Military Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh Vs. #21 Navy

2015 Military Bowl Presented By Northrop Grumman

Monday, December 28th, 2:30 PM ET on ESPN

 

Pittsburgh Panthers 8-4 (6-2 ACC)

PittsburghThe Pittsburgh Panthers enter their final game of the 2015 campaign seeking a bowl win to conclude a successful first season under their new head coach Pat Narduzzi. A 9-4 record complete with a bowl win is nothing to sneeze at, especially when considering the injuries that have plagued the Panthers this season.

Their most notable loss on either side of the football came in the opener against Youngstown State, where the team lost junior All-ACC running back James Conner for the season when he tore a ligament in his knee. While he underwent a successful surgery and began his rehab, the unthinkable happened to Pittsburgh’s star running back. In November, Conner released news to the public that he is undergoing treatment for Leukemia, which without a doubt supersedes anything football related. The prognosis overall is good for Conner and the prospects of his recovery, as he vowed to return to the field with the Pittsburgh program in 2016. All of us at InsideTheACC send our well-wishes to Conner and his family as he continues his cancer fight.

With Conner on the shelf, Pat Narduzzi and company knew that a “next man up” mentality would be needed in order to remain one of the better rushing teams in all of college football. Seemingly, without missing a beat, freshman tailback Qadree Ollison entered the fold, carrying the ball 204 times for 1,048 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. The Panthers finished the season as one of the top 50 rushing teams in the country, ranking 49th nationally at 186 yards per game, which underscores the significance of having a running back like Ollison. As he goes, so does the offense and the team as a whole, as Pitt is 6-0 when he rushes for 80 yards or more, while they are a mere 2-4 when he does not.

While the running game is the foundation of the Panthers offense, the team received modest production in the passing game behind quarterback Nate Peterman. Peterman, a junior out of Jacksonville, Florida, won the starting job over fellow junior Chad Voytik, who commanded the offense for the majority of the snaps last season. In his first season as the starter, Peterman was effective in his role as a game manager, completing over 61% of his passes for 2,150 yards and 19 touchdowns to only five interceptions. His primary target, unsurprisingly, was junior All-ACC wideout Tyler Boyd, who led the team with 85 catches for 873 yards and six touchdown catches on the season. Other receivers to watch in the bowl game include junior receiver Dontez Ford (23 catches, 466 yards, two touchdowns), as well as junior tight end Scott Orndoff (11 catches, 213 yards, five touchdowns).

Defensively, Pittsburgh has adopted a smash-mouth mentality under Pat Narduzzi, which he made famous in his days as a coordinator at Michigan State. This season, the Panthers ranked 27th nationally in total defense, allowing just over 344 yards per game to go along with their 24.6 points against per game. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this preview, the Panthers defense was very good against the run this season. They allowed an average of 126.1 yards per game, which is 21st in college football. Navy’s running game is notably complex and difficult to stop, but Pat Narduzzi’s squad seems as equipped as any to combat and stymie the Midshipmen’s highly effective rushing attack.

 

Navy Midshipmen 10-2 (7-1 American)

Navy_OLD9With the Naval Academy soaring to new heights this season, including 10 regular season wins and a top 25 ranking, the 2015 campaign has proven to be the most successful year yet for coach Ken Niumatalolo and his coaching staff. As such, Niumatalolo has been sought after for open head coaching positions much more hastily than in years past.

After news broke that Niumatalolo would remain at Navy after his interview with BYU earlier this month, the Midshipmen received a much-needed lift heading into their de-facto home bowl game in Annapolis against Pittsburgh.

With the team removed from any bowl preparation distractions, the ‘Mids could now focus on fine-tuning their triple-option rushing attack, which is ranked third in all of college football, averaging 319.2 yards per game. The offense is under the command of one of the great, and largely underrated, athletes in all of the land in senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds.

What a career Reynolds has had at Navy, where he has set the Division I record for total rushing touchdowns with 85, and has set the school record for career touchdown passes with 30. Additionally, he would need only 81 yards in the Military Bowl to pass Denard Robinson for first place all-time in rushing yards by a quarterback with 4,496. If that’s not impressive enough, Reynolds finished fifth in this season’s Heisman voting, the highest finish by a player from a service academy since quarterback Roger Staubach won the award at Navy in 1963, and is the first player in the history of the Army-Navy rivalry to go 4-0 as the starting quarterback.

Despite the impressive accolades that never seem to end for Reynolds, it is abundantly clear that he would like nothing more than to conclude one of the most decorated careers in college football history with a bowl victory on his home field in Annapolis. While is won’t be easy, the Midshipmen have plenty of weapons on offense to make it happen against a very good Pittsburgh defense. At the controls, Reynolds has rushed for over 1,200 yards and 21 touchdowns (both lead the team), while also completing 53% of his 98 passes for 1,077 yards and seven touchdowns to only one interception. When he’s not keeping the ball on the option run, he’s handing it to one of his many impressive running backs behind him. Senior fullback Chris Swain leads five running backs who have at least 200 yards rushing on the season, as he has carried the ball 184 times for 909 yards and ten touchdowns.

While passing the ball is rare in this offense, Keenan Reynolds steps back to pass from time-to-time to keep the defense honest. When he does so, he is generally looking in the direction of junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman. With 27 catches on the season, Tillman has 20 more receptions than any other player on the roster, and has accumulated 570 yards on those catches for five touchdowns on season. Should the Navy offense look to make a big play in the passing game, Tillman is a very likely target to break the game open through the air.

The Navy offense will more than likely garner much of the attention right up until opening kick, and rightfully so. However, their defense may be more important in deciding whether or not they will win the bowl game. The Midshipmen enter play 42nd in the country in total defense, allowing 367.4 yards per game. Against the run, which much like Navy themselves, is the strength of the Pitt Panthers, Navy ranks 32nd, allowing 138.4 yards per game. However, against the pass, Navy sits a mere 71st, giving up 229.0 yards per game.

 

Prediction

Off the Field

When Pittsburgh was slotted in the Military Bowl back in early December, the disappointment, irritation, and in some cases, anger, of the fans and players alike about playing what is essentially deemed to be a road bowl game at Navy’s home stadium against the Midshipmen, was difficult to ignore. With so many other bowls within the ACC tie-in agreements, it seemed like the Panthers would perhaps end up in a better position to play in one of the many other bowls across the conference landscape. While Navy will come out as focused as they always have under coach Niumatololo, I can’t help but wonder if the minds and hearts of the Pittsburgh players and staff will be fully into this bowl game like they should.

 

On the Field

At the end of the day on the field, Pittsburgh and Navy are pretty evenly matched. Despite differing styles of play on offense, the strengths are exactly the same. Rushing the football is key to the success of both of these systems offensively, with Qadree Ollison and Keenan Reynolds garnering the most attention for these two teams. The one spot where the obvious mismatch could come into play is the Navy defense against Pitt’s All-ACC receiver in Tyler Boyd. He is a tough cover no matter who you face, but whether or not Nate Peterman can deliver him an accurate ball on a consistent basis throughout the game remains to be seen.

While this will be a back-and-forth affair, I believe that Keenan Reynolds and the Midshipmen will be able to control the clock and tempo, while making a crucial play on the defensive side of the football to help them break free late and win by two touchdowns against a disinterested Pittsburgh Panthers team. The mental side of the game is more of a battle than some make it out to be, and I think that we will see it manifest itself throughout the game tomorrow, especially if the going gets rough and the Panthers fall behind.

 

#21 Navy    30

Pittsburgh  17

 

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @MikeMcDanielACC and check out InsideTheACC on Facebook and on Twitter @InsideTheACC. You can also follow Mark Rogers for all of his college football coverage on Twitter @MarkRogersTV.

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