It’s been a dream season – heck, a dream calendar year – for Memphis football. Winners of all eight games this season and 15 in a row, including a massive win over Ole Miss last month, the Tigers worked their way into the College Football Playoff conversation. But Navy has a way of nullifying past success, pulling opponents into one week seasons where defending the triple option is the only thing that matters.
The 13th-ranked Tigers learned that lesson the hard way Saturday night, falling to Navy 45-20.
Memphis opened the game in vintage fashion, slicing through the Midshipmen defense with a four-play, 75-yard drive punctuated by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Paxton Lynch to Anthony Miller.
But Navy quickly gained control of the contest, immediately mounting a 16-play, 75-yard march that consumed more than nine minutes of the first quarter, tying the score while at the same time signaling the game would be played on its terms.
After a Jake Elliott 40-yard field goal gave Memphis a 10-7 lead, Navy stole the lead when Chris Swain rumbled in for his second touchdown of the game with 3:07 left in the second quarter. A late interception allowed Navy to tack on a field goal, pushing the lead to 17-10 as time expired in the second quarter.
Memphis tied the game with a one-yard Miller run at the 6:53 mark of the third quarter, but then Navy went on a run of its own, starting with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Keenan Reynolds to DeBrandon Sanders. The Middies followed that score with Swain’s third scoring dash of the night, this time from 40 yards out, pushing the lead to 31-20 after three quarters.
Calvin Crass, Jr., added to the lead with an eight-yard scoring jaunt with 10 minutes remaining, and the capper came nearly seven minutes later when Demond Brown rumbled in from one yard out with 3:20 remaining.
Reynolds entered the night needing just one rushing touchdown to snap Montee Ball‘s FBS career record and saw his quest extend one more week as he carried 17 times for 38 yards and no touchdowns to go with 3-of-5 passing for 85 yards and a score. Overall, Navy rushed 65 times for 375 yards and five touchdowns, led by Swain’s 18 carries for 108 yards and three scores. It was the most rushing yards by a Memphis opponent in eight seasons.
Lynch most likely saw his darkhorse Heisman candidacy end with a quiet (by his standards) 26-of-42 night for 305 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Navy’s win spoils what could have been the biggest game in the short history of the American Athletic Conference, as no-longer-undefeated Memphis (8-1, 4-1 AAC) visits undefeated and 25th-ranked Houston next week.
Instead, it perhaps just prolongs it. The Midshipmen move to 7-1 overall for the first time in 11 years and 5-0 in the AAC which, with only a loss at No. 5 Notre Dame on the wrong side of their ledger, should be good enough to vault them into the rankings. The Middies face SMU and Tulsa the next two weeks before visiting Houston on Black Friday for a game that should have the AAC West title and perhaps a Group of Five bowl berth on the line.