By Terry Davis
The Memphis Tigers kicked off their campaign for their third consecutive American Conference Western Division championship against the Navy Midshipmen last night.
Sporting a 3-1 record over Memphis, Navy has had the Tigers’ number over the years, including a narrow 22-21 victory last season. But this year, Memphis rode a strong second half to seal a 35-23 win in front of nearly 34,000 cheering fans at Liberty Bowl Stadium.
Head coach Mike Norvell has been telling his team all week that this was a program-defining game.
“After not playing our best ball in the first half, and seeing how our guys responded….they kept believing in one another,” Norvell said. “The response of our quarterback was remarkable.”
The game was a battle of who would have the better halves of football. Navy clearly dominated the first half running 50 offensive plays compared to only 15 for the Tigers.
Navy senior quarterback Malcolm Perry led his team on a 10-play 75-yard opening drive for a touchdown. Behind his huge offensive line, Perry punched it over the goal line on a fourth and inches play. The touchdown was set up by a 41-yard run by Keoni Makekau.
Memphis wasted no time responding. On his first play from scrimmage, redshirt freshman Kenny Gainwell went 75 yards in 12 seconds to tie the score (7-7).
Showing that Navy is not just a running team, Perry found Chance Warren on a third down in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown to put Navy back in front (13-7). Later in the first half, Navy scored again to take a commanding lead (20-7) over the Tigers.
The Tigers used another explosive possession to get back into the game. JuCo transfer Gabriel Rodgers took the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown (20-14) to keep the Tigers close. This was the first time the Tigers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown since Tony Pollard did it in the Birmingham Bowl in 2018.
“That was a huge return,” Norvell said. “We have expected big things out of Gabe. To see him maximize his opportunity, that is awesome. That is our ninth kickoff return for a touchdown. So we don’t have to worry about those streaks.”
The Tigers dominated the second half, outscoring Navy 21-3. On the opening drive of the second half the Tigers had a very short field, because of a great kickoff return by Antonio Gibson. But the Tigers didn’t score in that series. QB Brady White had one of his worst series of the game, missing two wide-open receivers. He also balked at a chance to run for a potential first down and threw the football out of bounds.
White’s play inspired boos from some fans in the stands. But White found his rhythm throwing three touchdowns in the second half. Kedarian Jones, Gibson and Damonte Coxie were on the receiving end of those touchdowns. White finished the game with 196 passing yards.
“I don’t care,” White said after the game when asked about the boos. “I have my teammates and true supporters behind me. I know it is frustrating, but I am my biggest critic. I was able to settle down. I missed some things in the first half. I could have put my team in a better situation. I am super blessed to have the coach and teammates I have.”
The defense of the Tigers for the fourth consecutive game had one stellar second half, allowing Navy just 81 total yards. Memphis and Navy defenses entered the game as the third and fourth-ranked team nationally in total yards given up per game.
After falling behind by double digits, the Midshipmen went for it on a fourth down, but the Tigers defense shut that down.
The defense forced one fumble and Sanchez Blake sealed the game with an interception in the closing minutes of the game. The Tigers defense allowing a running back to rush over 100 yards for the first time this season Makekau (101 yards).
Next up for Tigers will travel to Monroe, LA to face the ULM Warhawks. The kickoff for the game is set for 2:45 pm central and can be seen on ESPNU. This is the first that the Tigers has a 4-0 record since the last year of Justin Fuente’s 2015 season. That team started the season with an 8-0 record and received plenty of national attention. The Tigers most likely will be ranked in the coaches’ top-25 poll next week.
This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender