Navy-Houston Preview - Sports Illustrated

Navy-Houston Preview

Publish date:

While Houston enters its biggest game of the season with a hobbled quarterback, Navy's signal-caller might be feeling as good as ever going into possibly the most important contest in program history.

The West division title in the American Athletic Conference is on the line Friday when Keenan Reynolds and the 16th-ranked Midshipmen visit the No. 21 Cougars, who may not have a completely healthy Greg Ward Jr. under center.

The winner will take the West and gain home-field advantage in the conference title game against Temple or South Florida on Dec. 5, and likely earn a New Year's bowl game.

Navy (9-1, 7-0) will try to match a program record for wins and start 10-1 for the first time since 1905. The Midshipmen also won 10 in 2004 and 2009 as an independent.

They come in with building confidence after three straight blowout victories, setting up one of the most meaningful games in program history during its inaugural season in the AAC - and Reynolds is a big reason why.

The senior quarterback is the focus of a triple-threat offense which averages 38.2 points. Navy's all-time leading rusher has joined the Heisman Trophy conversation by piling up 1,009 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground - both ranked No. 1 among quarterbacks in the country. Reynolds is already the NCAA record holder with 82 rushing touchdowns and is one behind former Wisconsin back Montee Ball for the total TDs mark.

Navy has averaged an even better 48.0 points over the last three weeks in wins over Memphis, SMU and Tulsa.

The Midshipmen came close twice and then topped 500 total yards against the Golden Hurricane, with most of the production coming on the ground. Reynolds has 256 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the last three while adding three passing TDs.

Navy's ground attack has scored 17 touchdowns in that same span to improve its nation-leading total to 43.

The team's defense, though, is not to be overlooked after allowing 17.2 points per game since a 41-24 loss at then-No. 15 Notre Dame on Oct. 10. The Midshipmen forced four fumbles and recovered two during a 44-21 win at Tulsa on Saturday while holding the Golden Hurricane to 78 rushing yards on 34 attempts.

"I thought our defense played great," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We held a very high-powered offensive team down."

Navy draws another against the Cougars (10-1, 6-1), who averages 41.1 points, though they're coming off a disappointing loss in which their big playmaker barely participated.

Ward rolled his ankle during a 35-34 win over Memphis on Nov. 14, and the junior quarterback played just a handful of snaps during Saturday's 20-17 loss at UConn.

Ward, who has 810 rushing yards to go with 29 total touchdowns, replaced an injured Kyle Postma during Houston's final drive but threw an interception with 55 seconds left.

"This one hurts," coach Tom Herman said. "It hurts really bad, because of where we were in the season and how much these kids have invested."

Without Ward, Houston failed to score 20 points for the first time and finished with a season-low 318 yards.

"It's a real hard pill to swallow," linebacker Steven Taylor said. "But we have other things to focus on."

The Cougars can reach their goals by improving on their 6-0 home record and earning their seventh straight victory at TDECU Stadium.

However, they may also be without leading rusher Kenneth Farrow. The senior running back is questionable after leaving in the third quarter against UConn with a foot injury. Farrow has 949 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

The good news is that an MRI revealed no structural damage to Postma's injured knee.