ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Pittsburgh and Navy bring vastly different goals into today’s game.
The Panthers (4-2) are seeking their best start since 2009. The Midshipmen (3-3) are trying to avoid only their second three-game losing streak since 2003.
Navy is coming off losses at Duke and Toledo. But the Midshipmen are 2-0 at home, a trend coach Ken Niumatalolo is eager to see continue.
“We’ve played well at home,” he said. “Hopefully, the crowd will help us. We’ve got to get out of this rut.”
It won’t be easy.
Both of Pitt’s losses have come to teams currently in the Top 25.
Here are five things to watch when Pitt plays Navy:
Hot and cold: The Panthers have been inconsistent on offense. Senior quarterback Tom Savage put together one of the finest passing performances in program history in a 58-55 shootout win against Duke, completing 23 of 33 attempts for 424 yards and an ACC record-tying six touchdowns. Junior tailback Isaac Bennett ran for a career-high 240 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 35-24 win over Old Dominion. Pitt also piled up 49 points and 527 total yards against New Mexico, but the Panthers have also stumbled offensively. They scored only nine points on 210 total yards in a loss to Virginia Tech, and produced just 199 total yards and were shut out for the final three quarters in a 14-3 victory over Virginia.
Position switch: Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green made a somewhat surprising and fairly significant change in the secondary, shifting Parrish Gaines from cornerback to safety. With 24 career starts, Gaines is the most experienced member of the secondary, and Green determined he was needed more at rover. Gaines replaces Wave Ryder, who struggled the past two games. Navy expects starting free safety Chris Ferguson to play against Pitt. Ferguson suffered an ankle injury in the first half against Duke two weeks ago, then sat out the Toledo game.
Tricky option: Pitt faces the challenge of slowing down the triple option. Navy ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense with 304.2 yards per game after amassing 419 yards on the ground against Toledo. Pitt will see a similar offense next week in a game at Georgia Tech, which is led by former Navy head coach Paul Johnson. Asked if facing option attacks in consecutive contests was an advantage, Panthers coach Paul Chryst said, “It depends on how we play. The next two weeks are totally different than what we saw earlier. Our scout team has to do a great job of helping us get ready for it.”
The Donald: Stopping Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald will be a priority for Navy. The 6-foot, 285-pound senior has been a fixture in opposing backfields this season, leading the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss per game. Navy’s interior offensive line has been leaky at times, especially last Saturday when pressure up the middle led to six sacks by Toledo. Guards E.K. Binns and Jake Zuzek will see the most of Donald, but the Midshipmen might double-team the All-American candidate as often as possible.
Kicking it: Navy kicker Nick Sloan kicked the game-tying field goal to force overtime against Toledo, but he also missed a conversion in the second extra session and botched a 38-yard field goal attempt earlier in the game. Sloan said he has been pulling his head too often, a fundamental flaw that tends to cause kicks to miss wide left. Sloan has struggled so far this season, already missing two extra points after going 41 for 41 in that department as a freshman. He has also misfired on three field-goal tries, including a couple of chip shots. Niumatalolo said Sloan remains the team’s best option at kicker and just needs to improve his technique.