By Lew Patton
Pittsburgh Panthers vs. (21) Navy Midshipmen
Monday – December 28, 2015 – 1:30 pm CT
Jack Stephens Field at Navy – Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis Maryland
Records Before the Game
Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4, 6-2 ACC)
Navy Midshipmen (10-2, 7-1 American)
How did they get here?
Pitt hasn’t won nine games in a season since 2009. Navy hasn’t won 11 in a season since … ever. There are stakes, but perhaps the biggest battles have already been won: neither Pitt nor Navy appears to be losing its head coach this season!
The last two performances of the year — a three-touchdown road loss to Houston (which cost Navy the AAC West title) and the usual slog past Army — may have been two of their worst of the year, but Ken Niumatalolo’s eighth season as Navy’s head coach was easily his best.
Per the Simple Ratings System, the Midshipmen fielded their best team since 1963; that makes sense since quarterback Keenan Reynolds might be Navy’s best since Roger Staubach was a senior 52 years ago.
With Reynolds running the option and a top 40 defense executing Niumatalolo’s bend-don’t-break to perfection, Navy scored 44 points or more five times and held opponents to 21 or fewer points 10 times. Their only losses were to Notre Dame and Houston, they took down both service-academy rivals, and they went 7-1 in conference play in their first-ever year in a conference.
Pitt beat Georgia Tech, the team coached by Niumatalolo’s mentor Paul Johnson, this season. But a) the Panthers allowed 376 rushing yards in the process, and b) Navy’s offense graded out better than Tech’s.
The to-do list for any major program is 1) win games, and 2) if you’ve won games, keep your coach.
Pitt has done a decent amount of the former — this is a program that is bowling for the eighth consecutive season and the 13th in the last 16 years — but the latter has been difficult. Since dismissing Dave Wannstedt following a then-disappointing 8-5 in 2010 (one they didn’t match until this season), Pitt hired Mike Haywood (and fired him days later due to a domestic assault allegation), Todd Graham (and lost him to Arizona State after one year), Paul Chryst (and lost him to alma mater Wisconsin after three years), and now former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
We don’t know how long Narduzzi will stay (and he does have to replace offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who’s leaving for Georgia), but if nothing else, he seems to have had a karmic effect. Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio helped Michigan State end a long string of bad luck and close losses, and in his first year at Pitt, Narduzzi inherited a program that was 35-53 in one-possession games over 18 seasons and won five of six such games to start 2015. (The Panthers then lost two, to UNC and Miami.)
This game will not have many possessions. Navy averages only 10.5 possessions per game (fewest in FBS), and Pitt averages only 11.8 (eighth-fewest). Niumatalolo perfectly applies underdog principles at Navy, and Narduzzi’s a member of the Dantonio school of thought, which tends to be that an offense’s first goal is to not screw over the defense.
Fewer possessions mean fewer opportunities for separation; they also mean every scoring chance becomes important. And while the averages are about the same for Pitt’s offense and Navy’s defense, Navy has had one of the best offenses in the country when it comes to closing out drive in the end zone. Pitt’s defense has been one of the worst. Final Score: Navy 34 – Pittsburgh 27