Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston takes flight, forces Navy to the air en route to AAC West title

If you want to understand exactly why Tom Herman is already a hot commodity for some major coaching openings just 12 games into his career, it was all on display Friday.

Coming off a loss at Connecticut last week, Herman said: “Nowhere on our goals did it say we wanted to go 12-0. It just says compete for and win our conference championship.”

The Cougars looked like a team that not only heard that message but fully absorbed it, stuffing Navy’s vaunted triple-option game on a short week and playing focused football throughout in a 52-31 romp. The win puts Houston in the AAC Championship Game, a significant notch on Herman’s belt in his first year as a head coach.

He and his staff may have also provided a clear blueprint on how to slow down the Midshipmen’s refined rushing attack when you only have a single week of preparation, and off a crushing loss at that. The Naval Academy still piled up 31 points and well over 400 yards of offense, but 312 of those yards came through the air, playing from behind.

It doesn’t seem like an accident.

Herman said the staff exposed the Cougar defense to at least one of Navy’s myriad triple-option formations each week going back to spring practice. Since the start of October, it was ratcheted up to entire Sunday sessions — pad-less ones — focused on Navy. He knew a Black Friday game off a Saturday night road trip was a problem waiting to happen… unless he was prepared in advance.

Along with its preparation for Navy, UH made some legitimate tactical moves, stacking the defenders in an I-formation according to ball-carrier assignment and rolling the safeties over to an almost-comical degree. That opened up the aerial options for Keenan Reynolds, who showed that he can pitch the ball around the field, not just the backfield.

Yet, Navy still finished a full 200 yards below its season average rushing the ball. Almost any college football coach will tell you that’s nothing short of a minor miracle against a prolific triple-option offense on a short week.

Of course, Navy was taken out of its game early and often by Herman’s bread and butter: the offense. Ohio State fans are still pining for Herman’s especially intuitive ability to shape the game around his skill players’ greatest assets.

Greg Ward, Jr. was back after missing much of the loss againt UConn due to injury. Herman fully unleashed him against a Navy front that has trouble setting the edge. UH regularly utilized four- and five-wide sets with empty backfields, allowing Ward the option of a quick pass or scrambling against a zone defense playing deep. Ward was money in the red zone, including an incredible Houdini escape in a 14-14 game that permanently tipped the scales in the home team’s favor.

Whether it was a wide receiver throwing for a touchdown after a lateral, a two-minute drill played to precision at the end of the first half, or the seam routes with which Demarcus Ayers routinely burned Navy, Herman delivered a schematic masterclass, arguably his finest play calling since the College Football Playoff last season.

Beyond the Xs and Os, Herman also displayed a team fully ready to seize the moment. It’s that marriage of motivation and the minutiae that makes his coaching future so bright.

How long Houston will be the benefactor of that future remains to be seen, but the Cougars earned a tangible spoil Friday. The Cougars will likely host Temple next Saturday with the AAC title and perhaps a Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl spot on the line.

Four years ago, Houston hosted Southern Mississippi with a chance to go to the Sugar Bowl. Kevin Sumlin, then a hot coaching candidate, couldn’t win that game before moving to Texas A&M.

Next week, Tom Herman will try to take the next step where his predecessor failed. If he can deliver, Houston will reach its first signature bowl game since the 1985 Cotton Bowl against Boston College.

Not bad for a first-year collegiate head coach, to say the least.

About Chris Abshire

Chris Abshire is a contributing writer at The Student Section, with a focus on college football and basketball in the South. He is a nostalgic LSU graduate living in Houston, TX. Contrary to popular sentiment, I probably like your team.