HOUSTON (AP) — No. 24 Navy has made a remarkable turnaround this season and has a chance to reach the American Athletic Conference title game.
To do that the Midshipmen will have to figure out a way to win in Houston against the Cougars, something they've failed to do in their previous two trips there.
Navy visits the Cougars on Saturday night and a win would earn the team at least a share of the West Division title. The Midshipmen could also earn a share of the title with a loss by Memphis against Cincinnati on Friday night. They would get a spot in the conference title game against Cincinnati on Dec. 7 with a win over Houston and a loss by Memphis.
Navy has already made a five-game improvement from last year's 3-10 finish with two games remaining. The Midshipmen host Army on Dec. 14 in their annual rivalry game.
Houston won 24-14 in 2017 in Navy's last visit and the Cougars got a 52-31 victory in 2015 in the team's other trip to Houston.
"We haven't played well when we've gone down there," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "So we've got to be ready to play against a team that had a really good game last week and has been playing well."
The Cougars (4-7) have had a tough time in coach Dana Holgorsen's first season in charge and won't make a bowl game for the first time since 2012. They snapped a three-game skid last week with a 24-14 win over Tulsa.
Holgorsen talked about the team's mindset on Monday.
"They understand what the bigger picture is," he said. "We got six days left in 2019. That's just the facts. We are going to put everything we can into these six days and play against Navy. We have the mindset that everything we do for the next six days is about getting better and propelling us into 2020. Our 2020 starts in six days."
TRIPLE OPTION/TRIPLE THE WORK
Navy employs the triple option led by quarterback Malcolm Perry. Since no other team the Cougars face uses this offense it presents a unique challenge this week for Holgorsen and his staff.
"I don't know how you can make my job any harder than it is right now," Holgorsen said. "When you think it can't get harder it does. Obviously, we play them every year, so we better get used to figuring out how to play against these guys. This will be a good experience."
Holgorsen said there's no way the Cougars could prepare for Navy's offense in a week so his team has spent days starting in the spring and into fall camp where his staff introduced some things they hope will help this week.
"Getting things on video and starting to evaluate it," he said. "It's challenging, the quarterback is dynamic. I think he rushed 38 times last game, and he can throw it. They throw it better than we do right now."
Perry's 38 carries last week were a career high and he finished with 195 yards rushing and two touchdowns and threw for 162 yards and another score to lead Navy to a win over SMU.
He's rushed for at least 100 yards in seven straight games, and a 100-yard rushing game on Saturday would tie a school record.
The Midshipmen rebounded from a 52-20 loss to No. 16 Notre Dame last week with the 35-28 win over SMU. Niumatalolo thought getting that victory against a team which entered the game with just one loss showed his team's toughness, and he hopes that carries over to this week.
"We had a crushing loss to Notre Dame where they got after us," he said. "We didn't play well. We didn't coach well and we got beat. So to come back after that game to play another top-25 team ... and beat them it was definitely a great win for us. Hopefully it will continue to give us some confidence as we finish out this year."