HOUSTON — Just a little less than four yards.
That's the distance between fullback Vince Murray's right hand, placed firmly on the ground as part of his three-point stance, and the tip of the ball being clutched by the Navy center.
Missouri (8-4) vs. Navy (9-4)
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
Less than three feet.
That's the distance between the right foot of guard Curtis Bass and the left foot of right tackle Matt Molloy, the same distance kept between each of Navy's undersized offensive linemen.
An arm's length.
That's the distance between slot back Marcus Curry and Navy's left tackle, positioned just a step forward and slightly to the right of the rarely seen wide receiver-running back hybrid.
Aside from a receiver split out on each side, both of whom are often reduced to glorified tight ends with a bit more elbow room, the close quarters are home to the Navy football team on most of its offensive snaps.
Residing on the opposite pole of Missouri's spread offense, the scrunched Midshipmen wishbone offense is one of the most unique in all of college football. After 12 weeks of spacious offenses that have become commonplace in the modern era of the game, Thursday's Texas Bowl has the Missouri defense facing an old-time scheme that presents a whole new set of problems.
"We run the spread like a lot of people do," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "The wishbone? we haven't seen the wishbone in forever."
The most common type of option play associated with Navy's offense is the triple option. The play consists of two different decisions by the quarterback. First, the quarterback pivots his body parallel to the line of scrimmage and places the ball in the arms of the fullback, who has begun running toward the line. At this point the quarterback chooses whether the action of the defense is conducive to his letting go of the ball and giving way to the fullback. If not, the quarterback will pull the ball and begin moving to the same side the original read was made where he will make a second read, this time resulting in him either pitching the ball to a trailing slot back or keeping it himself.
To call the Navy offense a "triple option" offense would be reductionist, but with many of the plays Navy uses to compliment the play the strategy used to defend it is based on the same principle — discipline.
Because there are so many threats to carry the ball on any given play many of the values a defense normally preaches, such as pursuit and speed, give way to focusing on keeping track of the individual ballcarrier that a defender is responsible for.
"It basically takes away your instinct," Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "Guys can't freelance and try to make a play. You really have to be a sound football player and make sure you do your job and your job only."
Weatherspoon, known for being a tackling machine who can make plays from one sideline to another, will be forced to take on a role that is far more controlled. Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs says that the change in mindset and assignment is where teams can suffer in defending the Midshipmen.
"A lot of guys can't make the plays they would make normally," Dobbs said. "You have to sacrifice your body for your teammate to make a tackle."
Dobbs says that in speaking to former opponents from Notre Dame, he's learned that the inability to play with one's natural tendencies can cause frustration among a defense, and that lapse in focus and discipline is where Navy often strikes.
"Once you get frustrated and try to do your own thing to make a play, that's when we gash them," Dobbs said. "That's what we rely on."
To prepare itself for the Navy offense and Dobbs' running ability, Missouri has tried to use some of its better backup athletes on its scout team designed to run the opponent's offense. But Weatherspoon knows that there's nothing like the real thing.
"We know once we get on the field it's going to be a different speed."
Weatherspoon said that along with plenty of film study one of the keys to containing an offense that defies instinct is to repeat enough work in individual drills to relearn what feels natural.
"It's constant repetition," Weatherspoon said. "We even had periods where we didn't pitch the ball. Every guy that was capable of running the ball, he had the ball. There was no seeing if the quarterback pitched it or gave it to the guy. It was just everybody doing their assignment."
As much as he and his coaching staff try to eliminate second guesses from their defense, Pinkel knows that challenge facing the Tigers on Thursday is not only a new one, but a sizable one as well.
"It's a pain, to be honest with you," Pinkel said. "It's a pain."