All three phases played lights out Friday, starting with the offense led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Back after playing in the final series last week at UConn after spraining an ankle late in the first half two weeks ago versus Memphis, Ward completed 26-of-35 passes for 303 yards, tossing 3 touchdowns to zero interceptions. In a brilliant move by the coaching staff, cornerback Brandon Wilson moved to running back (where he had seen a few snaps this spring) and rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries and rushing TDs. The offense without bruising running back Kenneth Farrow didn’t skip a beat behind the brilliant game plan of offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.
With Navy laying back in zone coverage, not wanting Ward to beat them with his legs, Applewhite had Ward dial up his receivers via the quick perimeter passing game early and often. The tone was set early on the Coogs very first drive in which they drove 83 yards on 13 plays, taking 5-minutes, 25-second off the clock, scoring on a beautifully thrown 5-yard fade from Ward to Steven Dunbar. The entire receiver crew played their best game of the season behind the always reliable Demarcus Ayers, who had 161 yards on 8 receptions. Ayers probably had the best catch on the season on a one handed snag over the middle on a 62-yard TD pass from Ward, with most of that yardage after the catch. Linell Bonner played his best game and received more snaps than he had all season, adding 92 yards on 7 receptions with 2 TDs, one on a 29-yard throw from Ayers. Chance Allen caught 6 passes for 34 yards, all on outside bubble screens that acted as extensions of the running game. Steven Dunbar added 17 yards on 2 catches and the aforementioned TD from Ward to begin the score fest. Even seldom used receiver John Leday caught a short pass in which he turned into 19 yards due to excellent downfield blocking by the receiving crew (which they did all game). Running back Javin Webb caught 2 passes on a swing and screen pass for 17 yards, and Wilson caught a pass for negative 4 yards on a swing pass as well.
The story of the game however wasn’t Wilson’s pass catching ability, but his running ability as he started for Farrow, playing the position for the first time since his days at Calvary Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana where he ran for 1,800 yards as a senior in 2011. You wouldn’t have known it’s been over 4 years since he last took a game snap at the position with the quick feet he showed in the hole and the instincts to avoid would-be tackles. Webb added 18 yards on 6 carries but it was Ward’s elusiveness with his feet that saved the offense time and time again, especially on third down. Ward added 83 yards on 14 carries as the Coogs rushed for 218 on 44 total carries.
The offensive line welcomed the return of right guard Colton Freeman, who had missed three of the past four games with a shoulder stinger. This move allowed Carter Wall to move to right tackle, with Alex Cooper moving to left tackle. With Mason Denley at his usual left guard spot and Will Noble at center, this seems to be the best starting combo with the rash of injuries the unit has faced over the course of the season in starting NINE different combinations over 12 games.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s “Third Ward Defense” shut down the Navy run game as good as can be expected. Entering the game averaging 348.2 yards rushing per game, ranking them second nationally, and having rushed for over 400 yards in their previous two games each, the Midshipmen were only able to muster 147 yards on the ground on 38 total attempts. They did make up for it through the air however, passing for a season-high 312 yards, completing 13-of-18 passes with a TD.
The Coogs defensive front of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton, Cameron Malveaux and outside rush backer Tyus Bowser did a phenomenal job of penetrating the line of scrimmage most of the afternoon, causing Navy to start the triple option a few yards deeper than they wanted. Malveaux was especially successful as he had two tackles-for-loss.
With the interior of the line doing a great job all game (the Midshipmen had only 34 yards on 10 “dive” plays in which the fullback gets the ball right up the middle), the linebackers were free to shoot the gaps and make plays all game long, which they certainly did Friday. Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts was his usual heat seeking missile-like self, with 4.5 of his 7 tackles being for-loss. He also added 2.5 sacks (with Bowser being awarded half a sack) as Navy had to pass for much of the second half being down so big. Though he was everywhere on the field, outside linebacker Steven Taylor wasn’t awarded a tackle on the game, but inside linebacker Mathew Adams more than made up for it with his best game of the season as the true sophomore added 11 total tackles.
With the middle stuffed up, Navy didn’t have too much success on the perimeter either, finishing with only 85 yards on 20 carries on QB keepers, with 52 of those coming on Navy’s first play from scrimmage after an E-Rob missed tackle (really the defenses only missed tackle of the day). “Pitch plays” only accounted for 28 yards on 8 total pitches as the sideline-to-sideline speed of the UH backers and secondary was too much for Navy to handle on this day.
The Secondary played well tackling wise, with safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart adding 10 and 7 tackles respectively in their final regular season home game, but coverage wise they, along with fellow safeties Lee Hightower and Khalil Williams allowed some huge passing plays as will happen against this offense. A number of times Navy would send their slot backs out in crossing patterns out of the backfield off of play action, getting “lost in the wash” to the tune of passing plays of 27, 22, 49, 24 and 29 and 31 yards, the last being a deep post allowed by corner William Jackson. The Midshipmen hit the “Jack Boyz” on a short pass that turned into a 39 yarder on the second to last play, in which the game was already over.
In my pre-game preview in which I’ll admit I picked Navy 38-21 (hey, who could have seen Brandon Williams at RB and a healthy Greg Ward?), I stated the keys to the game as third down conversions, red zone efficiency, time of possession and penalties. The Coogs won each category hands down. Ward completed 9-of-11 passes for 166 yards and 3 TDs on third down as Houston converted on 13-of-18 total attempts, even with many being of the 3rd-and-long variety. Ward even converted a few third downs with his feet despite Navy hardly blitzing just to keep the shifty QB in front of them. Keeping the chains moving was important as against a triple option team, the best defense is said to be a good offense, which was definitely the case Friday afternoon as the Coogs held onto the ball for nearly 34 minutes. Moving down the field with ease, the Coogs were able to convert ALL four red zone chances into “7’s” instead of “3’s.” Finally, Houston only had 3 penalties (one more than Navy) for 29 yards.
Add it all up and you get the best game of the season (considering the competition) as Houston looks to win its first American Athletic Conference championship next Saturday (December the 5th) at TDECU. Game time will be at 11AM (local time), with the broadcast partner and opponent yet to be determined. With a win tomorrow night, the Coogs would host Temple. If the Owls lost against UConn, the Coogs would host the USF Bulls. Keep logged into Coogfans for my AAC Championship game preview later this week.