As Power 5 bluebloods begin to jockey for Houston coach Tom Herman’s services, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo proved he’s got a pretty good thing going in Annapolis, too. Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen stunned Herman’s No. 6 Cougars 46–40 in an upset that will reverberate through the College Football Playoff picture and the American Athletic Conference.
Here are three thoughts on Navy’s victory:
1. The bad weather wreaked havoc on Houston
The precipitation paled in comparison to the scenes at NC State or North Carolina, but it was still far from ideal weather at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. And it was certainly enough to throw off Houston’s juggernaut offense.
The Cougars scored at will on the Midshipmen—when they could hang on to the ball. Houston committed three turnovers, all by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who threw two interceptions and fumbled once.
The Cougars also had an extra point blocked and gave up a safety when they snapped the ball out of the back of the end zone. Those last two miscues cost Houston three points and transformed what should have been a 41–34 deficit early in the fourth quarter into a 43–33 hole.
Ward Jr. finished with 374 yards passing, 99 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. That’s the type of line we’ve come expect from the Heisman Trophy contender. The turnovers, however, are what linger most from Ward’s performance, particularly as Navy answered every Houston score with one of its own.
It would have been easy to imagine the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense devolving into a series of turnovers as they juggled slippery pitched balls. Instead, a disciplined squad put the ball on the ground just twice and recovered it both times. And when Navy went to the air, as it did five times, quarterback Will Worth was crisp with his passes, completing three of them for 76 yards with two touchdowns.
2. Navy’s offense is perfect to take advantage of Houston’s aggressive defense
Houston entered Saturday leading the nation in rushing defense with just 1.63 yards allowed per carry. Faced with prodigious running backs like Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, the Cougars rose to the occasion, limiting the Sooners to just 70 yards on the ground. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has, deservedly, received a lot of credit for building Houston into a ferocious, aggressive defense that flew to the ball and forced turnovers.
However, what has made the Cougars so stout defensively made them vulnerable to Navy’s offense. Part of what make the triple option effective is that the attack can use a defense’s aggressiveness against itself. As Cougars defenders swarmed to where they thought the ball was, they left gaping holes for where the ball actually went.
The result was 306 rushing yards for the Midshipmen on 4.9 yards per carry. That success allowed Navy to consistently move the chains—7 of 15 on third-down conversion—and control the clock. Time of possession can be an overrated stat, but when facing an explosive offense like Houston’s, keeping that attack off the field is a clear positive.
3. Houston’s playoff chances are over
Sure, you can probably draw up a scenario in which the Cougars get back into the playoff hunt. They win out, the Big 12 champion has at least two losses and Louisville comes back to win the ACC despite falling to Houston on Nov. 17.
Even that situation, as unlikely as it is for all those elements to fall into place, might not be enough—especially when Houston now might not even win its division in the American. Navy is undefeated in conference play, and after Saturday’s victory, it’s not hard to envision the Midshipmen running the table in the AAC. They nearly did so last year but lost at Houston in November.
Now that questions about whether an undefeated Houston squad could make the playoff are moot, the race for the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls become much more interesting. If Houston doesn’t win its division and therefore its conference, the Cougars would be ineligible for that spot. Western Michigan is likely the new favorite as the Broncos appear poised to go undefeated with two wins over Power 5 programs. Boise State could also finish the regular season unbeaten and touts victories over Washington State and Oregon State. Time will tell how the selection committee weighs those two against each other.