Memphis Tigers face 'must-win' against Navy with season at crossroads

Evan Barnes
Memphis Commercial Appeal

It was just a month ago that Memphis' biggest problem was worrying about Mississippi State. Since then, the Tigers' problems have gotten worse with a three-game losing streak.

The Tigers (3-3, 0-2 AAC) can't score consistently in the red zone or stop big plays on defense. The kicking game is unreliable. Now, a short week gives Memphis little time to fix things before facing Navy (1-4, 1-2) on Thursday (6:30 p.m., ESPN) at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Coach Ryan Silverfield said Saturday after the loss to Tulsa that things felt similar to 2018 when the Tigers were 4-4 and faced the same questions. Where does the season go from here and can their issues be corrected?

Silverfield said Monday that those questions don't bring any additional pressure to facing Navy.

"Every game is a must win game. Every coach in the country thinks each game is must-win," he said.

MEMPHIS FOOTBALL:Memphis Tigers vs. Tulsa college football top plays, video highlights and score

After losing to Temple and Tulsa, however, the Tigers' schedule gets harder. After Navy, the Tigers play at Central Florida on Oct. 22. Following an open week, they host No. 23 SMU.

There's a good chance after the next three games, the Tigers could be under .500 for the first time since 2013. That would put Memphis in danger  of finishing with six games and be bowl eligible for the eighth consecutive season.

Those worries linger in the background but the present concerns aren't any better. Memphis has beaten Navy the past two seasons but still has to face the challenge that comes with stopping the Midshipmen's triple-option, run-heavy offense.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane cornerback Travon Fuller (2) knocks down a pass intended for Memphis Tigers wide receiver Eddie Lewis (18) during NCAA football between Memphis at Tulsa on October 9, 2021. (JOEY JOHNSON/For the Tulsa World)

Silverfield noted that a lack of focus has been a root of the Tigers' current problems whether it's from turnovers, missed field goals or defensive lapses.

"These games have come down to the last minute and that's the margin for error in college football. That just means we got to be better with our details, cleaner with our execution for assignments" Silverfield said.

Playing Thursday also means the Tigers will be more cautious with injuries.  Left guard Isaac Ellis and receiver Gabriel Rogers missed their second consecutive game against Tulsa and will be game-time decisions against Navy.

Running back Rodrigues Clark, who did not have a carry in the second half against Tulsa, is also a game-time decision. Calvin Austin III, the nation's leading receiver, was questionable against Tulsa, but finished with 200 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches.

It just adds another part to the Tigers' dilemma of how to keep their season afloat. A month ago, there was healthy fear of losing to Mississippi State even if a loss wouldn't affect the season's goals.

Now, a loss to Navy could mean qualifying for a bowl game just got harder and playing for the AAC Championship is outright impossible. Silverfield doesn't sound worried but understood what's at stake.

"There's no quit in this team. These guys are still hungry for us to do it the right way," he said. "They believe and have their heads held high and they know that we've got to do whatever it takes to hold ourselves accountable to the standards we set as a program."

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You can reach Evan Barnes on Twitter (@Evan_B) or by email at evan.barnes@commercialappeal.com