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UH football: Previewing the matchup against Navy

UH football senior receiver KeSean Carter has a 133 yards and two touchdowns through the halfway point of the 2022 season. | James Mueller/The Cougar

UH football senior receiver KeSean Carter has a 133 yards and two touchdowns through the halfway point of the 2022 season. | James Mueller/The Cougar

After a bye week, UH football (3-3, 1-1 AAC) looks to use its momentum from its comeback win over Memphis as a springboard for the second half of the season which starts on Saturday when the Cougars travel to Annapolis, Maryland to take on Navy (2-4, 2-2 AAC).

A look at Navy

While the Navy offense is still run-heavy with its triple option, ranking No. 5 in the nation with 255.2 rushing yards per game, the air attack has become a larger part of the Midshipmen’s playbook in 2022. 

Through six games, Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai has thrown 16 more passes than he did in the 10 games he played last season. In fact, Lavatai has put the ball in the air 20 or more times twice this season which is something that is unheard of for a Navy quarterback.

“(Lavatai) is different than guys they’ve had in the past,” said UH defensive coordinator Doug Belk. “Has a lot of arm talent. Throws the ball really good.”

While the Midshipmen rank near the bottom of the FBS in passing yards per game, they are third in the country in yards per completion (18.54), making the most of the times they put the ball in the air. 

Six players on the Navy roster all have receptions of at least 25 yards this season led by receivers Vincent Terrell Jr., Jayden Umbarger and Mark Walker who each have over 150 yards receiving on the season. 

Fullback Daba Fofana has been the heavy hitter on the ground for the Midshipmen, leading the team with 336 rushing yards on 88 carries.

“He’s the bruiser of the group,” Belk said about Fofana.

Defensively, Navy is one of the best against the run, ranking seventh in the country allowing just 89.5 rushing yards per game, but is statistically one of the country’s worst at defending the pass, allowing 274.5 yards through the air per game.

The biggest strength of the Navy defense is the Midshipmen’s ability to disguise their looks, confusing opposing offenses, according to UH head coach Dana Holgorsen.

“They’ve got a lot of different looks,” Holgorsen said. “They’re extremely good at disguising looks, not tipping their hat of what they’re going to do.”

Key questions for UH

How aggressive does the UH offense come out?

It’s no secret that the UH offense wasn’t good in the first quarter and first half as a whole, as points came at a premium for the Cougars, in six games to begin the season.

Conservative play calling appears to be a major reason for the Cougars’ slow starts as run plays and short, checkdown passes sum up the majority of the UH offense in the first half.

While Holgorsen has not wavered from his run-first mentality, senior quarterback Clayton Tune expressed his desire for the Cougars to become more of a pass-first offense.

“I’m at a point where I want to start throwing it more,” Tune said. “I think that’s where we’re moving towards as an offense, being more pass dominant. I think it’s going to help us out.”

Tune said cut it loose” is what he wants the mantra for himself and the UH offense to be over the second half of the season.

“Be a little more aggressive,” Tune said. “Take more shots. Not worry about having the perfect play and just let loose and throwing it deep.”

A Navy secondary that has struggled mightily against the pass presents the perfect opportunity for the UH offense to come out and take some early shots in hopes of putting some early points on the board.

Do KeSean Carter and Sam Brown continue to play big roles in the passing game?

The Cougars are already short-handed at the receiver position with freshman Matthew Golden (ribs) and sophomore Joseph Manjack IV (hand) out.

While Tune still has his No. 1 receiver in junior Nathaniel Dell, getting others involved in the passing game is critical to UH’s success.

Senior KeSean Carter and redshirt freshman Samuel Brown had their best games of the season in UH’s win against Memphis. Brown had a game-high 116 receiving yards on nine catches and Carter hauled in two touchdowns in a 59-second span late in the fourth quarter, propelling the Cougars past the Tigers.

“Sam and KeSean had their best practices (following the win over Memphis),” Holgorsen said. “That game gave them confidence. It gave Tune confidence in them.”

Brown and Carter’s role will continue to grow with the injuries UH has at receiver and it is vital for the Cougars’ offense that they step up and continue to become reliable targets for Tune, who believes the receiving duo will do just that over the second half of the season.

“I think that game gave them even more confidence to go into the bye week and it’s just going to carry on into the rest of the season,” Tune said.

Does the UH defense get off the field?

Navy’s biggest advantage offensively is that it possesses the ball for a long time, wearing the opposing defense down.

The Midshipmen rank No. 1 nationally in time of possession, having the ball for an average of 37 minutes per game.

“They’re going to possess the ball,” Belk said. “They’re going to go for it on fourth down.”

If the Cougars are to get out of Annapolis with a win, the UH defense, which is already short-handed with cornerback Alex Hogan, defensive end Derek Parish and linebacker Malik Robinson all out for the season, must get off the field by forcing three-and-outs and turnovers.

How does UH match up with Navy?

Preparing for Navy is always a tough task because its playing style is so unique and something that UH doesn’t see often, specifically defending the triple option.

“The first play is still going to feel like this is way faster and it’s happening quicker and it’s way crisper and it’s sharper than you get in practice,” said senior linebacker Donavan Mutin.

Limiting the big plays both on the ground and through the air will be key if UH is to come away with the win.

Offensively, UH needs to take advantage of a weak Navy secondary and score early and often. Getting a lead and building on it is key for the Cougars because double-digit deficits are difficult for the Midshipmen to overcome due to their slow, methodical style of play.

How to watch

Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. and will air on ESPNU. The game can also be listened to via radio on KPRC 950 AM.

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