When the United States Naval Academy announced it would be joining the American Athletic Conference, I would say the Houston fan base’s reaction was a positive one. It wasn’t just for the patriotic reasons, either.
In the 21st century the Midshipmen had far more winning seasons than losing ones and even had a pair of 10-win seasons in the current century: 2004 and 2009 (and would add another one their first year in the AAC). This was a program that would improve the football quality in the short term and visibility to a degree in the long term.
At some point after the announcement became official it dawned on some Cougar fans that this would mean facing Navy’s nightmarish flexbone offense every year.
The thought of playing that team in a critical conference game was a scary thought, and one that would play out on the field in Annapolis for the latest game in our countdown.
Leading into the Game:
The first time these teams met as conference mates Houston beat the Midshipmen 52-31. With that win the Coogs secured the AAC West division title (and eventually the league title).
After a Peach Bowl win over Florida State to cap the 2015 season, the Coogs picked up right where they left off in 2016.
The obvious highlight of the 2016 season to this point was the opening week 33-23 win over Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield. The next 4 games all were ones where UH was a big favorite and save for a slow start against Cincy, they all were comfortable wins for the Coogs.
Once the Oklahoma game was in the books, it was easy to catch yourself looking ahead all the way to the 2nd to last regular season game against Louisville. These thoughts were naive to how common upsets are on a weekly basis, even when you’re the #6 team in the country like the Coogs were.
But at this point in the year it was easy to be carried by overconfidence and good feelings from watching UH outplay a college football blueblood like Oklahoma. There were some flaws if you looked closely at the season's first 5 weeks.
Greg Ward Jr still was a savant at improvising and escaping pressure, but he was clearly playing hurt beyond the usual in-season bumps and bruises. The receiver group was good, but none of the current guys possessed the dynamism of the departed DeMarcus Ayers, Ward’s top target in 2015.
The defense would also be missing its top edge rusher in Tyus Bowser with a broken orbital bone that resulted from getting “over competitive” (Tom Herman’s words, not mine) with Matthew Adams during team-bonding games before playing UConn.
As important as anything though, the offense couldn’t maintain an effective run/pass balance like it had the year before. Ward was a good enough passer and the Coogs could still out talent a lot of teams on the schedule, but the offense wasn’t functioning exactly as designed.
Navy had to deal with both the loss of record-setter and iconic QB Keenan Reynolds and his heir-apparent Tago Smith who left at halftime of their week 1 game with a season ending injury. Into the fray stepped Will Worth, like Smith a senior and career backup to that point.
In Worth’s first 2 starts the Mids clung on to a 28-24 win over UConn (with its own bizarre ending) and beat Tulane on the road by 7. In Worth’s first Commander-in-Chief trophy game against Air Force, the Mids lost 28-14 and were held to 57 rush yards and 7 points outside of garbage time.
I watched some of that Navy/Air Force game and felt even more confident, which would only deepen my shock at what actually took place when the Coogs and Midshipmen faced eachother.
It was an overcast, gray skies and spitting rain kind of day that Saturday in Annapolis. It was probably a common kind of day for the Mid-Atlantic part of the country at that time of the year, and certainly a fitting backdrop.
With this game being a unique opponent and road trip opportunity, there were an above average number of fans in red and white that day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (including Pawdcast co-host Dustin).
Right at kickoff (as was Herman’s style) it was announced that one of the Coogs’ defensive stars: linebacker Steven Taylor, would be suspended for this game due to a violation of team rules. This would be a significant loss. Add this to Bowser’s injury and UH was down 2 starters at the position group that would be attacked most by this Navy offense.
This game started in a way that fed the overconfidence of people like me that believed UH would overwhelm their latest opponent. The Midshipmen’s first drive went 3 plays for a total of 0 yards and ended in a punt. The Cougar defense didn’t get another ‘three and out’ until Navy’s last possession of the game.
The Coogs’ first possession was a 5 play, 70-yard touchdown drive that would fit the definition of ‘knife through hot butter’. Ward completed 4 of 4 pass attempts on the drive, including the 32-yard TD pass to Steven Dunbar. But the Coogs gave something precious to Navy after the game’s first 2 possessions: momentum.
Specifically, the Cougars allowed an 85-yard kick return after their opening drive and set Navy up for a 12-yard TD run by fullback Chris High that tied the game on the very next play. The Coogs answered with a field goal on their next drive, but this wouldn’t be a game won by field goals.
On the Mids’ next 2 drives they managed a field goal and touchdown respectively, but as importantly they played ‘keep away’ with a combined over 9 minutes of possession on those 2 drives.
That last TD drive put the Mids up 17-13 in the middle of the 2nd quarter, but the Coogs responded with a 19-yard TD reception from walk-on Dillon Birden to go up 20-17. This would be the last lead UH held in this game.
Navy managed one more scoring drive in the 2nd: a field goal as time expired. That drive was also helped out by a questionable Roughing the Punter penalty on Isaiah Johnson. Just the fact that this was a tie game going into half was a shock to Cougar fans and the 2nd half didn’t do much calm the nerves.
Ward fumbled the ball on the Coogs' 1st drive and it was recovered by Navy at the Cougar 41-yard line. The Mids surprised the Coogs with a 17-yard TD pass from Worth to Darryl Bonner to re-take the lead. Only 3 plays later Ward was intercepted by Josiah Powell who took it 34 yards to the end zone to give the Mids a 34-20 lead.
If there was any internal panic going on among the Cougar team, they didn’t show it on a 14-play, 81-yard scoring drive. This possession was highlighted by Ward completing 6 of his 7 pass attempts and running for an 8-yard TD to cut the lead back to 1 score.
This was the time Todd Orlando’s Cougar defense absolutely, positively had to get a stop. Instead, Navy had their most explosive drive of the day and only needed 7 plays to go 80 yards and get the lead back to 14 points.
To his credit (and nobody’s surprise) Ward wasn’t going to let the Cougars go down without a fight and led the Coogs on yet another TD drive. On a critical 4th down deep in Navy territory, Ward found freshman D’Eriq King, and this set up a TD on the next play.
When the Mids had the ball in the 4th they took extreme measures to milk the clock and ran 6+ minutes off the clock when the Coogs forced them into a 4th & 1. With the game on the line Matthew Adams tackled fullback Shawn White for no gain and the Coogs got the ball back with 6:26 in the game.
The ‘Hollywood’ ending would’ve had UH overcoming adversity and taking the ball 84 yards for a dramatic game-tying drive, or if they wanted to go a different direction: a heroic Navy goal line stand.
In reality, this game functionally ended 4 plays later when a bad deep snap flew over Dane Roy’s head and resulted in a Navy safety, to put the Mids up 43-33 with 5:39 left.
During the games last several minutes, the Cougars scored another TD and attempted 2 different on-side kicks, but no trick could save the Coogs.
All any Cougar fan could do, wherever they were, was watch helplessly as the Brigade of Midshipmen rushed the field for an enormous Navy victory. The Cougars were the highest ranked opponent Navy had beaten since the early 1980s and a sign of things to come for that team.
In a losing effort, Ward finished the day with 359 pass yards and 3 touchdowns, along with a team-high 94 rush yards and a rush TD. Though Ward would also be the first to mention his 3 turnovers. Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar both finished the day with 100+ receiving yards.
This game was certainly a coming out party for Will Worth who rushed for a game and team-best 115 yards and 2 of his 3 completed passes were for touchdowns. The Mids rolled up 306 yards rushing after a paltry 57 team rush yards against Air Force the prior week.
The Coogs dropped from #6 to #13 in the rankings after the loss. The fact that this team didn’t drop out of the polls entirely showed that the Coogs were getting more respect than they had gotten in ages.
Even with Steven Taylor’s return from suspension, the Cougar defense remained in a mid-season funk for the next couple of games. The Coogs were very fortunate to escape with a 38-31 home win over Tulsa and the next week were demolished as 20+ point favorites up at SMU.
Navy’s season went in an opposite trajectory and it was obvious they’d figured something out offensively that afternoon against UH. The Mids won 5 of their next 6 games and scored at least 40 points 5 times during that stretch, eventually winning the AAC West.
Were it not for Worth getting injured in the 1st half of the AAC championship game against Temple, I think Navy would’ve been the 2016 Group of 5 representative at that year’s NY6 bowls. But without their talisman QB, the Mids lost to Temple and the next week saw a decade plus winning streak vs Army end.
More than anything else, that Saturday in Annapolis was a reminder that this wonderful sport could also be so cruel.