I don’t usually get too wrapped up in winning bowl games. Don’t get me wrong; of course I want Navy to win. To me, though, just getting there is the most important thing. Once Navy has that 6th win and we all start looking at possible matchups for the Mids in the postseason, I don’t hope for whatever team gives them the best shot at winning. I want the toughest one. Give me Oregon or Alabama or the Houston Texans or the Tecmo Super Bowl Raiders with Bo Jackson. Navy tries to schedule reasonably in order to get to a bowl game, but once they’re there, why not hope for a shot at something special? At that point, there’s nothing to lose.
That “something special” is exactly what we got when Navy faced Missouri in the 2009 Texas Bowl. The Texas Bowl was pretty far down the Big 12’s pecking order, so it took a bit of luck for the Tigers to end up in Houston at 8-4. Thanks to some bowl and conference politicking, the Insight Bowl chose 6-6 Iowa State instead of the team that beat the Cyclones a few weeks earlier, leaving Navy with a very challenging opponent. Missouri was coming off of back-to-back seasons of 10+ wins, both of which included appearances in the Big 12 championship game. The Tigers were even ranked #1 in the country briefly in 2007 and ended that season with a win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. Ten players from Missouri’s Texas Bowl team are currently on NFL rosters, including three (Aldon Smith, Sean Weatherspoon, and Blaine Gabbert) that were first-round draft picks.
A 35-13 rout of any team would have been impressive enough, but to win like that over a Big 12 squad of Missouri’s caliber was almost too good to be true. The Mids’ statistical domination was staggering: 515 yards of total offense (including 385 on the ground), a 28-17 advantage in first downs, and almost 41 minutes of possession. Navy’s defense was just as impressive, forcing 3 turnovers, sacking Blaine Gabbert 4 times, and limiting Missouri– a team that had averaged 30 points per game– to only one touchdown. Maybe the most remarkable part about all of this is that Navy made plenty of mistakes. Usually against this kind of opponent, the Mids would have to play a perfect game just to have a chance. Navy managed to win this game even after fumbling three times themselves. It might not have been a perfect game, but it was as close to a complete game on both sides of the ball as we’ve ever seen.
It sure didn’t look that way at first. Missouri took the lead after only two plays thanks to a 58-yard catch-and-run from the country’s leading receiver, Danario Alexander. Missouri’s game plan was fairly simple. They were going to spread Navy out and try to outnumber them on the perimeter. Alexander’s touchdown is a perfect example of this. You can see that Missouri simply had more receivers than Navy had defenders on that side of the field (4 vs. 3). The play action kept the linebackers from inside-out pursuit. Emmett Merchant recognized the bubble screen but was blocked. That left Wyatt Middleton, coming across from the other side of the field, as the only defender left to stop Alexander, who was running at full speed. That’s not a winning situation for the defense:
While Missouri didn’t continue to have the same kind of spectacular results, that bubble screen was the one play they were able to run with consistency for most of the game:
As long as Missouri felt that they outnumbered Navy outside, they would continue to throw passes like that. It presented a problem for the Navy defense. If Navy decided to match Missouri’s numbers on the outside, it would open up the running game. That’s exactly what the Tigers did in their last three games leading up to the Texas Bowl, averaging 195 yards per game on the ground in wins over Kansas, Iowa State, and Kansas State. Coach Green’s solution was something later affectionately called the “Star Wars defense.” Green used two defensive ends playing a 5 technique and an Oort cloud of linebackers behind them.
By replacing the nose guard with an extra linebacker, Green accomplished three things:
One, he got more speed onto the field. The average linebacker is a lot faster than the average nose guard. If Navy didn’t want to overexpose themselves up the middle, then they needed to have as many guys on the field that could track down receivers on the outside as quickly as possible. The additional speed helped the Mids get into the Missouri backfield, too. Mizzou seemed to be caught off guard by Navy’s quickness on defense. Whenever they called a play that called for a pulling guard, the defender that he was assigned to block was already so far into the backfield that he would either blow past him to make the tackle or force the quarterback to make a hurried throw off of his back foot:
Here’s the same play that Missouri used to score their touchdown. The same numbers advantage is there, but the linebacker gets into the backfield so quickly that he forces Gabbert to make a bad throw:
Two, with all the different linebackers on the field, the offensive line had a hard time figuring out where the pass rush was going to come from on each play. On this play, Navy only rushes 4, but the running back is still left alone to block Craig Schaefer. Schaefer blows by the block and forces Blaine Gabbert to scramble:
The third thing that Green accomplished by putting all those linebackers on the field was confusing the quarterback. Gabbert lost track of who was rushing the quarterback and who was dropping into coverage. On this play, he thinks he has an easy completion to Alexander in front of the safeties on a post pattern, but he never sees Ross Pospisil dropping back into coverage in what was essentially a Tampa 2:
Still, even though Navy wasn’t willing to sacrifice numbers inside, the lack of a nose guard has to make running the ball awfully tempting, right? Ask the average Navy fan about this game, and at some point he will say, “we only had two defensive linemen on the field, but Missouri refused to run!” That comment makes me laugh a little bit. Missouri was 14th in the country in passing that year. They were 85th in rushing. Throwing the ball was their bread and butter. That average Navy fan mocking Missouri for not deviating from their bread & butter is also the same guy who complains whenever Navy steps away from their bread & butter and throws a pass, regardless of what the defense is doing. Oh, the irony.
The other problem with that comment is that it isn’t really true. Missouri made a very real effort to run the ball. On their first possession of the second quarter, they opened with three straight runs. They picked up a first down after the second one, but Matt Nechak stopped the third for a minimal gain:
Two incomplete passes after that, and Missouri was forced to punt.
Later in the quarter, Missouri again opened a drive by running the ball. Not only were they hit with a holding penalty, but the replay showed that there was a fumble on the play, recovered by Ram Vela:
Then in the third quarter, Missouri put together their best sustained drive of the game, going 84 yards in 10 plays. That drive started with 5 straight runs up the middle. Once Missouri had the Navy defense respecting the run in the middle of the field, they got the ball outside on a WR screen. After some terrible tackling, that play got Missouri inside the Navy 10 yard line.
The Mids were able to hold Missouri to a field goal, though, which ultimately killed their running game. If Missouri had scored a touchdown on that drive, they might have kept running the ball. With the kind of drives that the Navy offense was putting together, though, they just didn’t have enough time.
Navy was able to put those drives together thanks to a lackluster game plan on the part of the Missouri defense. Quint Kessenich made it easy for us by laying out part of the plan before the game:
Yeah, yeah. “Chop” blocks. I know. The other points are the important ones here. The first is that Missouri was going to use multiple fronts on defense. That sounds great in theory, but for a veteran offensive line, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. The second point was that the defense was going to use a lot of pre-snap movement. Unfortunately for Mizzou, this was the first game where the Navy offense would start tail motion, check the sideline for the play, then reset. The defense would shift when it saw the tail motion, but all that did was give the offense a heads up once they reset:
Right off the bat, that’s two pillars of the Missouri plan down the drain.
The third element of Missouri’s gameplan that you might have noticed in that last clip was that their safeties were playing man to man on Navy’s slotbacks. The safety would follow his man if he went into tail motion and tackle him if he got the pitch. It worked… once.
That was the only time. Once again, Missouri was unprepared for Navy’s speed. I’m sure that Missouri’s coaches figured that they had the superior BCS-caliber athletes, so their best bet would be to simply reduce the game to one-on-one matchups. They were more than happy to make the game a contest between their secondary against Navy’s wide receivers & A-backs. With the middle linebacker concentrating on the fullback, everything should be covered, right? Well, no. The problem with that plan is that there is a difference between being faster and being fast enough. Sure, the safety would tackle the pitch man sometimes, but when he did it was 5+ yards down the field. Other times he would get caught up in traffic coming across the field and not be able to make a play at all.
The same idea applied to the toss sweep as well:
And that’s the bulk of the Navy offense right there.
This scheme left Missouri’s defense vulnerable in a lot of other ways too. When Ricky got a read to keep instead of pitch, he could find a lot of room cutting back the other way since the safety that would usually be on the backside of the play was following the tail motion. The same goes for the QB follow play. Coach Jasper didn’t call much midline in this game. With the MLB always stepping up to take the fullback, he didn’t need to. Instead, he would simply have the playside guard block the DT and have the fullback take the MLB who was going to tackle him anyway. Ricky would keep, then move back against the grain once he got to the second level since there was no safety on the backside.
With the safeties following tail motion, Jasper would use the counter option to get them moving one way, then run back the other way:
Occasionally the pitch key would play the fullback, giving Ricky a lot of room to run when he kept the ball:
Navy was able to make several plays in the passing game as well. With the secondary playing man-to-man but still giving a decent cushion, the Mids were able to complete several hitches and out patterns. Eventually the corners played tighter coverage on the WRs, but since the safeties still had to play deep, the slotbacks were almost always open.
The man coverage also meant that Ricky could intentionally underthrow deep passes to allow his receiver to adjust without fear of a corner or safety making a play on the ball, which is what happened on this wheel route by Marcus Curry:
Coach Jasper also used motion to help with the passing game. Just as the safety following tail motion couldn’t get to the pitch or toss before the Mids gained a decent chunk of yardage, Coach Jasper achieved the same effect by sending a slotback in motion and throwing to him in the flat:
Of course, if the safety is going to follow tail motion and leave half the field uncovered, then it makes sense to run the other slotback on a route back the other way:
The Mids were also able to use the toss sweep to set up the A-pop at the goal line. When the secondary cheated up to stop the toss, it made for easy pickings:
In short, I probably could have just said that Missouri used the worst possible defense against Navy, and that made some people very mad.
This game really was a perfect storm for Navy. It took a bit of luck to get the best possible opponent, and that opponent didn’t appear to give the Navy offense the respect it deserved. Mix in a brilliant defensive scheme from Buddy Green and execution on both sides of the ball, and you have a recipe for a good time. It could’ve been even more of a blowout if Ricky didn’t fumble so much, but there’s no need to be greedy. As is, it’s a win for the ages.