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Navy’s Will proves his Worth succeeding Reynolds and Smith

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Navy quarterback Will Worth led the No. 24-ranked Midshipmen past Memphis on Saturday, 42-28, with 201 yards rushing and 286 total yards. That was his encore to 115 yards rushing and 191 total yards to beat Houston.

If he’s this good, how talented was Tago Smith?

Smith, you’ll recall, was Navy’s starting quarterback that suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Smith had been anointed Keenan Reynolds’ successor in 2016 by Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo as early as spring drills in 2015.

That’s how clear his edge was on Worth, but Worth has proven himself far more than a serviceable backup who — at this time a year ago — was a third-team quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder from Valrico, Florida, has Navy in control of its own destiny to win the AAC West.

Navy, which had last week’s game at East Carolina canceled due to Hurricane Matthew, improved to 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the AAC West.

Near this time last year (in early November), the Midshipmen defeated No. 15 Memphis to improve to 7-1 and 5-0 in the AAC West, but they are ahead of last year’s pace. Navy still had Houston waiting for the Midshipmen in a 2015 late-season showdown. Houston won to take the AAC West title.

In 2016, Navy already has beaten Houston (6-1, 3-1) and Memphis (5-2, 2-1) back-to-back. That gives the Midshipmen the tiebreaker over both Houston and Memphis if the Midshipmen do suffer a loss in their final four conference games. They play on Oct. 28 at South Florida, Nov. 12 against Tulsa at home, Nov. 19 at East Carolina, and Nov. 26 at SMU.

Navy would have to lose two of its last four conference games to let the division title and berth in the AAC Championship game slip away, unless an improbable head-to-head tie with Tulsa (and a loss to the Golden Hurricane within that tie) somehow emerge.

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It’s not just Worth that Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have plugged into the lineup. Navy returned only one offensive starter, senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman, from last year’s 11-2 team led by Reynolds.

Niumatalolo and Jasper have been together in the engine room since they arrived at Navy as assistants on Paul Johnson’s staff in 2002. Niumatalolo was Johnson’s offensive coordinator. When Johnson left for Georgia Tech in 2008 and Niumatalolo was promoted, he named Jasper his offensive coordinator.

With the exception of Navy’s 57 yards rushing in a 28-14 loss at Air Force three weeks ago, the triple-option engine has been running full steam ahead. Houston and Memphis play wide-open spread offenses, but Worth has the triple-option operating at a pace to outscore them a combined 88-68 in Navy’s last two games.

Against Memphis, Worth carried 31 times for 201 yards with three touchdowns. He completed 3-of-4 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. That followed a performance in the 46-40 win over Houston when he ran 32 times for 115 yards and one touchdown and completed 3-of-5 passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns.

Do the math: Against Houston and Memphis, Worth has rushed for 316 yards and four touchdowns and completed 6-of-9 passes for 161 yards and three touchdowns.

Who does he think he is – Lamar Jackson?

Despite the loss, Memphis is still having an impressive season under first-year head coach Mike Norvell and junior college transfer (quarterback) Riley Ferguson. The Tigers are only one win shy of bowl eligibility despite losing their head coach (Josh Fuente to Virginia Tech) and quarterback (Paxton Lynch to the NFL’s Denver Broncos).

Memphis has a history of an up-and-down program depending on coaching stability. In 2012, Fuente took over a 2-10 team. In 2010, Larry Porter also assumed control of a 2-10 team. In 2001, Tommy West took over a 4-7 team. You get the picture.

Norvell is in position to guide Memphis to a third straight winning season for the first time 2003 to 2005 under West. That’s progress, too.

It’s worth praising… just not as much as the progress Will Worth has made this season for a Navy team which is beginning the post-Keenan Reynolds era as well as it possibly can.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055

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