The Pitt Panthers will have one last chance to right the ship before they face the best in the Big East when they entertain the Navy Midshipmen Wednesday night.
Despite being outplayed in the last three games, the Panthers (2-3) are still optimistic they can get back to .500 and compete in the conference.
"When you turn on ESPN, you never see Pitt on there, so this is a chance for us to really make a name for ourselves,” Pitt sophomore corner Aaron Berry said. “(And) a win against Navy can bring us right back up. So, I feel that's what we're going to do.''
Berry and the Pitt defense will have to stop the triple-option attack of the Midshipmen if they hope to come away with a victory.
Averaging 348 yards per game, the Navy rushing offense ranks No. 1 in the nation. This is the fourth time in six seasons under head coach Paul Johnson that they rank as the top rushing attack in Division I college football.
The Navy is led by quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and slot back Reggie Campbell.
Kaheaku-Enhada’s 78-yard run late in the fourth quarter against Air Force sprung his team to a 31-20 victory, and Campbell is one of the main threats in Navy’s system.
The Pitt defense ranks No. 9 in total defense (268.4 ypg) and No. 27 in rushing defense (111.0 ypg). Pitt has not allowed a single 100-yard rusher this season, and comes into the game having posted strong performances against Michigan St. and Virginia on the ground.
Javon Ringer and Cedric Peerman, two of the leading rushers in their respective conferences, were held below their season averages for yards and yards per carry in their contests with the Panthers.
“They are real dangerous. They are explosive,” said Navy coach Paul Johnson about the Pitt defense. “They have some good skill on offense and…you don't get to be 10th in the country on defense after five games unless you are doing something right. They have some good players. It will be a challenge for us.”
The biggest issue for the Panthers this season has been their inability to score points and be consistent on offense. Pitt ranks no higher than No. 79 in any major offensive category, and has been plagued by turnovers and penalties.
The Panthers have also switched quarterbacks and reshuffled their offensive line on almost a weekly basis, leading to inconsistency all over the field.
The offense, led by freshman Pat Bostick and LeSean McCoy, may have their best chance to break out this week against a Navy defense that is less than spectacular itself. Navy’s defense ranks near the bottom of Division I in several categories, including passing defense (No. 107), total defense (No. 104), and scoring defense (31.40 ppg).
Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said that the key for the Panthers is to play well in the running and passing game, and to not waste opportunities against the Navy defense.
“In order for us to win this game, we're going to have to score 28 points, and we're not going to do that totally on the ground. We're going to come out of this game balanced, and mix it up.”
“I think for us to have success (we are going to need to) score enough, because Navy is going to put some points on the board. They are going to move the football and it is important that our offense plays very efficient football. When we get opportunities to put points on the board, we have to do it this week. Most of the time we get 13, sometimes 14 possessions on offense; their opponent averages 10 or 11. You're not going to get as many shots. “
Scoring points, over 30 to be exact, has been the way to defeat the Midshipmen recently. Navy is 4-19 under Johnson when the opponent scores 30 or more points.
Doing so may be easier said than done.
When given more than a week to prepare for a game, Johnson is 16-7 at Navy. In addition, during the last five years Navy has posted a 19-12 mark on the road, good for No. 13 in the nation.
The match-up will also be the revival of a rivalry that ran through the glory days of both football programs.
The teams will meet for the first time since 1989. The Panthers hold a 20-12-3 lead in the series, which dates back to 1912. The Panthers and Midshipmen played 19 straight times between 1961 and 1979.
To commemorate the revival of the Pitt-Navy series, each team will have a Heisman winner as their honorary captain. Tony Dorsett and Roger Staubach, former teammates and Super Bowl champions with Dallas, will accompany their respective alma mater’s current players out to midfield for the coin toss on Wednesday night.
Keys to The Game
Navy cuts down on opponent possessions by running the football, sustaining long drives that eat up the clock. During one stretch this season, Pitt failed to convert 22 straight third downs, and has spent more time on defense because of turnovers and offensive penalties. Time of possession will be one of the key factors in determining who wins on Wednesday.
As stated before, Pitt has loads of trouble converting on third down and sustaining drives. Navy, on the other hand, is No. 11 in the nation in third down efficiency, converting nearly fifty percent of their chances. Pitt must get their defense off the field, and stay on offense in order to win. Navy must play with the same mentality.
The 1st and 3rd quarters
The end of the first half, and the beginning of the second, may be the most telling part of the game on Wednesday. Navy has won 21 of its last 23 games when scoring first, is 2-0 this season when leading at halftime, and has scored on three of its five opening possessions in the third quarter. Pitt has been slow out of the gate, being outscored by a 47-28 margin in the opening period, but through five games has not given up a point in the third quarter.
Players to Watch
Navy QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada
414 yards rushing and 7 TDs on 73 attempts for a 5.7 yard/carry average. Kaheaku-Enhada has long runs of 78 and 80 yards this season. Through the air, he is 26-49 for 460 yards and 2 TDs, along with 4 INTs.
Why to Watch
Kaheaku-Enhada is not a prototype dual-threat quarterback, but he manages the Navy offense well, is a “charismatic player,” and “rarely gets rattled.” While he won’t have to deal with a very hostile crowd Wednesday, Kaheaku-Enhada will have to play well against a good Pitt defense. He runs better than he passes, but with attention being paid to the running game, he can make throws when Navy needs him to. However, he can’t be relied on to be a throw-first quarterback.
Navy SB/KR Reggie Campbell
28 carries for 226 yards rushing and one TD, with a 8.1 yards/carry average. Campbell also has five catches for 79 yards and a score, with a 15.8 yard/catch average. He averages 20.8 yards per kick return and almost five yards per punt return.
Why to Watch
Campbell is not great at any one area of the game, but he is very good at many aspects of the game. He can run with the football, and can get into open space and catch a pass. Despite being held to under five yards per punt return so far this year, Campbell posted a 27.5 yard average last season, and could break out against the Panthers' special teams unit, which has yet to impress anyone this season.
Pitt’s defensive front seven
The Pitt defense has only allowed 2.9 yards/rush and 3.9 yards/play on the season. By only giving up 268.4 yards/game, the Panthers rank among the best defenses in the country through six weeks of the season.
Why to Watch
The resurgence of the Panther defensive line has been a key factor in the numbers put up by the defense. Aside from playing most of the last three weeks from behind and with their backs pressed up to their own end zone because of offensive woes, the Pitt D has kept opposing running backs from eclipsing the 100-yard mark for five straight weeks, and has kept opposing teams off the board in the third quarter. Playing against the Navy triple-option will be the biggest test for the defense so far, and defensive ends Joe Clermond and Greg Romeus will have to play sound, disciplined football to keep Navy from breaking runs off the corners. The linebackers, led by Scott McKillop, will need to be equally impressive in the game, make plays at the line and inside the box, and not allow the big gains that keep teams from beating the Midshipmen.
Pitt K Conor Lee
Lee is 6-7 on field goal attempts this season, good for an 85.7 conversion percentage. Lee’s longest field goal of the season is 41 yards, and has not missed from inside 40 yards this year. Lee has also converted 59 consecutive extra points.
Why to Watch
Lee is closing in on history at Pitt. His 59 consecutive extra points are one shy of the record set by Carson Long, who hit 60 straight PATs from 1974 through 1975. Along with being solid on PATs, Lee has a career average of 85.7 on his field goal attempts, and could be in a position to win the game with his leg in a close contest for the Panthers.