The Navy Midshipmen (10-2, 7-1 ACC) play the Pitt Panthers (8-4, 6-2 ACC) in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Monday, Dec. 28. The ESPN nationally televised game will kick off at 2:30 p.m. The Panthers compiled an 8-4 record, their winningest regular season in six years, under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi. Pitt went 6-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and finished as the runner-up in the Coastal Division. Navy defeated Army 21-17 last time out in winning America's Game for the fourteenth consecutive year. The bowl game gives Navy fans one last chance to see record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. This will be the 40th meeting between Pitt and Navy, and first bowl match-up, in a series that dates back to 1912. The Panthers lead the series, 22-14-3.
NAVY'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. PITT'S PASSING DEFENSE
Navy senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds finished fifth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting. It was the highest finish by a player from Navy since Roger Staubach won the award in 1963. Reynolds has completed 52-of-98 passes (53.1%) for 1,077 passing yards with seven passing touchdowns against one pick this year. Keenan Reynolds completed 6-of-14 passes for 113 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown pass against Army. Wide receiver Jamir Tillman leads the Mids with 27 receptions for 570 yards, a 21.1 average and five touchdowns. Tillman is the first player in school history to catch a touchdown pass in four straight games. He scored the game-winning touchdown against Army when he scored on the fifty-yard touchdown pass. Navy's offensive line has the second-worst sack percentage per pass attempt in football.
Pitt's passing defense is ranked 58th in the country this season allowing 218 yards per game. Strong safety Jordan Whitehead was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He led the Pitt defense with 99 tackles, was also a third-team All-ACC selection. He finished the regular season ranking ninth in the ACC in tackles per game (8.2) and was the only freshman among the league's top 10 tacklers. Sophomore cornerback Avonte Maddox leads Pitt with three interceptions. Defensive end Ejuan Pitts is an impact player who was named First team All-ACC. Pitts, a senior, leads the team with 11.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for a loss and nine quarterback hurries. The Panthers are able to create great pass rush pressure with their front seven and have posted 37 sacks.
NAVY'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. PITT'S RUSHING DEFENSE
Navy's spread option offense is ranked third in the nation in rushing. The Mids are averaging over 319 rushing yards a game. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds has scored 85 career touchdowns which are the most rushing touchdowns in FBS and FCS history. Reynolds scored on runs of 58 yards and one yard against Army. He has rushed for 1,229 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. Reynolds has run for a school-record 4,415 yards in his career. He has the third-most rushing yards in NCAA history for a quarterback just eighty yards behind Michigan's Denard Robinson. Reynolds was also named a Third-Team All-American by the Associated Press. Navy uses three B-backs in Chris Swain, Quentin Ezell, and junior Shawn White.The fullbacks have combined to rush for 1,292 yards and 17 touchdowns on 261 carries. Senior fullback Chris Swain has rushed for 909 yards and ten scores. If Swain can reach one thousand yards to join Reynolds they will become just the second duo in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season. Senior DeBrandon Sanders leads the Navy slotbacks with 313 rushing yards and a 7.5 average.
The Panthers are ranked 20th in the nation against the run. Pitt is allowing just 126.1 rushing yards per game.The Panthers have held three opponents below 100 yards rushing in 2015. They had trouble slowing down Georgia Tech's spread option earlier this year. Pitt's junior middle linebacker Mike Galambos has been a starter since late in his freshman year. Galambos has made 69 tackles, 10 for a loss, with five sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Outside linebacker Nicholas Grigsby has posted 59 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for a loss, 3 1/2 sacks, seven passes defensed and two fumbles. Defensive tackle Darryl Render is a rock at the point of attack was named third team All-ACC. This is a very good front seven Pather defense.
PITT'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S PASSING DEFENSE
Junior quarterback Nate Peterman has completed 180-of-293 passes (61.4%) for 2,150 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. Peterman has thrown 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions since throwing two interceptions at Iowa on September 19. Peterman’s favorite target is junior Tyler Boyd, who has caught 85 passes for 873 yards and six touchdowns. Boyd earned first team All-ACC selections on offense. Boyd is Pitt's all-time career leader in catches (248) and receiving yards (3,308). Pitt likes to use their tight ends in the passing game. J.P. Holtz has 24 catches for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Scott Orndoff has made 11 receptions for 213 yards, a 19.4 average and has scored five times.
Navy's secondary is ranked 73rd in the nation as they are allowing 229 passing yards per game. After playing well all year the Mids secondary struggled a bit the last two games allowing 516 yards, 66% of the passes against them to be completed and four touchdown passes. Rover Daiquan Thomasson (37 tackles, 2 Ints, 4 PD, FF) played one of his best games against Army last game. He used his 38-inch vertical leap to break up a pass on Army's opening drive in the end zone to force a field goal. Late in the game he made a heads up play when he stayed home and picked off Army's option pass by wide receiver De Andre Bell near the goal line. Lorentez Barbour (70 tackles, 2 Int, 3 PD, 2 FF) moved into the team leader in tackles with his eight tackle performance against Army. Barbour intercepted a big pass in the fourth quarter to help preserve the win. Will Anthony leads the Mids with 7 1/2 sacks and should be able to pressure Peterman. Pitt's offensive line has allowed 29 sacks.
PITT'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. NAVY'S RUSHING DEFENSE
Running back Qadree Ollison was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ollison has rushed for 1,048 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, becoming only the fifth freshman in Pitt history to achieve a 1,000-yard rushing season. He was a named second-team All-ACC. Ollison is a big power back at 6-2' and 230 pounds is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Ollison was thrust into the spotlight following season-ending injuries to fellow running backs James Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, and Rachid Ibrahim. Conner was found to have Hodgkin lymphoma in December and just started receiving treatment. Ollison has five 100-yard rushing games this year, including a career-high 207-yard effort in his collegiate debut against Youngstown State. Ollison size makes him a great short yardage back. He has converted 23-of-25 rush attempts on either third or fourth down and less than three yards to go.
Pitt started using strong safety Jordan Whitehead in a relief role late in the season at running back. Whitehead is averaging 7.9 yards per rush on 10 carries with two touchdowns. Quarterback Nate Peterman has decent mobility and can run if need be. Pitt uses their fullbacks almost exclusively as lead blockers in the run game. They like to use wide receiver Tyler Boyd on reverses and jet sweeps as he's run 35 times for 294 yards. Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty was named first team All-ACC selection. He helped Pitt produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the second consecutive season.
Navy's defense is ranked 32nd in the nation in run defense and is allowing just over 138 rushing yards a game. The Mids held the Black Knights running game to just 137 rushing yards and a score last game. Nose guard Bernie Sarra anchors the Mids defensive line with 36 tackles and three tackles for a loss. Sarra clogged up the A-gaps against Army stuffing the fullback all game. Mike linebacker Micah Thomas has made 68 tackles. 4 1/2 tackles for a loss and 2 1/2 sacks. Inside linebacker Daniel Gonzalez (63 tackles, 4, Int., FF) was hurt late in the year and missed time. He hasn't played as well as he did earlier in the years since returning.
Navy kicker Austin Grebe has hit 11-of-13 field goal attempts this year with a long of 44 yards. Grebe has 18 touchbacks on his 71 kickoffs. Alex Barta is averaging 42.3 yards per punt on 39 punts. Barta has a good leg and does a nice job placing the ball inside the twenty-yard line. Alex had a huge game against Army averaging 42.6 yards on 11 punts. He blasted one punt 66 yards and made a clutch 50-yard punt after bobbling the snap on Navy's last possession. He placed two inside the twenty-yard line. Speedy Dishan Romine is averaging 28.0 yards on his kickoff returns. Romine nearly broke a 42-yard kickoff return against Army. DeBrandon Sanders is averaging 7.3 on punt returns. Calvin Cass Jr., the other punt returner in Navy's two returner set up, has averaged 5.5 yards on his punt returns. Navy’s coverage teams have struggled the last month, but they allowed a 50-yard punt return to Army's Edgar Poe who didn't remind anyone of Desmond Howard. The Mids are now allowing 22.2 yards on kick returns and 15.8 on punt returns.
Pitt's junior placekicker Chris Blewitt has hit 15-of-22 field goal attempts his year. Blewitt has a very strong leg. He kicked a school-record 56-yard ?ield goal with 1:11 left to lift the Panthers to a 31-28 victory over Georgia Tech earlier this year. Chris Blewitt has 41 touchbacks on 63 kickoffs this year. Sophomore punter Ryan Winslow is averaging 41.2 yards on 61 punts this season. He has placed 20 punts inside the 20-yard line while 24 have resulted in fair catches. Pitt sophomore Avonte Maddox is averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return He returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Youngstown State. Maddox is averaging 6.0 per punt return. Pitt ranks 22nd nationally in its kickoff return defense. The Panthers are surrendering just 18.9 yards per kickoff return this season. Pitt also ranks highly in punt return defense. The Panthers are giving up just 4.35 yards per punt return to rank 22nd nationally. Panthers rank sixth nationally in blocked kicks. Pitt has four blocks this year. The Panthers have blocked two punts, a field goal, and one extra point.
Ken Niumatalolo, after being courted by BYU for their open head coaching position, thankfully decided to return to Annapolis. Niumatalolo was named a finalist for the Dodd Trophy and the Paul “Bear” Bryant National Coach Of The Year Award. He is one of just four coaches to be a finalist for both awards. He was already named the American Athletic Conference Co-Coach of the Year after he led Navy to a 10-2 regular-season and a 7-1 mark in the Mids’ first year in the conference.
In his debut campaign at Pitt, Pat Narduzzi led the Panthers to an 8-4 regular-season record. It was their best 12-game mark since 2009. Pitt finished as the runner-up in the ACC Coastal Division with a 6-2 mark. Narduzzi arrived at Pitt following eight successful years as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Under his direction, the Spartans were the only team to rank in the nation’s top 10 in total defense and rushing defense each season from 2011-14. Narduzzi 's Pitt team resembles a Big 10 team with their physical approach on both sides of the ball.
Navy will play their bowl game in Annapolis at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in front of a friendly crowd. Keenan Reynolds beat Pitt the last time these teams met in Navy's 24-21 home win Oct. 26, 2013. Reynolds guided the Midshipmen to 10 points in the final 3:52, including the winning field goal as time expired. Reynolds has a chance to add to his career records. The Mids have won their last two bowl games. They have a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi defense struggled against the option in the first half of their victory over Georgia Tech. They allowed 337 yards in the first half, but the Panthers recovered to hold Georgia Tech's rushing attack to just 112 yards rushing in the second half. Pather fans had hoped for a more high profile bowl game and were a little disappointed in this match up. Winner of this game will win the Lambert Trophy as the best football team in the East. Pitt lead the series, 22-14-3.
PREDICTION: Navy 35-28. This Navy team beat Pittsburgh two years ago when Reynolds was playing hurt. Pitt had trouble against the Georgia Tech running game earlier this season. Navy is a superior offensive team to the Yellow jackets. Pitt is a big, physical team but despite their talent I believe Navy will prevail at home.