Why Navy Should Cruise Past Pitt in the Military Bowl

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is known as one of college football’s greatest defensive minds, but a motivated Navy team trying to finish off an 11-win season may be about impossible to stop.

The Navy Midshipmen got their holiday gift a little early this year when the program’s highly sought-after coach, Ken Niumatalolo, announced in mid-December that he would be staying in Annapolis.

Niumatalolo had been a hot name in coaching circles and was thought to be heading to BYU.

“We’re all relieved,” Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk told the Washington Post. “It was a stressful exercise, but something he felt was important that he explore, and everyone respects that and appreciates his position on it. In the final analysis, we were all on edge because we know how important he is to the program and how inspirational he’s been to Navy football.”

So unlike other schools that are adjusting to interim coaches, wrestling with key staff departures, and addressing continuity concerns, Navy comes into its Military Bowl matchup against Pitt with no such distractions and with a laser focus on a program first: an 11-win season.

The situation essentially guarantees that handicappers can dispense with the motivation guessing game that often drives bowl game prognostications. And forget the travel and neutral site considerations, as well -- Navy will host the Military Bowl in its backyard, Jack Stephens Field.

Navy has plenty to play for and the objective numbers suggest it holds an advantage over Pitt, much more than the current three-point consensus Vegas line indicates. Here’s why the smart play appears to be the Midshipmen.

Inside the Numbers

According to the advanced metrics, Navy has quietly been a top-20 team for most of the season. numberFire’s nERD rates Navy as the 16th (16.38) most efficient team in the nation, while Pitt is ranked 28th (11.87). Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings show an even greater disparity, with Navy ranked 15th and Pitt 40th.

The Midshipmen’s impressive statistical profile is buoyed by its offense, the best in the FBS according to numberFire. Navy’s third-ranked red zone offense, in particular, should be a major problem for Pitt, which ranks second to last in the nation in red zone defense.

The focal point for the Panther front 7 will be senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who will likely end his college career as the FBS’ all-time leader in rushing and total touchdowns. But Reynolds may be more John Stockton than Kobe Bryant when it comes to scoring. Sure, Reynolds hit pay dirt more often in 2015 than all but two FBS players. But he excels as a distributor, drawing in the defense and then setting up his backfield mates for big runs. He has helped vault Navy at 2nd in the nation in rushing explosiveness and short-yard rushing.

“More than any other scheme,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter, “Navy's triple option hinges on the split-second decisions of its quarterback—to hand the ball off to the fullback, to pitch it to one of two wingbacks or to keep it—and Reynolds had ably and selflessly guided that attack, making the correct calls play in and play out for the better part of four years.”

Pitt will have to demonstrate that it can stop Reynolds and the Navy running attack if it has any chance to knock off the Midshipmen. But despite being led by defensive mastermind, Pat Narduzzi, Pitt ranks only 58th against the run this season, according to S&P+. Pitt’s rushing defense mediocrity was fully exposed during the team’s only game against a triple option opponent this season – October 17 versus Georgia Tech – when the defense gave up 376 yards rushing at a 9.4-yards-per-carry clip.

An optimist might speculate that Pitt learned from the poor performance, and the extra time off before the bowl game will allow Narduzzi to perfect the gameplan. After all, Pitt did make second half corrections against Georgia Tech and held the Yellow Jackets to “just” 112 yards in the second half.

However, a realist would point out that an average rush defense with a pinch of wishful thinking has not stopped this Navy offense all season. After all, Pitt is much better equipped to stop the pass, and trying to make Navy one dimensional is not exactly a recipe for success like it might be against other more traditional opponents.

A key for the Navy defense will be containing uber-talented wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The junior is an all-around threat with 873 receiving yards on 85 catches and nearly 300 yards rushing. The Midshipmen secondary has been susceptible to the big play. In each of its two losses this year, Navy got beaten for scores by dynamic wide receivers – Notre Dame’s William Fuller and Houston’s Demarcus Ayers. Ayers went for 162 yards on 8 catches, while Houston’s passers threw for 9.4 yards per attempt.

Even with Boyd, though, Pitt’s offense has been more plodding than prolific. The Panthers rank just 104th in explosiveness and 121st in possessions per game (11.8), according to Connelly. So not only may the Panthers struggle to put points on the board quickly, it may also have trouble keeping the ball-control-minded Navy offense off the field.

Outside the Numbers

The intangibles seem to favor Navy as well.

Motivation? Check.

Coaching experience? Check.

Homefield advantage? Check.

Pitt may also be the recipient Navy’s frustration over its quarterback’s Heisman snub.

“We were pretty bummed out for him,” said Bernard Sarra, Navy’s nose guard and senior co-captain. “Keenan, all year, he didn’t make it seem like a big deal. He’s like, ‘I don’t care about it,’ but it meant a lot for him, and it really meant a lot for us. I mean, that’s our guy. He’s our leader on the field, off the field, so we really wanted it for him.”

While the team wasn’t able to help him land a spot in New York, they can give Reynolds a hero’s sendoff. Reynolds is not an NFL talent and most certainly will not be a pursuing a football career at the next level. So the Military Bowl will be Reynolds’ final salvo, his definitive statement and farewell, something known full well by his teammates and coaches.

Whether you listening to the metrics or tallying the intangibles, the choice in the Military Bowl seems clear: It’s Navy laying the points.