The triple option offense has several key features and benefits that line up well with the talent Navy recruits each year. But the one benefit you will never see listed is the triple option being the ideal offense for mounting a big 4th quarter comeback. That’s because big comebacks usually require a team to score quickly. Any offense that emphasizes ball control is going to be at huge disadvantage when that team finds itself down by more than two touchdowns late in a game. And if that difference gets to 20 points, it’s usually all over but the shouting.
That had to be the feeling on the Navy sidelines on Nov. 1st, 2008. It was Senior day, and things were not going well. The Mids had just turned the ball over against Temple, and the Owls needed only four plays to get into the end zone. With 13:41 to go in the game, Navy was on the wrong end of a 27-7 score. Things looked very grim. But nothing could have prepared the fans at Navy Marine Corps Stadium for what happened next. And it was all because of three things that happened earlier in the game. When the dust settled, the Mids had pulled off what’s believed to be the biggest 4th quarter comeback in Navy Football history.
The Back Story
The Mids came into the game with a 5-3 record. It had been an uneven year so far. They lost two of their first three games. After that they came back strong. The team beat Rutgers with a field goal in the last three minutes. Then they took advantage of six turnovers to upset 16th ranked Wake Forest. And finally, the Mids beat Air Force for the sixth straight year, which gave them a leg up on hanging onto the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy.
After splitting the next two games against Pittsburgh (an ugly loss) and SMU (a convincing win), Navy came into their final home game facing a struggling Temple team that had historically given them fits. This included a 33-26 win by the Owls the year before. That said, the added motivation Senior Day provided and the opportunity to become bowl eligible figured to be enough to propel the team to another win. But they sure didn’t play that way through the first three quarters.
An Ugly Start
To be fair, the Mids did score on their first drive. They chewed up nearly six and half minutes to go ahead 7-0. Then, their offensive productivity came to a screeching halt. The next six possessions went like this: Punt, Punt, Missed FG, Punt, Punt, Interception. Stalled drives, missed scoring opportunities, and turnovers will guarantee a loss almost every single time. It’s rare for a team to even climb their way back into a game with an offense that was sputtering like Navy’s was that afternoon. And to actually win it is practically unheard of. But sometimes, different things happen in a game that combine to change the outcome. That was the case here. So now we’ll break down three critical factors that resulted in Navy turning a near certain loss into a stunning win.
Temple’s Missed Opportunities
The game was tied at seven when the Owls got the ball back with about nine and a half minutes to go in the second quarter. They drove the ball steadily downfield from their own 39 yard into the red zone. Then on third and 4 from the Navy 11, the Mids forced a fumble and recovered on their own nine yard line. Temple had actually picked up enough for the first down before their quarterback coughed up the ball. Even if they hadn’t wound up scoring a touchdown, they were looking at converting on an easy field goal attempt. So the odds are that the Owls would have come away with no fewer than three points. Instead, they wound up with nothing. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time; especially when the Mids suffered a key injury in the third quarter.
Kaipo-Noa Goes Down
Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was mentioned in our series on the greatest quarterbacks in the Triple Option Era. He was coming off a solid junior campaign as the Mids starter. It included an epic win over Notre Dame that ended a historic 43 game losing streak. But at the start of the 2008 season, he injured his hamstring. He made it back for a couple games but couldn’t quite shake the injury. When back up QB Jarod Bryant got hurt against SMU. Navy was down to their third string quarterback. He was a relatively untested sophomore from Georgia named Ricky Dobbs.
By the next week, Kaipo-Noa was ready to go against Temple. He looked pretty good leading the team on game’s first drive too. From there, the offense really struggled. Then, things went from bad to worse. Kaipo-Noa re-injured the hamstring that had plagued him all year. He was done for the day. Jarod Bryant had not yet recovered from his shoulder injury. So with five minutes to go in the third quarter, in came Ricky Dobbs with the Mids down 14-7.
Things did not start well. Dobbs took over with the ball at the Navy 17 yard line but the Owl defense forced a punt. Less than 2 minutes later the Mids defense gave up a 49 yard touchdown pass to go down 21-7. On their next possession, Dobbs was intercepted and Temple was back in business deep in Navy territory. They scored another touchdown about a minute and a half into the fourth quarter. The fact that they missed the extra point didn’t seem to matter. The Owls were up 27-7 with 13:41 left in the game. And they were firmly in control against a Navy offense that hadn’t done much of anything since the firs quarter. And then, everything changed . . .
The Triple Option Gets In Gear
Dobbs finally got the offense going on the Mids next drive. He moved them 78 yards in 10 plays. Fullback Eric Kettani accounted for 32 yards (17 rushing and 15 passing). Dobbs rushed for 17 yards himself, but did most of the damage with his arm. That’s what energized the Navy offense and got this 4th quarter comeback started. Prior to Dobbs’ entry into the game, Navy’s passing game was practically non-existent. The Mids had only completed three passes for 19 yards. But Temple had no idea what kind of arm Dobbs had because in his only other game against SMU, he didn’t throw a single pass. The Owls had no film on him. So they had no clue what he was capable of through the air.
It turns out that Dobbs had a strong accurate arm. And Temple found that quickly. He hit Kettani with a 15 yard completion to get the ball to the Owls 22 yard line. On the next play, the Navy QB unleashed an absolute laser and connected with T.J. Thiel in the end zone. The lead was down to 27-14. Now Temple realized that the pass was a legitimate threat for the rest of the game. And that spelled trouble.
The Navy defense forced a punt on the Owls’ next possession. Dobbs and the offense took over on their own 36 yard line. He came out firing right away, hitting Tyree Barnes for 27 yards to get into Temple territory. The Owls were now on their heels, not knowing what to expect. Dobbs ran for 15 yards and threw to Bobby Doyle for 17 more before Kettani took the ball in from the one. Unfortunately, the extra point was blocked. Still, the Mids were only seven points down. But there was a problem. There were less than three minutes left in the game, and they still needed the ball back.
A Little Luck Never Hurts
Luck is a key element in a 4th quarter comeback, and it took center stage on Temple’s last possession. They started with the ball on their own 32 yard line with 2:39 to go. Navy did have two time outs left. But the bottom line was if the Owls got two first downs, the game would be over.
The Mids used their both time outs by the 1:37 mark, and Temple did get one of those two first downs. Now they were in a pretty good spot because even if they didn’t get one more first down, they could bleed the clock down to just a few seconds before punting the ball away. Navy would have no time to do anything. All the Owls had to do was hang onto the ball.
On 3rd and 11 with less than a minute to go in the game, Temple running back Kee-ayre Griffin took the hand off and barreled into the line of scrimmage. He was stopped almost immediately. All he had to do was drop to his knees. But here is where a runner’s instincts to fight for every yard betrayed him.
One Crazy Finish
Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil managed stand Griffin up and force a fumble. Even more incredibly, the ball landed right at fellow linebacker Clint Sovie’s feet. He promptly scooped it up and motored 42 yards into the end zone for what had to be one of the most improbable Navy touchdowns in recent memory. The Mids tacked on the extra point to tie the game at 27, underscoring how critical that Temple fumble was in the first half. This completed the 4th quarter comeback and sent the game to overtime. Everyone was going crazy. That is everyone except for the Owls, who were positively shell-shocked.
The game went to overtime. Navy won the toss and deferred. Temple drove down to the one yard line. They decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down instead of kicking the field goal. It seemed like an odd choice. The Owls couldn’t have lost that much confidence in their kicking game, could they? Anyway, bad luck paid them one last, cruel visit. The Temple receiver dropped the pass in the end zone, keeping the score tied.
When the Mids got the ball, they used five running plays and a face mask penalty to get the ball to the one. Dobbs, punched it in from there for the score. Ball game: Navy 33, Temple 27. The Mids had saved Senior Day and Temple went back to Philly wondering what the hell went wrong.
Some Final Thoughts
So that’s it. The Mids style of offense does not usually make it suitable for 4th quarter comebacks, but it can be done. Click here to see the highlights from the game. This incredible comeback was due to three factors that gave Navy the opportunity to pull out the win. First there was the Temple fumble. This would have surely resulted in at least three points had they not coughed it up because they were deep in the red zone.
Next, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada injured his hamstring again and had to leave the game. That brought in Ricky Dobbs, someone who the Owls knew very little about. Dobbs was an excellent passer. He threw for almost 90 yards on just five completions, including that 22 yard frozen rope to T.J. Thiel for a touchdown. The pass became a legit threat with Dobbs running the offense, forcing Temple to respect it. After that, the Mids got up off the deck and fought their way back.
Finally, you can’t win a game like this without a little luck. Not only did the defense force that last fumble with less than a minute to go, but they were lucky enough to run it into the end zone too. All because the runner was following his instincts to try and get as many yards as possible before going down. Man, football is one crazy game.
I’ve seen many Navy 4th quarter comebacks over the years. But none of them match this one for just sheer improbability. The Mids had no business winning that game. But it shows what can happen when you keep playing hard until the final gun. That is Navy Football, plain and simple.
Until next time . . .