game against Tulane. Navy ran for just 133 rushing yards, a 2.5 average but did managed to score three rushing touchdowns. Tulane employed the Air Force type defense with as they covered up the linemen and took away the inside. The Green Wave was usually able to keep their middle linebacker and safety clean as they chased and made plays. Tulane’s defensive line simply dominated the Mids up front. Keenan Reynolds has a chance to make history this week. Reynolds is two shy of the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns set by former Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball. Ball scored 77 times from 2009-2012. B-back Chris Swain has run for 451 yards, a 4.7 average and four touchdowns this season. Back- up fullback Quentin Ezell (215 yds., 6.0 avg., 5 TDs) has scored three times in the last two games. Senior DeBrandon Sanders leads the Navy slotbacks with 168 rushing yards and an eight yard per average carry,
USF's 4-2-5 defense is ranked 30th in the nation against the run. This is a very good defensive team. South Florida held Memphis to just 24 points in a close loss. Memphis is averaging 53 points per game in their other six wins. Sophomore linebacker Auggie Sanchez is the Bulls leading tackler with 52, 3 1/2 tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery. Sophomore defensive tackle Deadrin Senat anchors the Bulls defensive line. Senat is a 6-foot-1, 300 pound road grader and one of the strongest players on the team. Will linebacker Nigel Harris led the FBS with six forced fumbles last year. Harris (18 tackles, 2 1/2 TFL, sack, FF) missed the first two games this season. Cornerback Deatrick Nichols is physical in run support. Nichols has made 31 tackles, a team leading seven tackles for a loss with a sack and a pick.
USF'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S PASSING DEFENSE
South Florida completely revamped their offense after having one of the worst offenses in football last year. The Bulls offense now uses a spread look, multiple receiver sets and quarterback zone-read option plays. They run an up tempo no-huddle offense and look to snap the football with at least 15 seconds remaining on the play clock. The big reason the Bulls are averaging 37 points per game during their three game win streak is the play of their exciting 4-star sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers. He has completed 86-of-142 pass attempts (60.6%) for 1,038 passing yards with 10 touchdowns against six picks this year. Flowers is a dangerous dual threat quarterback but he can force the ball into coverage at times. Flowers made the American Athletic Conference weekly honor roll for his play against SMU last week. Slot wide receiver Rodney Adams leads the team with 17 catches for 247 yards, a 14.5 average and five touchdowns. D’ernest Johnson is a dangerous change of pace and third down receiver out of the backfield. Johnson has 16 receptions for 225 yards, a 14.1 average and four touchdown catches. He showed his breakaway speed on a 71-yard touchdown catch against Florida State.
Navy's defense has been terrific this year. The Mids are ranked 25th in scoring defense allowing just 19.2 points per game. Overall the Navy defense is 44th in total defense. Cornerback Quincy Adams led the team last week with 12 tackles against Tulane. He allowed a number of completions in front of him but limited yards after the catch. Adams made a key play on a three yard screen pass to Baddie when he avoided the block and knocked him out of bounds short of the first down to set up Navy turning them over on downs the next play. Junior cornerback Brandon Clements (23 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INTs, 3 PD) was able to break up two potential touchdown passes versus Tulane. Daiquan Thomasson posted nine tackles in his second start at Rover last week since replacing the injured Kwazel Betrand. Free safety Lorentez Barbour (36 tackles, INT, 2 PD) had a huge pick to end Tulane's comeback hopes and set up a score.
USF'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S RUSHING DEFENSE
South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns against SMU. The speedy sophomore has run for 563 yards and seven scores this year. Navy's front seven will have to stay in their pass rush lane and spy Flowers. He suffered a thigh bruise in the fourth quarter against SMU but will play this week. USF needed Flowers running last week since their star sophomore tailback Marlon Mack missed the SMU game with a sore right hamstring. Mack is practicing this week and is expected to start. Last year Mack was the Bulls offense as he led the American Athletic Conference with 1,041 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry and nine scores. Mack has 689 rushing yards and is on pace to break USF's single-season rushing mark, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and 114 yards per game. Darius Tice has been effective in relief rushing 46 times for 269 yards, a 5.8 average and four scores. D’ernest Johnson (158 yrds, 4.4, td) is the change of pace scat back. As a team the Bulls are averaging 236 rushing yards per game, a 5.4 average per game and 16 scores.
Navy is ranked 46th in the nation in run defense and is allowing 148 rushing yards a game. The Mids allowed Tulane only 123 rushing yards and one touchdown last week. The Mids defense was physical and made a number of key stops. The biggest was Daniel Gonzalez (40 tackles, FF) forcing a Tanner Lee fumble on third-and-1 near the goal line which was recovered by Will Anthony at the bottom of the pile. Mike linebacker Micah Thomas (43 tackles) had a huge fourth-and-1 stop of Hillard to turn Tulane over on downs on their opening drive of the second half. Defensive end Will Anthony has been a force with 31 tackles, 3 1/2 for a loss, 1 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumbled recoveries.
USF kicker Emilio Nadelman has made 5-of-8 field goal attempts this year. Senior punter Mattias Ciabatti is on the Ray Guy watch list and is one of the better punters in the nation. He is averaging 44.9 yards on his 39 punts and has place 13 inside the twenty yard line. Ciabatti leads the AAC in fifty or more yard punts with 14. He has punted in every game the last three seasons and was a First Team All-American Conference Punter last year. Rodney Adams is averaging 24.2 yards on kickoff returns. Punt returner Tajee Fullwood, who set up a Bulls fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday with a 45-yard punt return, is ranked sixth nationally with a 16.6-yard punt return average. USF coverage teams are just average.
The Navy kicker Austin Grebe hit his only field goal attempt from 25 yards against Tulane. This season Grebe has hit 6-of-7 field goal attempts. Grebe has 11 touchbacks on his 40 kickoffs. Alex Barta is averaging 41.9 yards per punt with four of his 15 punts being placed inside the 20 yard line. Dishan Romine is averaging 30.1 yards on his seven kickoff returns. DeBrandon Sanders is averaging 6.8 on punt returns. Calvin Cass Jr. the other punt returner in Navy's two returner set up has averaged 7.7 yards on three punt returns. Navy’s coverage teams have been outstanding. Ryan Harris plastered Tulane kick returner Ricky Preston at the 15-yard line on a kickoff in last week's game. Navy earns a slight edge for their superior coverage team and more accurate kicker.
USF, which is 10-21 under third-year coach Willie Taggart, has won three straight for the first time since the 2011 season. Taggart is 26-41 overall as a head coach. He did a nice job turning Western Kentucky around and is in the process of doing the same at USF. Taggart made two great hires when he brought in new coordinators this off season. Danny Hope, the former head coach at Purdue, has improved the offense from 17.2 points per game in 2014 to 30 points per game. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen ran the “Land Shark” defense the last three seasons at Mississippi. The 2014 Ole Miss defense led the nation in scoring defense giving up just 13.8 point per game and allowing a national low of 18 touchdowns.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is in his eighth season as head coach at Navy He has led the Mids to a 62-36 (.633) record. Niumatalolo is the program’s all-time winningest coach. Niumatalolo Navy team beat Willie Taggart's 2011 Western Kentucky team 40-14. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had great success against Taggart's team the last time these coaches faced off.
South Florida enters the contest confident and riding a three game winning streak. USF gave Memphis its toughest game so far and they won't be intimidated. Navy will be looking to get its running game untracked after struggling against Tulane. Navy has won its last seven games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
PREDICTION: Navy, 35-28 Navy is the more experienced team. In looking at USF, I am impressed by the young talent Willie Taggart has assembled and how much they have improved on both sides of the ball under the new coordinators. South Florida hasn't played an option team and it’s often hard for a young defensive team to adapt to defending the option for the first time. I could see either team winning but I like the Mids at home.