Missouri's Alexander presents Navy with a big-play challenge

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

HOUSTON -- The greatest play that Missouri wide receiver Danario Alexander made this season -- at least in the eyes of his teammate, senior guard Kurtis Gregory -- came in the final minute of the third quarter at Kansas State in mid-November.

Missouri had just given up a field goal to the Wildcats and was clinging to a five-point lead. The Tigers had run only three offensive plays in the third quarter, and they had yet to score a single touchdown in the second half of any of their previous five Big 12 games.

But on first-and-10 from the Missouri 20-yard line, sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert dumped a short pass to Alexander. The 6-foot-5 senior slipped out of one tackle, cut left and then blew past the Kansas State secondary for a game-changing score. Missouri (8-4) went on to win, 38-12, and Alexander finished with 10 catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns.

"That's what our offense is built around. We like to be a big-play offense," Gregory said. "They got a field goal and then our first play is a little 15-yard slant pattern, but [Alexander] breaks a couple of tackles and he's gone. What that does to the other team is just demoralizing."

That's the danger that Navy (9-4) faces Thursday afternoon in the Texas Bowl. The Midshipmen have already faced four of the top wide receivers in the nation this season -- Notre Dame's Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Hawaii's Greg Salas and SMU's Emmanuel Sanders, all of whom average more than 100 receiving yards per game -- but Alexander presents perhaps the biggest challenge.

"He has it all," Navy senior cornerback Blake Carter said. "He's a speedster by all means. If you don't get a glove or anything on him to slow him down, he'll blow right past you. He has great hands and great range."

Alexander leads Division I-A with an average of 137 receiving yards per game; he's caught 107 passes for 1644 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has great size, but says that his biggest asset his ability to run after the catch. "A lot of guys catch the ball and try to get down, but once I catch the ball I look to score," he said. He has six touchdowns of longer than 60 yards, and his 13 touchdown receptions have totaled a whopping 623 yards -- an average of 47.9 yards.

"There are only two guys I have ever coached that could touch a football and change a game. Certainly Jeremy Maclin was one and this guy, Danario Alexander," Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said after the Kansas State game. "He is just amazing. He is a tall guy and his acceleration, people just have trouble catching him, and they had some fast guys on their team."

Maclin was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles this year.

The Midshipmen don't have anyone who can match up with Alexander physically, but what they can rely on is the experience they've gained by facing other big-time receivers. They know that Missouri is going to complete some passes -- the Tigers average 36 passing attempts and 285 yards through the air per game -- but they want to limit the long pass plays. Navy hasn't given up a completion of 70 yards or longer since the 2007 season; the longest this year was a 49-yard catch by Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin.

"That never changes for us," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "We can't give up momentum changers, which are the big balls. They've hit a ton this year against a lot of people. It's important we understand that. We've got to be patient, and we've got to do a great job of tackling in space."

Navy did just that in its 23-21 victory at Notre Dame on Nov. 7. Tate, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wide receiver, and Floyd combined for 19 catches for 273 yards, but 14 of those catches went for 15 yards or fewer. Neither player scored a touchdown until the final five minutes of the game.

"When you're playing against great athletes, they're going to make plays," Navy junior safety Wyatt Middleton said. "As long as they don't make big plays -- or more big plays than you're making -- then you're fine. It's like whenever teams played Michael Jordan -- he's going to drop 25 or 30 points, but as long as he's not dropping 50 or 45, then you played him well."

But there's always that danger of the big play. Alexander's game-breaking ability can take a toll on his teammates as well; after that 80-yard touchdown against Kansas State, Gregory, a 6-5, 305-pounder, sprinted down the field to celebrate with Alexander.

"I almost cramped up or pulled a hamstring, one of the two," Gregory said. "He scored, and I ran full-speed -- I got to about the 20, and I was like, 'Oh god, that was a mistake.' So now [when Alexander scores,] I just jog."

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