Head to Head: Navy at Houston

The Navy Midshipmen visit the Houston Cougars in one of the most important games in Navy football history. GoMids.com's Jim Lawler compares the two teams in several critical team areas and makes a prediction on the game's final score.

The Navy Midshipmen travel to Texas to meet the Houston Cougars in a battle for the American Athletic Conference West Division title on Friday and a spot in the league title game. The game will be played Friday at noon Eastern time. Friday’s winner will host either Temple or USF in the league’s championship game. No. 21 Houston was upset 20-17 by UConn on Saturday. It was their first loss this season. The No. 15 Navy Midshipmen sailed past the Tulsa Golden Hurricane 44-21 last Saturday night in Oklahoma. Navy's offense rolled up 512 yards on the ground. On paper this game pits the AAC's top scoring offense in Houston, 41.1 points per game, against the league’s top scoring defense in Navy allowing 18.7 points per game. On the other side of the ball the Houston scoring defense ranks third in the league allowing 20.2 points per game while the Navy scoring offense ranks third at 38.2 points per contest. This is just the second meeting between the two teams. The only meeting between the two teams occurred in the defunct 1980 Garden State Bowl where Houston shutout the Mids 35-0.    

NAVY'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. HOUSTON'S PASSING DEFENSE

EDGE: HOUSTON

Keenan Reynolds has completed 33-of-68 passes (48.5%) for 652 passing yards with five touchdowns this year. Last week Reynolds completed 2-of-3 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. Reynolds threw a picture perfect 39-yard post pattern to wide receiver Jamir Tillman and hit him in stride for a touchdown. It was a great throw off play action and a nice catch. Jamir Tillman leads the Mids with 17 receptions for 306 yards, a 18.0 average and three touchdowns. Chad Lewellyn made his first catch this year for 16- yards to help set up fellow wide receiver Brandon Colon touchdown run off a reverse. Navy's offensive line has the second worst sack percentage per pass attempt in football and need to avoid obvious passing downs against the Cougars attacking defense that has 29 sacks.

Houston's is ranked 102nd in the nation in passing defense and are allowing opponents an average of 259 passing yards per game. The Cougar secondary is led by cornerback William Jackson III who was named a preseason All-American by Phil Steele and has played like it. Jackson has broken up 14 throws this season and has intercepted three passes. Jackson returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns against Texas State and Vanderbilt. Adrian McDonald leads the Cougars with four picks. Last year the strong safety had three fumble recoveries and five interceptions. Linebacker Steven Taylor has excelled in Houston's new 3-4 defense. He has 80 tackles, 15 for a loss, 8 sacks and has picked off two passes. Houston has shown to be opportunistic, turning its 27 turnovers into 107 points including four defensive touchdowns.

NAVY'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. HOUSTON'S RUSHING DEFENSE

EDGE: NAVY

Navy's spread option offense is ranked second in the nation in rushing. The Mids are averaging over 348 rushing yards a game. Last week Navy ran for 469 rushing yards, a 7.7 average and five rushing touchdowns from five different players. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds did a tremendous job running the offense and distributing the ball despite a slow start where he fumbled on each of the first two series.  Keenan Reynolds became Navy's all-time leading rusher with 4,195 yards breaking Napoleon McCallum's record. His 82 career touchdowns remain one behind the career NCAA touchdown record of 83 set by Wisconsin's Montee Ball. B-back Chris Swain has run for 820 yards, a 5.0 average and eight touchdowns this season. Toneo Gulley (169 yds., 2 TDs) took a pitch 70 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, the longest run by a Navy runner this season, to give the Midshipmen a 7-0 lead over Tulsa.

Houston is 23rd in the nation in scoring defense allowing 20.2 points per game. The Cougar defense leads the American and is 12th nationally in allowing opponents just an average of 114.8 yards rushing per game. They had a 12-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher snapped by Memphis. Senior linebacker Elandon Roberts has made 120 tackles this season. Roberts led his team in tackles in nine games this season although missed the final 54 minutes of Houston's loss at UConn after being ejected on a targeting call. Athletic safety Trevon Stewart has 57 tackles, 9 1/2 for a loss, six sacks and a pick.

He is fifth nationally among active players with 348 career stops and is one of just 5 players nationally with multiple seasons with triple-digit tackles. Up front 6-2", 305-pound defensive tackle Tomme Mark leads the defensive line with 31 tackles. 

HOUSTON'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S PASSING DEFENSE

EDGE: HOUSTON

Houston ranks 16th nationally in total offense with 494.2 yards per game and ninth in scoring offense with an average of 41.1 points per game. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. will likely return to the starting lineup after missing most of the last two games. Ward left the Memphis game in the second quarter with a lower leg injury and was replaced by sophomore Kyle Postma who threw for 236 yards and a touchdown while rushing six times for 49 yards and one touchdown to lead Houston back from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 35-34 win. Postma made his first career start last weekend at UConn and finished the game with 190 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception on 16-of-27 passing. He also had a team-best 52 rushing yards on 13 attempts. He was forced to exit the game twice with injuries. Ward replaced Postma and was 1-of-4 passing for 18 yards and one interception.  Ward at his best is an exciting dual threat quarterback. He has completed 170-of-248 pass attempts (68.5%) for 2,194 passing yards throwing 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. His top target is wide receiver Demarcus Ayers who has 81 catches for 979 receiving yards, a 12.1 average and five touchdowns. Oregon transfer wide receiver Chance Allen is currently second on the team with 43 receptions for 624 yards and four touchdowns.

Navy's secondary is ranked 63rd in the nation as they are allowing just 220 passing yards per game. Navy allowed Tulsa 356 yards which is well below the Golden Hurricane offense's average of 526. Quarterback Dane Evans completed 32-of-37 passes for 278 but had no touchdowns or interceptions. Evans was under pressure much of the night and was sacked four times. Ignore his high completion percentage. The first six times Tulsa had the ball they ran just 22 plays and gained only 86 yards.  Defensive end Will Anthony was in full beast mode against Tulsa has led the Mids against with eight tackles, three sacks, four tackles for a loss and a forced fumble that ended up in the end zone for a safety. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said Anthony is the best defensive lineman he's ever had at Navy.  Cornerback Brandon Clements (32 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 PDs) had a great game against Tulsa. He forced a fumble that was recovered by rover Daiquan Thomasson. Clements also did a great job of blowing up a bubble screen on third-and-1 to tackle Tulsa's Floyd for a three yard loss and forced a punt. 

HOUSTON'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S RUSHING DEFENSE
EDGE: NAVY

Houston is ranked 11th in the nation in rushing. Houston is averaging 242 rushing yards a game and is third nationally with 37 rushing touchdowns. Houston uses a one-back attack led by senior Kenneth Farrow who has rushed for 949 yards, a 5.2 average and 12 touchdowns. Farrow ran for 1,037 rushing yards in 2014. Farrow was the 24th player in Houston history to rush over 1,000 yards in a season. Houston lost its top backup running back for the season when senior Ryan Jackson (353 yds., 5.2 average, 3 TDs) broke his collarbone against Cincinnati. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is a very dangerous runner out of the spread option if healthy. Ward has run for 810 yards, a 5.6 average and 16 scores. Ward is fourth nationally with 14 rushing attempts of at least 20 yards. The backup quarterback Kyle Postma, who started against UConn, is mobile (157 yds., 6.5 avg., TD) but was beat up by the Huskies and didn't finish the game.     

Navy is ranked 27th in the nation in run defense and are allowing 130 rushing yards a game. The Mids allowed Tulsa only 78 net rushing yards, a 2.3 average per carry. The Mids defense did a great job against an offense that entered averaging 195 rushing yards a game. Navy has done a fine job against the AAC spread passing teams in limiting their rushing attack and making them one dimensional. Nose guard Bernie Sarra anchors the defensive line with 27 tackles and two tackles for a loss. Mike linebacker Micah Thomas leads the Mids with 58 tackles. Daniel Gonzalez (48 tackles, 2 1/2 TFL, INT, FF) has missed the last two weeks at Will linebacker.

SPECIAL TEAMS

EDGE: HOUSTON

Houston kicker Ty Cummings took over the kicking duties in early October against SMU. Cummings has been perfect hitting all 36 of his extra point attempts this season and all five field goal attempts. He has 80 kickoffs with 24 touchbacks. Punter Logan Piper averaged 40.6 yards on 50 punts He has placed 17 inside the twenty yard line and has nine kicks over fifty yards. Kick returner Brandon Wilson is one of the best in the nation averaging 29.2 yards per return with two kickoff returns for touchdown. He had a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against UConn last week. Punt returner DeMarcus Ayers is averaging 11.3 on punt returns and had a 73yard punt return touchdown against Tulane. Houston is very athletic and fast and does a great job covering kicks.

Navy kicker Austin Grebe has hit 10-of-12 field goal attempts this fall.  Grebe missed a field goal when he was wide right from 32-yards. Grebe has 15 touchbacks on his 62 kickoffs. Alex Barta is averaging 42.0 yards per punt on 26 punts. Barta averaged 48.0 yards on three punts and placed one inside the twenty yard line last week against Tulsa. Dishan Romine is averaging 28.3 yards on his kickoff returns. Romine had an 90-yard kickoff return to open the second half against Tulsa which set up an easy touchdown. DeBrandon Sanders is averaging 7.3 on punt returns. Calvin Cass Jr. the other punt returner in Navy's two returner set up has averaged 5.5 yards on his punt returns. Cass should take out more life insurance if he continues to refuse to fair caught some punts. He was clobbered in the first half against Tulsa on a ball he should have fair caught and was dropped for a loss. Navy’s coverage teams have struggled in recent weeks. They are now allowing 23.2 on kick returns and 13.3 on punt returns after allowing two 35-yard returns against Tulsa.

COACHING

EDGE: EVEN

Houston first year head coach Tom Herman has done a great job. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant coach after he helped the Buckeyes win the 2015 College Football Championship. Harmon's 2014 Ohio State offense finished the season ranked fifth in scoring offense at 44.8 points per game and ninth in total offense at 511.6 yards per game despite losing Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller prior to the season. The defense is run by new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando who has installed his attacking 3-4 defense. In Orlando's previous two seasons at Utah State his Aggies defense ranked among the nation's best in scoring defense.

Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is in his eighth season as head coach. Niumatalolo has led the Mids to a 66-36 (.647) record and is the program’s all-time winningest coach. Niumatalolo has been on the Mids’ sideline as either an assistant or head coach for 18 of the last 21 years. Last week offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper’s play calls had Tulsa on its heels most of the game once the Mids stopped fumbling after the first two series. Navy has rushed for more than 400 yards in back-to-back games the last two games. The Mids have never rushed for more than 400 yards in three straight games. Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson's unit was tremendous last week holding Tulsa to 356 yards which is well below the Golden Hurricane offense's average of 526.


INTANGIBLES

EDGE: EVEN

Houston stumbled last week in a trap game without their starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. but will be ready to go in front of a sold out crowd this Friday. The Cougars have won nine straight home games. Ward has a .889 (16-2) winning percentage as starting quarterback. Navy would tie the school record for wins with 10. Navy also won 10 games in 1905, 2004 and 2009. The Mids have won 15 of their last 17 games with the only two losses coming against Notre Dame. The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to the American Athletic Conference Championship Game against either Temple or USF. This is the biggest non service academy game in the Niumatalolo era. Both teams will be primed to go.

PREDICTION: Navy, 38-28. The Mids offense is playing at a very high level averaging 48 points per game the last three games. Navy's defense has allowed only 16.2 points per game in their nine wins.  The Mids have been tremendous in making some high powered offensive teams one dimensional by limiting their running game. Houston is a talented team but a little banged up with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. missing most of the last two games with a leg injury. Navy is peaking at the right time.


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