ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The 2020 version of Navy football is a team without much room for error. This is a group that was outscored by a combined 85 points in its first two losses, but woke up Saturday atop the American Athletic Conference with a 3-0 league record. Those three wins came by a combined nine points.
This simply isn’t a team with enough firepower to overcome crucial mistakes, and those mistakes equated to a 37-21 loss to Houston on Saturday as the sun set in Annapolis.
Navy missed two field goals, had an extra point blocked and saw a dropped pass that turned into interception lead to a touchdown. That’s a 14-point swing off unforced errors by the Midshipmen.
“Against a team this good, you can’t miss those opportunities,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Obviously we’d want to start with a touchdown to open the second half, but at least the field goal to tie the game up hopefully gives you some life. But that missed field goal took some life out of us.
“We had our chances, but we’ve got to be able to capitalize. You can’t come away with no points against a team that good.”
Navy (3-3, 3-1 AAC) trailed by 10 going into the fourth quarter, and a 33-yard touchdown pass from Houston quarterback Clayton Tune to running back Kyle Porter on a sneaky screen put the game away at 30-13 with 14:06 remaining.
Houston (2-1, 2-0) scored 28 consecutive points after falling behind 13-9.
Tune finished with 316 passing yards — the fourth most of his career — and three touchdowns. Porter rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 79 yards and a score. Marquez Stevenson (129 receiving yards, two touchdowns) posted his third-consecutive 100-yard receiving game against Navy.
“Just shows the resiliency we have to come back off a tough loss,” Tune said, referring to a 43-26 loss to BYU, “and to come out and get a win. Not let that get to us. Shows the character and the fight of this team.”
Navy quarterback Dalen Morris threw for 206 yards with two touchdowns and the game-changing interception. Navy trailed 16-13 midway through the third quarter when a pass to Jamale Carothers went through his hands and kicked off his shoulder pads into the grasp of Houston safety Thabo Mwaniki. Porter scored on a one-yard run five plays later.
“Turnovers are big,” Houston defensive end Payton Turner said. “We haven’t been able to get any these past eight quarters. That was big time. Definitely a momentum swing, especially when you can get the offense down on the 30-yard line. Turnovers are important.”
A Navy quarterback hadn’t thrown for 200 yards since 2016. Morris also ran for 46 yards and a touchdown, and Ryan Mitchell had 94 receiving yards and a score. Nelson Smith rushed for 51 yards and defensive back Kevin Brennan had a game-high 11 tackles for the Mids.
Navy started strong, particularly the defense, in what was a back-and-forth first half.
The Cougars struck first with a 33-yard field goal on their second possession of the game. Houston began the drive already in Navy territory but moved only 33 yards on 13 plays as the defense bent but didn’t break. A 16-yard scramble by Tune highlighted a drive that moved to the 12-yard line, but a pair of throws into the end zone fell harmlessly to the turf, and Houston settled for three points.
Navy answered with a score of its own, the six-point variety, for its first points of the day. Morris took charge of the operation and converted three straight third downs, running past the sticks twice and hitting a wide-open Mychal Cooper for a 41-yard completion that put Navy at the Houston 8-yard line. Cooper easily would have scored, but he tripped over his own feet around the 15-yard line. Morris followed a pair of blockers around the left end two plays later to give Navy a 7-3 lead at the end of the 11-play, 75-yard drive.
The back and forth continued as Houston stormed down the field on the ensuing possession, but the Midshipmen bowed up when necessary and held the Cougars to a career-best 53-yard field goal by Dalton Witherspoon to cut the lead to 7-6.
“I was proud of our guys in the first half,” Navy defensive tackle Jackson Perkins said. “We had some big plays, had some big stops, held them to three field goals in the first half. Obviously in the second half, you can’t get worn down. You can’t say you’re a good defense but you’re only a good defense for one half.”
The Navy defense continued to lead the way and held Houston to another field goal despite the Cougars working with a short field. The 45-yarder put Houston back up 9-7, but that wouldn’t last long.
Morris struck back with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell, the longest pass of his career, six snaps later to snatch the lead back at 13-9 after a blocked extra point. The Midshipmen then had the chance to put distance between the teams after Mitchell West forced a fumble by Tre’von Bradley that was recovered by John Marshall. Navy, starting on the Houston 46-yard line, promptly went three and out.
Houston took advantage of the opening and went 79 yards in three plays, scoring on a 51-yard touchdown pass from Tune to Stevenson. The Cougars took that 16-13 lead into halftime, and Navy didn’t score again until there was 1:07 left in the game.
“It’s been a roller coaster season,” Morris said. “Winning is the remedy for everything.”