No comeback required. No flurry of touchdowns needed.
All it took for No. 22 Tulsa to earn a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game was a rousing defensive performance and one heck of a big play.
The Golden Hurricane squelched Navy’s triple option Saturday and used a tie-breaking 66-yard touchdown pass from Zach Smith to Josh Johnson to earn a 19-6 victory that extended their winning streak to six.
Tulsa (6-1, 6-0, No. 24 CFP) needed to win one of their final two games to play for the AAC championship for the first time. The Golden Hurricane will face Cincinnati at home next weekend before taking on the Bearcats for the league title on Dec. 19.
“Man, it feels great. It’s our first one so it’s real exciting,” said defensive tackle Jaxon Player, who had 12 tackles and two sacks. “We went crazy in the locker room, and we’re still going to go crazy after we get home.”
Four of Tulsa’s wins this season have come after the team trailed by double digits, and the Golden Hurricane hadn’t been held under 28 points since losing to Oklahoma State in the opener.
They flipped the script this time. Tulsa never trailed, got a great performance from its defense and made the most of its only touchdown.
The score was tied at 6 late in the third quarter before Smith lofted a long pass between four Navy defenders into the waiting arms of Johnson, who outdistanced his pursuers in a 40-yard sprint to the end zone.
“Obviously, it was great to see JJ pop that big one at a crucial time,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “These guys continue to stay resilient as obstacles are put before them.”
Plenty of hurdles were cleared with this victory: A berth in the title game, Tulsa became bowl-eligible, and it beat Navy for the first time in six tries.
“We knew there was a lot on the line tonight and we felt it,” Montgomery said. “To go in there and get a big win on the road, with everybody contributing, I’m blown away by our guys.”
The defense took care of business despite losing starting linebacker Zaven Collins to an injury that Montgomery deemed not to be serious.
Smith went 10 for 25 for 168 yards but came up big when it counted. Facing a third-and-8 from his own 40 with less than four minutes to go, Smith connected with Keylon Stokes down the right sideline for a 37-yard gain that set up Zack Long’s fourth field goal.
Navy (3-6, 3-4) will bring a four-.game losing streak into next week’s clash with archrival Army at Michie Stadium. The Midshipmen produced only 153 yards in offense and lost their home finale for the first time since 2002.
Navy managed only 71 yards in the first half and didn’t score until Bijan Nichols kicked a field goal just before halftime to make it 6-3.
The Midshipmen opened the third quarter with a 14-play drive that lasted nearly eight minutes and ended with a field goal to tie the score.
That fueled their hope of pulling off an upset, but Navy went three and out on its next two possessions while Tulsa finally found the end zone to take control.
Freshman quarterback Xavier Arline ran for 60 yards on 27 carries for the Midshipmen but managed only 27 yards passing on eight attempts.
“We have to improve offensively,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’re too inconsistent, too sporadic.”
Arline, he said, “made some good runs but missed some things. This is very frustrating. We’re just inept on offense.”
This marks the first time since 1992 that Navy has been held to seven points or fewer in four games over a single season.
During a scoreless first quarter, Navy failed to get a first down and totaled minus-4 yards on 11 plays. Tulsa eked out 64 yards on 22 plays, including 22 yards on a fake punt, but the Golden Hurricane lost a fumble and failed to convert a fourth-and-1. Tulsa has scored only 12 first-quarter points in seven games.
Though Smith played poorly for a sputtering offense, Tulsa took care of business in an efficient enough manner to retain its position in the Top 25. The point is, the Golden Hurricane have won six straight, and that’s more important than style points.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane have a knack for doing what it takes to win. After averaging 33.6 points in its previous five games, Tulsa won this one on the strength of its defense. “We think we’re the best in conference,” defensive lineman Jaxon Player declared. “As long as we’re producing, we know the offense will catch up.”
Navy: The calling-card of a Navy team is its triple option, but this season the Midshipmen just can’t seem to get their running game going. On the positive side, the defense put in another solid performance after last week’s 10-7 loss to Memphis. “I thought our defense went toe-to-toe with them,” Niumatalolo said.
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