Navy’s upset bid of undefeated and No. 24-ranked SMU fell short Oct. 9 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The Midshipmen (1-4, 1-2 American) appeared poised to shock the Mustangs (6-0, 2-0) in front of an announced attendance of 28,563 but could not overcome a major special teams blunder and sputtering second-half offense.
1. Navy is an entirely different team than it was the first month of the season.
Three weeks ago, the suggestion that Navy could hang tough and even take a 14-point lead against a top-25 team would have seemed laughable. But that’s exactly what happened in Annapolis against SMU.
After an 0-3 start, Navy brought momentum from its first win of the season a week ago into its American Athletic Conference meeting with No. 24 SMU. The surprising victory against UCF Oct. 2 carried over into a 21-7 lead for the Midshipmen midway through the second quarter.
Navy’s first-half scoring featured a 23-yard pitch to senior slotback Chance Warren, a flea flicker from sophomore quarterback Tai Lavatai to Kai Puailoa-Rojas and a fumble recovered and returned 20 yards by star linebacker Diego Fagot to the house.
The quarterback carousel of the Midshipmen’s three season-opening losses has ended with sophomore Tai Lavatai playing the entirety of each of the last two games. The flea flicker was Navy’s first passing touchdown of the season.
2. A kickoff return thwarted Navy’s momentum and changed the direction of the game.
After Fagot’s defensive touchdown put Navy ahead 21-7 with 7:42 left in the second quarter, SMU was officially put on upset alert.
The Mustangs didn’t stay there for long. Returner Bryan Massey ran the ensuing kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit in half. The long touchdown began a 17-0 run for SMU.
“You’re up 21-7 and you’re feeling really good about things,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got the crowd in the game, everything’s going great. And then that kickoff return just killed us. We couldn’t recover.”
Navy managed only a field goal the rest of the way, an impressive 50-yarder by junior Bijan Nichols with 23 seconds left in the third quarter that tied the game at 24.
“He’s playing like we thought he would play,” Niumatalolo said of his kicker. “To me, he’s one of the best kickers in the conference, maybe the country.”
3. After a fast start, the offense sputtered during the final 37 minutes.
The trick-play touchdown pass capped an efficient, six-play, 71-yard touchdown drive for the Midshipmen.
Navy’s offense would not find the end zone the rest of the day. A 13-play, 42-yard drive set up Nichols’ 50-yard field goal in the third quarter, but it accounted for all of the Midshipmen’s second-half scoring.
“They just kind of lined up and said ‘Here we are, block us.’ And we couldn’t,” Niumatalolo said. “They created some havoc up front and that’s where everything starts.”
Navy totaled 241 yards of offense — 64 through the air and 177 on the ground. It averaged just 3.3 yards per rush.
“They did a good job of cutting our penetration and not allowing us to win the line of scrimmage,” Warren said. “From that perspective, we’ve got to do a better job making plays when there’s not a play to be made.”
Niumatalolo said a week ago Navy’s offense starts with getting the fullbacks going after the duo of James Harris II and Isaac Ruoss combined for more than 100 yards against UCF. The fullbacks gained a total of 40 yards against the Mustangs.
4. Navy’s defense played as well against quarterback Tanner Mordecai and SMU’s high-powered offense as could be expected.
By the opening minutes of the second quarter, Navy had lost both of its starting cornerbacks. Senior Michael McMorris left the game with a leg injury shortly before fellow senior Jamal Glenn was disqualified for targeting. That usually spells disaster when facing the nation’s leader in touchdown passes.
“We were down real quickly to our backup corners and I thought those guys played admirably considering everything,” Niumatalolo said of the defense.
Mordecai still threw a pair of touchdown passes, but that was less than half of his per-game average coming in. The Oklahoma transfer hit Reggie Roberson Jr. for a 66-yard strike on fourth-and-short a little more than a minute into the game and threw the game-winner, a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Kerley, in the fourth quarter.
Mordecai had yet to be sacked all season, but sophomore nose guard Clay Cromwell ended the impressive streak while forcing the fumble Fagot returned to the end zone. He threw his sixth interception of the year in the second quarter.
SMU entered averaging 218.2 yards rushing but was held to 80 by the Midshipmen. The Mustangs also were averaging 532.4 yards of total offense and 42.6 points. Navy held them to 404 and 31, respectively, and gave up just 10 points in the second half. SMU converted only two of 11 third downs.
“We didn’t play well enough,” Fagot said.
5. Navy junior linebacker Johnny Hodges had a career day.
The Darnestown, Md., native played lacrosse as a freshman at the Naval Academy. A year ago, he made the decision to switch to football.
Hodges made 14 tackles, the most by a Navy defender this season, after entering the game with a previous career high of five. He also recorded his first career interception — picking off Mordecai in the end zone to keep Navy ahead, 14-7.
“A loss is a loss. We can do better,” Hodges said. “There’s definitely room for improvement.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox