Can the Mids regroup from last week's win to focus on a desperate Owl team, or will Rice's players rally in their return to Houston?
The week after the Air Force game is often worrisome for Navy fans. We hear about ‘letdown' games a lot, and if there was ever a time for a letdown, it would come after a game with the emotionally and physically draining implications of last weekend's inter-service academy showdown. Not only do the Mids enter this week's game with several players banged up, but questions continue to persist around the effectiveness of the offense, which has managed less than 220 total yards in two of Navy's last three games. Still, Rice is one of those team's which has more than its fair share of problems, and has regressed this year with the graduation of some of their top playmakers from last year. Here are this week's personnel matchups to keep an eye on.
Owl fans didn't expect coach Bailiff to replace a three year starter and the program's all-time leading passer in Chase Clement after last season, but Rice did have reason to be optimistic with highly touted Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi coming in. Fanuzzi has however missed the last two games due to a shoulder injury, and Rice's offense has ground to a halt ever since. In his Monday press conference this week, Baliff said that he did not "expect to get anyone back," a likely indicator that Fanuzzi will be out again against Navy. Last weekend, redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis made his first career start to mixed results. While he only hit on 12 of 34 pass attempts for 99 yards, Lewis did show tremendous courage in the pocket, and had several balls dropped by wide receivers. Still, with Rice lacking a viable running game at this point in the year, he'll be called on to make plays with his arm against Navy, which is good news for Navy defensive back Wyatt Middleton, who was back at his rover position last Saturday after spending the Western Kentucky game at outside linebacker. Middleton had a tremendous game against Air Force, and could rattle the redshirt freshman's confidence if he can step in front of one of his throws.
Rice LT Cody Emmert vs. Navy DE Jabaree Tuani
Another major factor in Rice's offensive ineptitude this year has been the play of the offensive line, which has yet to establish depth and consistency, again in large part due to injuries. Last weekend Cody Emmert, a redshirt sophomore, made his first career start, but struggled in the effort. As a whole, Rice's offensive line yielded four sacks to quarterback Ryan Lewis, who probably avoided several more by making plays with his feet. While Emmert holds a size advantage over Navy defensive end Jabaree Tuani, the speedy Midshipmen end has been nothing short of a beast for Navy this year, and presents a problem for an inexperienced player like Emmert. Rice's line struggled mightily against Tulsa last week, and if Emmert can't contain Tuani coming off the edge, expect fellow Navy linemen Matt Nechak, Chase Burge, Jordan Stephans, as well as Navy's outside linebackers to tee off against quarterback Ryan Lewis.
Despite a defensive which ranks amongst the worst in the NCAA in terms of yards allowed, Rice has one of the most underrated defensive backs in the country in senior free safety Andrew Sendejo, who is the NCAA's active career leader in terms of total tackles. He's been a starter since the 2006 season and has been impressive in both run support and pass coverage during his career, and came into the 2009 season as a preseason All-CUSA selection. He's been somewhat limited in terms of his effectiveness over the last few games however, as a wrist injury suffered against Texas Tech has hampered his physical style of play. This Saturday, Sendejo will have the difficult job of both ‘running the ally' against Navy's option while at the same time patrolling center field against a much improved Navy aerial attack. Look for Navy slotback Cory Finnerty to play a big part in Navy's gameplan, as the unheralded senior will likely be called upon to clear the way as Navy tries to reestablish a perimeter option running game after failing to do so against Air Force last weekend. Not just a blocker or ballcarrier, Finnerty is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield, and does a great job at deceiving defensive backs when coming out of his stance. If Sendejo loses track of Finnerty during Saturday's game, expect the Navy slotback to make a big contribution in the downfield passing game.