Playing the Houston Cougars was going to be enough of a task for the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday afternoon in Annapolis, Maryland.
Led by the “it” coach in college football — Tom Herman — the Cougars brought a Heisman Trophy candidate (Greg Ward Jr.) to the Chesapeake region of the United States, as well as a fleet-footed flotilla of wide receivers intent on sinking Navy’s battleship. Houston had already smacked down Oklahoma and rolled through the first five games on its schedule, announcing itself as a College Football Playoff contender.
Even the most fully-loaded Navy team — had it existed — would have needed to play a virtually perfect game to conquer the Cougars. Last year offered an illustration and affirmation of the claim.
Keenan Reynolds played well on Thanksgiving Friday of 2015, and all he got for his efforts against Herman’s Heroes was a 21-point loss (52-31) which knocked Navy out of the races for division, conference, and Group of Five championships.
Roughly 10.5 months later, Navy shocked the college football world in a return engagement against Houston.
What makes the Midshipmen’s conquest of Houston in a rain-soaked Memorial Stadium on Saturday that much more remarkable is that their roster was nothing close to 100-percent capacity. The shocker is not that Navy won, but that it won without a number of key players, two in particular.
Tago Smith was supposed to be the upperclassman at quarterback who took the baton from Reynolds and gave Navy the leadership it needed to be a division title threat in the 2016 AAC West. However, as is well known, he was injured in the season opener against Fordham.
Daniel Gonzales enabled Navy to keep Air Force out of the end zone throughout the first half of the Commander-In-Chief Trophy Series game on October 1. However, as soon as he was knocked out with what turned out to be a season-ending injury, Navy’s defense faltered, allowing Air Force’s offense to motor through the second half for a 28-14 win.
In that game against Air Force, Navy quarterback Will Worth — learning on the job this season after being abruptly thrown into the fire-pit of gameday action — could not generate a single point through three quarters. Navy’s two touchdowns in Colorado Springs against the Falcons were both garbage scores, notched when the Mids trailed by three possessions.
This was the QB who was going to topple mighty Houston?
THIS was the man who would do in 2016 what Keenan Reynolds — fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting — could not achieve in 2015?
Sure, of course, said the man as he rolled his eyes and chuckled.
With Tago Smith and Daniel Gonzales, Navy had a real shot against Houston — or so the line of thought went.
Amazingly, improbably, but oh-so-sweetly, Will showed his Worth and then some, orchestrating a triple-option masterclass as well as Reynolds ever could.
Yes, Navy’s defense did play better than it did last November against Houston, collecting multiple turnovers (including a pick-six).
Yes, Houston — down only eight late in the fourth quarter — committed a massive and ultimately decisive mistake, surrendering a safety on a bad punt snap to not only give Navy a two-score lead (43-33), but another possession and a chance to drain more clock time.
Yes, Worth had help… but he made the most of it, and guided his offense to more points than in 2015 against UH… even if one subtracts the pick-six and the safety (37 to 31).
Worth — not Greg Ward, his dazzling but volatile counterpart — handled the wet conditions with supreme poise and discipline, not giving away the greasy pig in a moment of considerable consequence.
Worth consistently made the right reads and — when met by Houston defenders — bounced off them at the point of contact to lean forward for critical added yards.
Worth provided advantages both obvious and subtle, creating big gains but also making the incremental advances which turned third and fours into third and twos. That’s how Navy’s offense thrives, and it never took its foot off the gas against the turbo-charged Cougars, whose 40 points would be enough against most teams… but not on Saturday in a game which has changed not only the AAC West race, but the playoff chase and the Group of Five derby.
What’s a win Worth to Navy? There’s no need to change this Will. He made Memorial Stadium his grand estate against Tom Herman’s Houstonians. Will Worth, one week after going scoreless through the first three quarters against Air Force, has altered the trajectory of the entire football season.
He’s given Navy football yet another spectacular moment in the Ken Niumatalolo era, paving the way for the Midshipmen to gain the first division title in program history.