Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune takes a snap against Memphis on Oct. 7. The Cougars overcame a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Tigers 33-32. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)
Houston (3-3, 1-1 AAC) vs. Navy (2-4, 2-2 AAC)
Game time: 11 a.m. CT
TV/radio: ESPNU/KPRC 950 AM
What’s at stake: Houston and Navy are in a five-way tie between .500 teams in the American Athletic Conference from fourth to eighth place in the standings as Tulane, Cincinnati, and Central Florida sit at the top with spotless conference records up to this point.
The winner of Saturday’s game not only knocks a conference opponent down the standings but also secures a head-to-head tiebreaker.
When the Cougars have the ball: Houston could look to throw the ball around more frequently against Navy. Or it might not. Heading into the week, quarterback Clayton Tune said he is at a point where he wants to start throwing it more, and he thinks that is where the team is moving toward as an offense.
“When we pick up the pace, pick the tempo up, I think it is an advantage for us,” Tune said. “I feel like we play well in that situation, and it’s harder on the defense. They aren’t able to sub and get the different defenses called that they would want to, so it is an advantage for us in that regard.”
However, both Tune and head coach Dana Holgorsen said they do not want their identity to become that of a pass-heavy, up-tempo team.
“I think it is something we are going to do more of, but that is not our identity,” Tune said. “We don’t want to be the team that strictly does that style of offense, but we are definitely going to mix it in some more.”
The head coach said Houston needs to be effective in an up-tempo offense when it is time to do so. Still, he does not want to commit to it outside of certain situations because it becomes easier to defend and could lead to his defense being put in compromising positions more frequently.
Houston scored 26 points in the fourth quarter against Memphis. Tune went 15-of-19 on his passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns in the final period.
“If we are sputtering doing what we are doing, then that is an opportunity to be able to pick things up,” Holgorsen said. “We will have the ability to be able to do that. I’m not going to commit to it full-time.”
When Navy has the ball: The Midshipmen are known for their fast-paced, unique option offense, but Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said this year’s Navy team also brings a lot of versatility on offense led by quarterback Tai Lavatai.
“(Lavatai) has a lot of arm talent,” Belk said. “He throws the ball really good. They do a lot of different things with him as far as not only the traditional option offense, but you see him in spread sets, in shotgun, so they have really expanded in what they do as far as schematics, but the toughness and discipline and execution is still the same.”
Lavatai has thrown four touchdowns and only one interception for Navy this season. He is averaging 110.3 passing yards per game. He has also rushed for 267 yards and five touchdowns. Fullback Daba Fofana leads the Midshipmen in rushing with 336 yards and three touchdowns in 2022.
Navy is No. 1 in the country in time of possession. The Midshipmen will hold onto the ball as an offense and go for it on fourth down, Belk said. They are also the No. 3 team in the country in yards per completion. Belk said that a lot of their pitches, play actions, shifts, and motions will test the discipline of the Houston defenders all game long.
“Whatever your job is, focus on that, and you can’t get tired doing your job,” said Houston linebacker Donavan Mutin on defending Navy.
Key Cougars to watch: For Houston, receivers Samuel Brown and KeSean Carter will be two players to keep an eye on after their strong performance against Memphis prior to the bye week. Both players were key contributors to UH’s comeback against the Tigers. Additionally, Houston will be without receivers Joseph Manjack IV and Matthew Golden against Navy.
They are also tasked with providing much-needed production at the position to go along with receiver Nathaniel ‘Tank’ Dell. Tight end Christian Trahan will also be another player to watch. The 6-foot-3-inch senior had by far his most productive game on offense against Memphis.
Trahan caught five passes for 73 yards against the Tigers. Holgorsen said he has good ball skills, but now he is starting to find holes against opposing defenses.
The bottom line: For both Houston and Navy, a loss on Saturday will make the road to the AAC Championship game on Dec. 3 much more difficult. Both teams will be itching to secure a win, get above .500 in conference play and keep pace with the conference’s top teams.