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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Brigade of Midshipmen, clad in their all-white uniforms, broke formation and scrambled off the field.
“Danger Zone” blared from the loudspeakers at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and scenes from “Top Gun” played on the scoreboards.
The plebes were going wild as Navy and Memphis sent their captains to midfield for the pregame coin toss.
This was the scene when, just as soon as the Tigers elected to receive, what had been a spitting rain turned drenching. Before you could blink, on the first play of the game, the ball popped out of wide receiver John “Pop” Williams’ hands.
Suddenly, the mission became clear: Memphis would have to beat Navy in the water.
Welcome back to conference play, Tiger fans, where the seas are much rockier than a jaunt in the Liberty Bowl with Mercer.
Navy 22, Memphis 21.
Any dreams of the Tigers going into October’s home game against UCF undefeated are gone now. But we really shouldn’t have been looking that far ahead anyway.
Remember last year? When Memphis lost its AAC opener at UCF? That turned out pretty well, right?
As soon as the 2018 schedule came out, we knew this trip to Navy would be where we actually learned just how good these Tigers might be this season.
So what did we learn Saturday?
That the improved Memphis defense can be an anchor when its offense sputters, but will wear down if forced to overcome four turnovers.
That tailback Darrell Henderson is still fast enough to run past everyone on the field, but he’s also big enough now to shrug off would-be tacklers.
That coach Mike Norvell doesn’t yet trust sophomore placekicker Riley Patterson from more than 50 yards out with the game on the line.
That quarterback Brady White doesn’t appear to make many mistakes, but doesn’t appear to have the strongest arm, either.
That Norvell, despite the gaudy numbers his offense put up last year, isn’t immune to criticism from this fan base.
“This one is definitely on me,” Norvell said.
Norvell, and how he handled White on Saturday, will be scrutinized more than anything else, even if the Tigers’ turnovers hurt their chances more than anything their coach and quarterback did or didn’t do Saturday.
White is new this year and this was his first real test leading Norvell’s offense.
So it was encouraging when he started this game 12-of-14 for 119 yards, and completed all five of his passes on Memphis’ first scoring drive in the second quarter.
White, however, ended this loss by completing only 3 of his final 11 throws for 26 yards. The steady rain certainly played a role, and Henderson admitted the weather “definitely messed our offense up because we couldn’t really get into our playbook and run the plays that we wanted to run.”
But so did some of Norvell’s curious play calls down the stretch, when he leaned on White instead of Henderson.
“I could’ve done a lot better job,” White said. “There were certain situations where I felt like I let my team down.”
Nonetheless, everything looked to be trending in the right direction when Henderson ripped off a 59-yard touchdown run and the Tigers took a 21-9 lead late in the third quarter.
Memphis kept getting stops and its offensive line was carving out running lanes. But then tailback Patrick Taylor Jr. fumbled, and Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry danced through the entire Tigers’ defense for a momentum-changing touchdown.
The Tigers followed with a three-and-out, and Navy struck again with an excruciating 13-play, 56-yard touchdown drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes.
And so, with Memphis down by one and 2:37 to go, we got our first glimpse of White in a big crunch time moment.
It ended with two incompletions, one sack, and a lot to learn from.
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