Defense holds up its end against potent Air Force
Navy's elevated expectations entering this season had everything to do with the offense. The Midshipmen had back a slew of starters on that side of the ball, most notably record-setting quarterback Ricky Dobbs, experienced bookend tackles and a cast of slotbacks whose frequent rotation would keep them fresh late in games.
It hasn't worked out that way. After a 14-6 loss to Air Force, Navy's first defeat to a service academy in 16 games, it's been the defense doing most of the heavy lifting. The Midshipmen turned in one of the best performances in that regard against the Falcons, limiting them to 22 points below their average coming into the game and allowing 375 yards of total offense, also well below their average of 499 yards.
In its first four games of the season, the Falcons had scored no less than 20 points and amassed 35 against BYU and 24 in a three-point loss to No. 7 Oklahoma in Norman.
"Defensively we played well," said senior safety and co-captain Wyatt Middleton. "We made some mistakes early, but we made some adjustments and adapted to what we were doing well, and we went on from there."
Navy gave up a 50-yard touchdown run to quarterback Tim Jefferson in the first quarter after running back Asher Clark rushed for 28 yards, but long gains were the exception for an Air Force team that entered the game leading the country in rushing at 394 yards per game. The Falcons finished with 292 rushing yards.
Cornerback Kevin Edwards had a highlight sequence all to himself when he chased down running back Jared Tew after a 29-yard gain in the first quarter, punched the ball loose and recovered at the Navy 43. In the third quarter, defensive end Billy Yarborough stopped Tew on fourth and two from the Midshipmen 14, holding him to a one-yard gain and a change of possession.
"I thought our defense played well," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
In four games, Navy has allowed 17 points or fewer three times, and in their last game, the Midshipmen shut out Louisiana Tech in the second half of a 37-23 victory. Navy entered ranked first in the country in pass defense (99.3 yards per game) and 13th in total defense (262). Its scoring defense was ranked 25th in the country (15.7 points per game).
The defensive effort against Air Force was all the more impressive considering injuries plagued the Midshipmen throughout the game. Starting safety Emmett Merchant left for good early in the second half with a concussion after missing the last game with the same ailment. Linebacker Aaron McCauley, nose guard Shane Bothel and defensive end Jabaree Tuani also had to leave the field but came back.