PITT PANTHERS (8-4) vs. NAVY MIDSHIPMEN (10-2)
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, Monday, Dec. 28
Las Vegas: Navy -5
Emotion best describes the subtext of this year’s Military Bowl.
A banner year in Navy football history concludes in the Mids’ backyard and our nation’s capital, fittingly enough. Monday’s Military Bowl is the end of an era, marking the conclusion of quarterback Keenan Reynolds’ illustrious career.
Reynolds may have been excluded from this month’s Heisman ceremony, but he completed the four-year sweep of rival Army. A bowl-game win would be a fitting way to send the talented playmaker off in the next phase of his service.
Win or lose against Pitt, however, Navy has to feel good about its postseason, retaining head coach Ken Niumatalolo amid rumors of interest from BYU. The next phase in Midshipmen football may not include the program’s best quarterback since Heisman winner Roger Staubach, but it will have Navy’s most successful head coach since Eddie Erdelatz at the helm.
It’s been a couple of years now, but a postseason without Pittsburgh playing in Birmingham still feels odd. Given the success of Pat Narduzzi’s first season as head coach, however, it’s unlikely we’ll see the Panthers back in Birmingham for some time.
Pitt’s had nearly a month to game-plan for the option, a rare luxury that helps when defending such teams. Thus far in the 2015 bowl season, true option teams are 0-1 — though New Mexico hung 37 points on Arizona in last week’s New Mexico Bowl.
The Pitt rush defense is vastly superior to that of Arizona, however, allowing a little over four yards per carry. Ejuan Price, among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss, will need to have perhaps his best game of an already outstanding season to slow Navy’s triple-option attack.
Pitt will be without 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner, as it has been much of the campaign. But the Panthers are playing in his honor Monday, their first time taking the field since Conner announced he has Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
With Conner sidelined, freshman Qadree Ollison picked up the slack admirably and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Along with wide receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the most exciting pass-catchers in college football, Pitt has the offensive firepower to keep pace with the efficient Mids. The issue for Pitt becomes shortening those Navy drives, which are methodical, time-consuming, physically exhausting for defenses and mentally taxing on opposing offenses.
Expect a tremendous game between two teams fueled by emotion.