Panthers fall to ferocious Navy offense 44-28 in Military Bowl


Junior Scott Orndoff struggles to carry the ball as safety Daiquan Thomasson attempts a tackle. Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND — After a dynamic start, the Pitt football team looked lost at sea against the Navy Midshipmen’s attack.

Pitt struggled to contain Navy’s offense all game, and fell to the No. 21 Midshipmen by a final score of 44-28.

After a long delay— their last game action was on Nov. 27— the Panthers blasted off right away, with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown by freshman Quadree Henderson.

It was Pitt’s first opening kickoff touchdown return since Lowell Robinson scored against UCF in 2006.

“You feel like you get the momentum, you start fast,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “But then we just couldn’t get anything going in the first half offensively.”

The Midshipmen jabbed back quickly, though, utilizing their triple-option offense to ease down the field on a 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a one-yard run by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. That would be the first of three touchdown runs for Reynolds, who set the FBS record for most career touchdowns in college football history, with 88.

The Panthers struggled against an option heavy offense earlier this season, surrendering 482 total yards to Georgia Tech in a 31-28 win on Oct. 17. Narduzzi said they looked at tape from that matchup, but that could only do so much.

“We probably watched that Georgia Tech game 150 times,” Narduzzi said. “You just can’t prepare for things that you don’t know are coming.

Pitt began driving its next series, thanks to a 21-yard end around rush by junior wideout Tyler Boyd that saw him reverse field for a big gain.

But the offense stalled on third down after senior tight end J.P. Holtz dropped a catchable pass that would have given the Panthers a first down in Midshipmen territory.

Navy surprised Pitt on its next possession, gaining a large amount of its yards uncharacteristically through the air.

“Yes, they [threw the ball more than we expected],” freshman safety Jordan Whitehead said. “That caught us off guard a little bit today.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the slight alterations in their gameplan came out of respect for the opposing Pitt unit.

“We did a few things differently than we normally do,” Niumatalolo said. “But we had to [because of Pitt’s defense.]”

Reynolds, primarily known as a run-first quarterback, only attempted 98 passes entering the game. But in the first half, he threw the ball 12 times, including three passes on its second drive, which he finished with a five-yard touchdown run, giving Navy a 14-7 lead.

Pitt was bolstered on its next drive by a 22-yard run by Whitehead, who entered the game in his specific package. But the offense couldn’t find the end zone, and Chris Blewitt missed a 29-yard field goal, as the Panthers continued to search for answers on offense.

Following the miss, Pitt held the Midshipmen and forced a punt, making it the first possession of the game that Navy did not score. But Nathan Peterman turned the ball over on the fifth play of its next series, as Lorentez Barbour intercepted a deep pass intended for Boyd.

“A missed field goal and three interceptions,” Narduzzi said. “You aren’t going to win many games.”

Navy took advantage of the turnover, driving 84 yards on 12 plays and taking a 21-7 lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds to Tyler Carmona.

The Panthers drove down the field toward the end of the half, but Boyd slipped in the end zone, and Brendon Clements snared the ball for the Midshipmen’s second interception of the game, and Pitt entered halftime trailing 21-7.

“Nobody was clicking,” Boyd said. “Things weren’t falling in place like we prepared to do. Like we’ve said, if one person’s not clicking, then everybody’s not clicking. And you see what happened.”

Navy’s success on offense came in large part due to its success on third downs, as the Midshipmen converted on six of their seven third downs in the first half.

The Midshipmen outgained Pitt in yards 287-144 in the half.

Navy’s offense opened up the second half with similar gusto as the first, gashing the Panther defense with a 47-yard halfback pass caught by Keenan Reynolds and a 26-yard run by Desmond Brown, giving the Midshipmen a 28-7 lead.

After three more points for the Midshipmen on a 35-yard field goal by Austin Grebe, the Panthers scored their first offensive touchdown of the game, as Peterman connected with running back Qadree Ollison on a four yard touchdown to shrink the deficit to 31-14 with 3:14 left in the third quarter.

The Panthers drew even closer on Navy’s ensuing possession, as Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos forced just the Midshipmen’s sixth lost fumble on the season, which Whitehead returned 22 yards for a touchdown, as the score sat at 31-21, and would remain that way as the third quarter concluded.

Pitt had the Midshipmen on a fourth-and-two early in the fourth quarter, but Reynolds easily converted, rushing for 13 yards to convert. After another fourth down conversion, Navy would score on a 15 yard run by Toneo Gulley, increasing its lead to 38-21.

Ollison answered, notching his second touchdown of the game, this time on a 45 yard run on a drive that lasted just 1:27. The score diminished the Midshipmen advantage to 38-28.

The Panthers had another opportunity for a stop on a fourth and short late in the fourth quarter, but KK Mosley-Smith jumped offsides, giving Navy new life. Keenan Reynolds would score three plays later on a nine-yard touchdown run.

Avonte Maddox blocked the extra point, however, and the game remained a two-score difference, with the scoreboard resting at 44-28 with 4:19 remaining.

A Nathan Peterman interception, hauled in by Clements for his second of the game, all but put a bow on the game, giving the Panthers their fifth loss of the season and cementing their record at 8-5 on the season.

Boyd finished the game with 108 total yards, with 55 coming via rushes and 53 coming via catches. He finished with six receptions, leaving him two shy of breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s single-season Pitt reception record of 92.

The star wideout stated after the game that he is still undecided regarding whether or not he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2016 NFL Draft.

Reynolds earned Military MVP honors for his performance, as he was Navy’s leading passer, rusher and receiver, completing 9 of 17 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown, rushing for 144 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries, and hauling in that one catch for 47 yards.

“He was very athletic, good speed, smart,” Whitehead said. “He made great decisions all day. He didn’t make too many errors and capitalized on our missteps.

Whitehead doesn’t think Pitt has seen many opponents of Reynolds’ caliber this year.

“He was one of the best players we’ve played,” Whitehead said. “Hats off to him.”

Leave a comment.