Statistical geeks and lovers of the triple option love to watch Navy play football. People with an affinity for quick games, running the ball, and the use of brains to compensate for physical limitations have all been captured by the style of ball seen at the service academies and Georgia Tech for years. For anyone who is a member of Team Triple Option, the following memory is a cherished one. For anyone else – specifically, those who don’t follow Navy or the academies very closely – the following recollection might feel like a fresh revelation.
Let’s bust out the ESPN 30 for 30 voice: “What if I told you that the longest drive in college football’s 146-year history didn’t score a touchdown… and still won a game played in a baseball stadium?”
That’s the remarkable set of details at the heart of Navy’s drive against New Mexico in the 2004 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco.
The numbers themselves tell a special story: The Navy Midshipmen gained possession of the football at 1:41 of the third quarter against Los Lobos in the second bowl game of the Paul Johnson era. They didn’t give up the ball until the 2:15 mark of the fourth quarter.
The number of plays: 26. The number of yards: 94. The amount of time drained from the clock: 14 minutes and 26 seconds. New Mexico, trailing Navy by a score of 31-19 when the drive began, had 16:41 in which to make up that deficit… and when UNM next got the ball, it barely owned any time left for one full possession, let alone two. Navy didn’t score a touchdown on that drive, but by exhausting roughly 14 and a half minutes from the 16:41 that was available to New Mexico, it still cemented its victory in soggy San Francisco.
The remarks from Navy players about that drive – captured in a terrific 2009 Wall Street Journal story by Tom Flynn – are great fun to read, more than 10 years after the fact. One gem (we’ll save the rest for the story, which is easily accessible upon doing a basic Google search) comes from fullback Kyle Eckel, who said, “Our defense was starting to get mad at us. For a lot of the seniors, it was their last time playing football, and here we were spending the whole time on the field.”
ESPN play-by-play man Eric Collins added this note about the final few plays of the drive: “The producer and statistician were scrambling for the record, and we just couldn’t come up with anything.” No one was absolutely sure in the present moment that this was the longest drive in college football history, certainly at the FBS level. Well, it was, and it still is… and it might still be for a very long time to come.
To appreciate the uniqueness of this drive, realize that it had to overcome a number of obstacles in order to unfold the way it did. First of all, the drive could have ended inside the Navy 10-yard line, at the very beginning, but New Mexico was offside on third down, giving Navy a first down. The Lobos can’t just shrug their shoulders and say there was nothing they could do about this. They had a chance early in the drive, but they blew it. Navy punished the Lobos for that one mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, Navy committed a penalty roughly a third of the way through the drive and faced a second and 15. Quarterback Aaron Polanco then ran for 10 yards and passed for five on third down to keep the drive alive. A few plays later, Navy converted another third and five. Later still, Navy converted a fourth-and-three situation with a trick play… it gained “only” six yards, but it moved the chains.
You can see something about the drive: In the sequences mentioned above, no play gained more than 10 yards. Indeed, 10 yards was the largest gain of the drive. The march down the field was as long as it turned out to be because Navy consistently faced third downs plus the occasional fourth down. That is the secret ingredient in a very long drive: rarely if ever making first down on first and 10 or on second down. Navy constantly took three plays to get first downs, and the Midshipmen repeated that cycle over and over again.
In terms of understanding clock management in the final few minutes of a game, this drive is a teaching tool of sorts. Teams trying to run out the clock – and equipped with a strong running game – should welcome situations in which a ballcarrier is stopped just short of the first-down marker on a second-down run. It is great when a ball-control team is presented with a third and short situation, because that’s the precise down-and-distance scenario in which maximum ball control can become a reality. Even if the third-down run fails, going for the short distance on fourth down is realistic.
Winning a two-score game on a non-touchdown drive which started in the third quarter? There haven’t been many of those in college football’s 146-year history. Navy, though, made history on December 30, 2004. It’s a classic representation of what the triple option can achieve when run patiently and well.