HOUSTON (AP) -- The Missouri Tigers prepared for Navy's triple-option by tripling the number of tackles in practice.
The Tigers meet the Midshipmen in Thursday's Texas Bowl, a matchup of starkly different offensive philosophies.
Missouri runs the popular, pass-happy spread offense, while Navy ranked fourth nationally in rushing (272.5 yards per game) using a version of the old-fashioned option, with the quarterback, fullback or halfback possibly carrying the ball on each snap.
The Tigers (8-4) didn't differentiate ballcarriers in workouts leading up to the game -- the scout team offense ran plays with three footballs and the defense was expected to tackle each rusher at once.
"Every guy who was capable of running the ball, all of them had a ball," senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "Everybody was hitting everybody. It was weird, because it kind of cut down on our pursuit. We'd be hitting a guy and then someone else would be hitting another guy and you didn't know what it was. But I think it served its purpose."
The Midshipmen (9-4) and Georgia Tech -- led by former Navy coach Paul Johnson -- are the only FBS teams exclusively running the triple-option, and both ranked in the top five nationally in time of possession.
Current Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo says that's the point, and helps explain how the Midshipmen nearly upset Ohio State in the season opener and beat Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 7.
"We know what we do gives us a chance," Niumatalolo said. "We're going to try to shorten the game, we're going to try to limit their possessions, we're going to try to run the ball and keep the clock moving and hopefully, keep their offense off the field. That's always our game plan."
Ricky Dobbs said the triple-option is more complicated than it looks. The junior ran for 24 touchdowns this year, an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback, and has rushed for more than 100 yards in Navy's last four games.
But Dobbs had never run the offense before arriving at Navy, and says he's still learning.
"It trains your decision-making and eyes to execute perfectly," Dobbs said. "You're making split-second decisions on every play and you're also getting hit on every play. We take what the defenses gives us and as the game goes on, you've got to get a feel for how the defenders are and what are their tendencies."
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the option takes away an opponent's ability to play aggressively on defense. But Pinkel said it also reduces the number of necessary defensive alignments.
"We have to be very minimal as far as the number of things we do," Pinkel said. "You can't handle this offense by having eight or nine different defenses to call. We're going to be pretty vanilla."
Weatherspoon, the Big 12 Conference's third-leading tackler, said the offense forces the Tigers to play against their instincts.
"Guys can't really freelance and make a play," Weatherspoon said. "They really have to be sound football players and do your job, and do your job only. If we go out there and do it the right way, then we'll see the result. If you go out there and try to do it your way, you'll see the result of that, too."
Niumatalolo, meanwhile, is more concerned with individual matchups against Missouri's offense. The Midshipmen have no player in the secondary taller than 6-foot-2 to contend with 6-5, 215-pound receiver Danario Alexander, who led the Big 12 with 107 receptions and 13 TD catches.
Alexander is finally healthy after tearing up his left knee in the 2007 Big 12 championship game and undergoing multiple surgeries. He is averaging 205 yards receiving with six TD catches over the last four games and leads the nation with 1,644 yards receiving this season.
"If Alexander had been healthy his whole career, he'd be one of the top 10 receivers in the nation," Pinkel said. "Nobody has any idea what he's been through in terms of rehab and work ethic that's required to do that. I'm really happy for him. He's big and nobody catches him. It's great to see him reach his ability level, and I didn't know if he was going to do it."
Navy was able to contain another big-play receiver, Notre Dame's Golden Tate, in the Midshipmen's 23-21 win over the Irish. But Niumatalolo concedes his team doesn't have the talent across the board to match most FBS teams, and must rely on mistake-free, team defense to handle opponents.
"We're not going to win a 'Get-off-the-bus contest,' and our kids understand that," Niumatalolo said. "For us, the team concept, being unselfish, is the only way we survive. Physically, 1-on-1, we can't match up with anybody. Collectively, as a group, we have a chance to compete."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)