ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — SMU and Navy meet Saturday looking to keep their West Division title hopes alive in the American Athletic Conference.
The winner of the matchup between SMU (9-1, 5-1) and Navy (7-2, 5-1) will remain in contention for the division title. The loser almost certainly will be eliminated.
“There is still a lot at stake in our conference, still a lot to play for,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Memphis (9-1, 5-1) holds the tiebreaker over both Navy and SMU. All three schools have two league games left.
Navy has rebounded from a 3-10 record in 2018, its worst season since 2002. The Midshipmen already have secured a winning season and bowl eligibility.
SMU finished 5-7 in its first season under coach Sonny Dykes. The Mustangs, like Navy, have already won four more games than a year ago.
Niumatalolo is not surprised to see SMU enjoying success under Dykes, who previously fielded winning programs at California (2013-2016) and Louisiana Tech (2010-2012).
“Coach Dykes is well established as a good football coach. His track record speaks for itself,” Niumatalolo said.
Some other things to know about Saturday’s SMU-Navy matchup:
SWINNING CLOSE ONES
SMU has won five games by eight points or less.
“They’ve had some close games and found ways to pull them out at the end. That shows they are a resilient team,” Niumatalolo said.
Credit the seniors, who have come a long way since 2018.
“If you asked me the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team it’s leadership,” Dykes said. “They’ve done a great job of buying into our culture, our expectations and our standards.”
SMU possesses a high-powered offense that ranks sixth nationally in both scoring (45.1 points per game) and total yards (522.2). Quarterback Shane Buechele, a transfer from Texas, has completed 249 of 388 passes for 3,207 yards and 28 touchdowns.
“I think the key for us has been consistent play from our quarterback. Shane has really had a great year and is the guy that makes us go,” Dykes said. “He’s just the perfect guy for our offense — a good decision-maker with a good arm. He throws the ball on time and with accuracy.”
SMU also boasts one of the country’s top wide receivers in James Proche, who has 88 receptions for 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“You’ve got one of the best passing teams in the country coming in. They’re scoring a ton of points against everybody,” Niumatalolo said.
GROUND AND POUND
Navy leads the nation in rushing offense with an average of 349.3 yards per game. Quarterback Malcolm Perry has been outstanding as the orchestrator of the triple option, accounting for 1,917 yards of total offense and 21 touchdowns.
Dykes first faced Navy’s triple-option at Louisiana Tech in 2010, losing 37-23. SMU pulled out a 31-30 overtime victory over Navy last year.
Navy is coming off a 52-20 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame. The Midshipmen lost four fumbles, all of which led to points by the Fighting Irish. Defensively, Navy was picked apart by quarterback Ian Book.
“It was a devastating loss. We felt we were ready and didn’t coach or play very well,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ll do our best to regroup and get ready to play against a very good SMU team. We have to bounce back or else we’re going to get embarrassed.”
Saturday’s game will be the finale at home for 32 Navy seniors.
This senior class has compiled a 26-23 career record thus far. Navy has won 16 straight on senior day.