A good number of the games I’ve covered so far on this countdown so far were the kinds of big events it was obvious the casual fan would show up to.
To me what made this game significant is I remember several years ago, being pretty uneasy about what kind of crowd we’d get for the 2015 regular season finale. After all, the Coogs suffered a shocking upset loss the previous week and this game was taking place on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Those 2 major factors didn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be a good crowd at TDECU Stadium for a de facto AAC West championship game against the US Naval Academy.
In fact, doubters of Cougar fans ability to show up and their football team’s ability to bounce back from defeat were given quite the shock on this unseasonably warm late-November day.
Leading into the Game:
For both the Cougars and Midshipmen, this was the last conference game of the season and a spot in the 1st ever AAC Conference Championship game was on the line.
There weren’t too many people before the season who had both these teams losing a grand total of 1 conference game between them near the end of the regular season.
Under first year head coach Tom Herman the Coogs became the sport’s exciting upstart and to the surprise of the fan base: a team legitimately good enough to be in the top 25.
It’s not that Cougar fans doubted the talent under the previous head coach. But outside of the usual cranks that always predict or demand an undefeated season, I think most Cougar fans would’ve been happy with an exciting offense and slight improvement in the win/loss record.
The offensive personnel was a perfect fit for the run-first, read-option based spread offense Herman and his OC Major Applewhite wanted to run. Greg Ward Jr won the QB job after starting the last 8 games of the 2014 season and quickly became one of the sport’s most exciting players.
Ward had a near superhuman ability to escape pressure and create yards with his feet but had also developed into a good passer in the new offense. DeMarcus Ayers, a junior receiver who’d had an anonymous career to this point, became Wards top target and another exciting offensive weapon.
For once Cougar fans had expectations for their defense after 2 good years under now former DC David Gibbs and Herman hit a home run in hiring Utah State’s Todd Orlando to run the defense. Stylistically, Orlando didn’t stray far from his predecessor.
Career backup Elandon Roberts anchored a tough, upperclassman heavy defensive front that included guys like Steven Taylor, Cam Malveaux and Tyus Bowser. If possible, the secondary was even more exciting with future 1st round draftee William Jackson III and havoc-wreaking safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart.
Even with all the talent and excitement, like all great teams the Coogs needed some luck to get to 10-1. They needed a 20-point 4th quarter comeback to beat Memphis and the week prior eked out a 3-point homecoming win over Cincy, despite being out gained by around 200 yards.
On the other hand, the Coogs hadn’t got much luck in terms of offensive injuries. A spate of injuries on the offensive line had forced the staff to play multiple freshmen and rotate guys heavily. Also key ‘skill players’ like Ward and senior RBs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson missed varying degrees of game action.
Those injuries came to a head with Ward and Farrow both missing most of the Coogs’ lone loss up at UConn the week before this one.
Navy’s first year in the AAC had gone about as well as you could possibly script. Led by veteran head coach Ken Niumatalolo and 4-year starting QB Keenan Reynolds the Midshipmen laid waste to their new conference.
Up to this point in the season, Navy had won all 7 of their conference games by 10 or more points. Earlier in November Reynolds returned to his home state and the Midshipmen demolished then #15 Memphis 45-20. The only blemish on the Mids’ 10-1 record was a 41-24 road loss to Notre Dame.
This Navy team wasn’t just a tough, disciplined team with a unique and difficult to defend offense. They were all those things AND one of the country’s 25 best teams.
Any doubts about whether the loss at UConn or the game being around a holiday would affect the crowd were quickly put to rest. Not only did Cougar fans show up, but a healthy contingent of Navy fans made for a nice crowd at TDECU Stadium.
The Coogs and Midshipmen had done well enough to earn the 11 AM time slot on ABC, where a national crowd got to see exciting football, as well as be subjected to Mack Brown’s color commentary.
On the game’s opening possession Greg Ward Jr put any questions about his health to doubt by completing 8 of 11 passes and taking the Coogs 82 yards to ‘paydirt’ courtesy of a Steven Dunbar 5-yard TD reception.
The Midshipmen responded by going 76 yards with a very un-Navy like speed and explosiveness. In less than 3 minutes of game time the Mids tied it up on a 4-yard TD run by fullback Chris Swaim. This drive did little to dissuade Cougar fans’ concerns about facing the Navy option offense.
But Ward and the Cougar offense were just getting warmed up. On the very next possession Ward found DeMarcus Ayers for a 23-yard gain on 3rd & long and on the next play Brandon Wilson scored on a 17-yard TD run.
Wilson, usually a cornerback and return man, was pressed into duty at running back with the injury crisis at that group. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t have guessed Wilson was taking his first reps at the position since high school.
Both of the Coogs’ first 2 TD drives took over 5 minutes of game time and this was by design. In addition to running their unique offense, Navy’s ability to play ‘keep away’ with the ball was a prime way they tormented opponents. Throughout this game the Coogs would turn that strategy against the Mids.
Although, Navy would score again in the 2nd quarter on another uncharacteristically quick drive, it was clear they weren’t going to get many stops against the Cougar offense.
I don’t like to heap more praise than I must on Herman and Major Applewhite, but the offensive game plan against Navy was perfection. The Mids just didn’t have the athletes to deal with the Coogs in space and whenever Ward wasn’t accounted for, he made them pay with his scrambling.
After going into halftime with a 24-14 lead, the Coogs started their 2nd half on a positive note with an interception by Trevon Stewart on the 2nd play of the Mids’ opening drive. If you believe in momentum, from this point on the Coogs were a boulder rolling down a hill.
Starting their opening possession of the 2nd half in Navy territory, the Coogs only needed 6 plays for Ward to find Linnell Bonner for a 4-yard TD reception to go up 31-14.
Navy managed to hold the ball for five and a half minutes on their next drive, but were only able to manage a field goal. The Cougar defense were playing 4 safeties and consistently 7 men in ‘the box’ almost daring the run-centric Midshipmen offense to throw the ball.
The play of the game came on the next Cougar possession as Ayers made a one-handed catch in stride and eluded Navy defenders for a 62-yard TD reception. The Mids still had a quarter left to theoretically come back, but the Coogs were firmly in control of this game.
Early in the 4th quarter the Mids managed a surprising quick TD drive to cut it the lead back to 2 scores, but the Coogs answered on the next drive with a WR pass TD from Ayers to Bonner.
The teams would trade touchdowns and when the clock hit 0:00 the Cougars were 52-31 winners and returning to the program’s first conference title game since 2011.
My favorite crazy stat from this game is the Cougars converted 16 of their 19 3rd down attempts. Incredibly, the team also managed 235 rush yards and the converted CB Wilson finished the day with over 100 rushing yards.
Even with all of the offensive fireworks, the Cougar defensive front led by Matthew Adams and Elandon Roberts kept the Mids' difficult offense in check enough to allow the Cougar offense to win the game.
It was the emphatic kind of win from a team that we all knew wasn't done doing great things in 2015.
The following Saturday the Coogs hosted AAC East division champion Temple at TDECU Stadium to decide the league title.
It was a decidedly less high-scoring affair, but in the end the Coogs’ 24-13 was more than good enough to secure the program’s first conference title in nearly a decade.
Even more importantly, that conference title win along with a 12-1 record was enough to get the Coogs an invite to the Peach Bowl.
If you’re reading this you know how the rest of the story goes and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Coogs beating the best Navy team in decades on the day after Thanksgiving.