Navy’s win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl this past December was an impressive one over a quality Big 12 opponent. It wasn’t their first though. Ten years earlier, the Mids defeated Missouri in the 2009 Texas Bowl. The Tigers had been a charter member of the Big 12 prior to moving to the SEC in 2012. They finished the 2009 regular season at 8-4 in what turned out to be an up and down year. The team won their first four games. But they lost their next three when quarterback Blaine Gabbert went down with an injury. He returned to lead them to a 4-1 record the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the loss was to a bad Baylor team, and it cost the Tigers an opportunity to break into the top 25 USA Today poll.
The Mids posted a 9-4 record that year It included a second win over Notre Dame in three years and an eighth straight win over Army. But they dropped one to a Hawaii team they should have beaten. If they had, a bowl win would have earned them their first 11 win season ever.
Ticked Off Tigers
As soon as they became eligible, Navy accepted an invitation to play in the 2009 Texas Bowl against a Big 12 opponent. That team turned out to be Missouri. And the Tigers weren’t too thrilled about it either. They felt like they deserved a better bowl game. I’m not sure why. They did beat an 11th ranked Iowa State team, but laid a huge egg two weeks earlier against Baylor. Meanwhile, the Mids had knocked off #19 Notre Dame. And they gave #6 Ohio State all they could handle before falling short 31-27.
But the Tigers just wouldn’t let it go. Back then, the ESPN website used to have a comments section for every game. The forums opened for comments about 2-3 weeks before the game during bowl season. Irate Missouri fans lost their minds discussing the Texas Bowl, complaining that they deserved a more prestigious one. Frankly, I was getting a little sick of their incessant whining. I guess it never occurred to them that they were dragging a pretty good Navy team in the process. The talking heads and the odds makers weren’t quite so dismissive. But neither gave the Mids anything more than a puncher’s chance of winning.
The Scouting Report
Missouri was the better team on paper. The numbers supported that. The most detailed breakdown of the game I found analyzed it from nine different angles. That’s way too many to dive into here, but I will touch on two specific areas.
Missouri did their damage through the air. They ranked #15 over all and #31 in yards per attempt. That set them up pretty well against Navy’s passing defense. The Mids came in at #80 over all and #55 in yards per attempt. Their rushing defense numbers were better, but that didn’t figure to come into play that much because the Tigers threw the ball the majority of the time. And it wasn’t likely that they would change that strategy against Navy given their success through the air. By the way, you’re going to want to keep that last sentence in that back of your mind. You’ll see why later.
On offense, the Mids were (and still are) about as transparent as teams come. They run the triple option looking exploit the interior defense or the perimeter based on how teams line up against them. They ranked #3 in rushing offense over all and #34 in yards per attempt. Missouri’s rushing defense ranked #8 and #7 respectively in those two categories. That’s a little misleading though because the Big 12 was a passing conference. And the Tigers never faced the option all year. So it was going to be interesting to see how they fared against Navy, a team that ran the ball nearly 90% of the time.
The Oddsmakers Verdict
At the end of the day, Missouri entered the game as a 6.5 point favorite. Their overall Strength Power ranking came in at #40. Navy checked in at #55. The consensus was that the Tigers were still better than the best teams Navy beat. That included Notre Dame.
Still, neither the Tigers nor their fans wanted to play the Mids. They told anyone who would listen that they deserved a better gig. So the question remained. How motivated would they be to even play when they arrived in Houston for the 2009 Texas Bowl? If the beginning of the game was any indication, Navy was going to be in for a long day.
A Quick Start
It was pretty clear that the Mids were going to have their hands full with Missouri’s attack. On the games second play, Blaine Gabbert tossed a bubble screen to Danario Alexander. He took it 58 yards to the house. The Navy was down 7-0 less than 30 seconds into the game. You could see Missouri fans gloating in the stands already. I can only imagine what they were saying. But I can practically guarantee you that most of them thought the game being over by halftime.
That feeling strengthened when the Ricky Dobbs put the ball on the ground on Navy’s first drive. The Mids drove into the red zone on seven plays when a bad exchange resulted in a turnover. With ten minutes to go in the first quarter, things had the potential to go sideways really quickly. But the fact was that the Missouri Tigers and their explosive spread offense never saw the end zone again.
The Mids Take Control
The Navy defense managed to force a punt. Dobbs led the offense back onto the field after catching an earful from Coach Niumatalolo on the importance of ball security. That’s when the triple option started firing on all cylinders. The Mids moved the ball 90 yards in 15 plays using nearly seven minutes of game clock. Dobbs punched it in from the one yard line, with the extra point tying the game at seven. That was just a taste of what the Tigers would experience the rest of the afternoon. It turns out that this game got away from them for three reasons. So let’s take a look at them.
Playing Keep Away
Winning the time of possession battle has always been part of Navy’s game strategy. Most offenses they face have better talent. So the obvious thing is to keep them from getting the ball. Against Missouri, the Mids had five drives that lasted about five or longer. Three of them resulted in touchdowns. A fourth ended with another Dobbs fumble just before he crossed the goal line. And in the fifth, the Mids failed to convert on a 4th and 1 in the red zone. That said, those two missed opportunities still amounted to over 11 minutes where the Tigers were without the ball. And that turned out to be a big problem.
Navy led 14-10 at the half. The time of possession was 21:36 for the Mids and 8:34 for Missouri. It only got worse. Despite his miscues, Dobbs proved to be very resilient. He ran for two scores, passed for a third and racked up 166 rushing yards. The triple option also exploited weaknesses on the Tigers’ perimeter. The slotbacks accounted for 184 of Navy’s 391 rushing yards, led by Marcus Curry. I’ve got to think that the Tigers’ offense felt like they were having the life slowly squeezed out of them each minute they went without the ball. So when they did get it back, they felt the need to put points on the board in a hurry. That meant passing the ball. It shouldn’t have been a problem. Their spread offense was full of play makers. But the Mids had an unconventional strategy to deal with that.
Throw It If You Want To . . .
Navy’s defense couldn’t keep up with with the Tigers’ athleticism on offense, so DC Buddy Green came up with a scheme that caught them completely off guard. Instead of lining up in their usual 3-4 set, the Mids went with only two down linemen. The nose guard actually played about two yards off the ball in the up position. That presented Blaine Gabbert with a weird look that he probably hadn’t seen before.
The formation confused him. After scoring on their first possession, the Tigers next three drives didn’t amount to anything. They had to punt each time, and they never ran more than 6 plays or gained more than 21 yards. Gabbert had 291 passing yards for the game, but 150 of them came on three plays. Alexander’s was the only one that went for a score. The other two led to field goals. Besides that, Navy’s unorthodox alignment bottled up the Tigers pretty well. Gabbert was only 12 of 28 for 141 yards on his other attempts. It was tough for him to find a receiver out in space up with up to nine defenders dropping back in coverage. The Mids had effectively neutered Missouri’s spread offense. And as they grew more desperate, the Tigers’ mistakes began to crop up in the form of missed receivers and one back-breaking interception.
Navy Turns Out the Lights
The Mids increased their lead to 21-10 after Dobbs hit slotback Bobby Doyle on three yard touchdown pass. Now, the Tigers were down two scores. With Navy dominating time of possession, there was no guarantee how many more times Gabbert and the offense would get the ball back. So they had to make something happen quickly. The Tigers started on their own 35 following the kickoff. On the first play of the drive, Gabbert tried to hit a receiver on a crossing pattern over the middle.
There was only one problem. He didn’t quite get the ball high enough over Rob Pospisil. The Navy middle linebacker leaped up and intercepted the ball, giving the Mids the ball back. The offense didn’t score, but they still chewed up over 5 minutes of game clock.
When Missouri did get the ball back, they added a field goal. But now the game was into the fourth quarter, and it only took the Mids two plays to put the Tigers out of their misery. Dobbs hit Marcus Curry on a 47 yard pass. On the next play, the Navy slotback finished the job by taking the pitch 11 yards around the left end for a touchdown.
That made the score 28-13. After the Tigers turned the ball over on downs, the Mids scored one last touchdown on a six minute drive. They totally dominated the time of possession battle, holding the ball for 40:51 compared to 19:09 for Missouri. The expressions on their fans’ faces in this photo pretty much tells you all you need to know. They couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. But there was one primary reason why the Tigers lost the 2009 Texas Bowl. And I can explain it in one word.
Hubris . . . It’ll Get You Every Time
Remember when we talked about the unusual defensive formation Navy threw at the Tigers? When I first saw it, I couldn’t understand why Missouri just didn’t run the ball. A few minutes later, former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie was asking the same question. He worked the game as a color analyst. With the nose guard playing at least two yards off the ball and the other two defensive linemen split wide, any run play up the middle was guaranteed to pick up at least four or five yards. Besides that, Missouri running back was Derrick Washington was pretty talented. He averaged nearly five yards a carry that season. So you can’t tell me that he couldn’t have broken off a couple of big time runs against that formation.
After Missouri was forced to punt three straight times following their first touchdown, they should have had the good sense to start running the ball. The Mids were even daring them to run it. But the Tigers just couldn’t bring themselves to do it, and there can only be one answer for that: hubris. The offensive coordinator simply didn’t believe that Navy was good enough to stop their spread attack. They were good enough to confuse the hell out of Gabbert, though. He wound up holding onto the ball too long on three occasions and took a sack each time. The Tigers QB was completely frustrated and the Mids knew it.
Time and again, Gabbert threw into a crowded secondary. And 90% of the time, the Navy defense was there to corral the receiver. The Tigers’ had also seriously underestimated the Mids’ experienced defensive backfield. That was a major mistake. And Wyatt Middleton, Kevin Edwards, Kwesi Mitchell, and Blake Carter made Missouri pay for their refusal to run the ball all game long.
A Signature Bowl Win
The 35-13 win over Missouri in the 2009 Texas Bowl snapped a three game post-season losing streak for the Mids. If you want to see all or part of the game, you can go to our video archives. The game was also the first bowl victory for Coach Niumatalolo. Ricky Dobbs overcame two turnovers to lead the Mids to a dominating win. Navy may not have matched up with Missouri on paper. But that’s not where the game played. It’s played between the lines.
As for hubris, there’s simply no room for that in football once two teams step onto the field. And on December 31, 2009, the Missouri Tigers found that out the hard way.
Until next time . . .