It wasn’t supposed to be this easy, this being the Houston Cougars' 52-31 defeat of 16th-ranked Navy. But the 21st-ranked Cougars just went out and played the best game the team has played all season, and played that game in the most important game of the season, the regular season finale with a chance to play for the conference title hanging in the balance.
The Cougars (11-1) dismantled a Navy defense that was supposed to be one of the top-ranked defenses in the country. UH piled up 555 total yards on offense, passing for 337 yards and rushing for another 218. The Cougars were 16-of-19 on third-down conversions and a perfect 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions.
So what the Cougars did was get a touchdown on the first two drives of the game to go up 14-7, then kicked a field goal on the last play of the first half to lead 24-14. The Cougars forced a Navy turnover on Navy’s first possession of the second half, and the Cougars turned that turnover into seven points for the 31-14 lead. After that, it just seemed that nothing Navy could do would be enough.
The Cougars defense shut down the vaunted Navy triple-option rush offense, holding Navy to just 147 yards on the ground and forcing Navy to pass the ball. Navy picked up more than 300 yards passing, but that’s the thing with Navy, when the Midshipman are passing the ball instead of running, that means Navy is losing.
“Any time that you can force the Naval Academy to throw for 18 times for 312 yards but more importantly hold them to [just] 147 yards rushing, that’s a pretty good day at the office,” head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “They’re going to get their points. We knew that.”
The reasons the Cougars weren’t supposed to be able to defeat Navy are myriad. There’s the fact that Navy (9-2) had easily handled all opponents, losing only to a Notre Dame that’s in playoff contention. The triple-option was supposed to be a difficult offense to stop for a team that hadn’t seen it all season. And then there were the injuries that had piled up over the season. Yet the Cougars seemed bothered by absolutely none of that.
But the Cougars had a plan for the Navy offense, one that the defensive staff, led by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, had been practicing with the team for weeks. And it was a plan that the defense never deviated from, even as Navy resorted to throwing the ball in an attempt to catch up to a Cougar team that led the game from start to finish.
“We had a plan that we’ve been working on for six to eight weeks. We didn’t deviate from that plan,” Herman said. “A lesser defensive staff might have panicked a little bit with some of the passing yards because we knew we were kind of exposing ourselves a little bit to the throw game. But we felt like if we could stop the run, obviously with them, and force them to pass, that we could live with them throwing the ball…because that’s not what they do.”
The injuries also turned out not to be an issue. Quarterbacks Greg Ward Jr. and Kyle Postma were both injured, and the starter was supposed to be a game-day decision. But Ward trotted out with the team to start the game, and he was dynamic, completing 26 of 35 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Then there was a Ward scramble for a TD that saw him duck and spin from onrushing Navy defenders, disappearing from their hands like a magician’s rabbit, one moment almost down, the next moment appearing five yards away in the end zone.
Then there’s starting cornerback Brandon Wilson, who, for this game, started at running back (playing the position for the first time ever in his college career) in place of the injured Kenneth Farrow. All that Wilson did was rush for 111 yards on 22 carriers while scoring two touchdowns.
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“It was a collective idea [playing Wilson at running back] in terms of the uniqueness of Navy’s offense really allowed us to not play our normal corners….” Herman said. “It just kind of lined up right to necessarily need Brandon [on defense], and we had seen what he was able to do in the spring game, and obviously going back to high school. Credit to [running backs coach Kenneth] Pope and the offensive staff for getting him ready on a short week. To go in there and have 22 carriers for 111 yards and two touchdowns for a guy that hasn’t played the position until three days ago. That’s pretty good coaching.”
And then there was wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (who caught eight passes for 161 yards and a touchdown), a high school quarterback, who took a lateral from Ward and tossed it 29 yards to Linell Bonner for another touchdown while, later in the game, leaping in the air for a spectacularly fantastic one-handed grab, spinning from the grasp of tacklers and scoring a 62-yard touchdown.
“I practice those catches in warmups,” Ayers said. “I don’t know if you guys see the warmups or not, but I’m always catching the ball with one hand and both hands…[you] practice the things that you want to do in the game. It was just my moment to go up and make that play with one hand.”
Herman has said all season that this was never about a perfect season. That for him and the team, this year is about winning the conference title. The Cougars are now one game closer to that title, and they’ll host either Temple or USF next Saturday at 11 a.m. for that title and the even bigger spoils that’ll come from winning the title. For it appears that if the Cougars do win the conference title, then the team will be heading out to Atlanta for the New Years Eve appearance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.