Keenan Reynolds looks to cap his historic college career by leading his Midshipmen to a win over the Panthers in Annapolis
Some Pittsburgh fans and players viewed their invite to the Military Bowl to play Navy as something of a booby prize after an 8-4 season. They shouldn't. The Midshipmen are a formidable foe with a 10-2 record.
On top of that, Navy and Pitt are longtime rivals, having met 39 times, the first time (1912) predating even the Pop Warner era at the University of Pittsburgh. The two teams met in an annual series from 1961-79; from Michelosen to Sherrill, Harden to Welsh, Martha to Marino, Staubach to Moeller.
Pitt has sold its allotment of tickets for the game, but that's not a surprise. When No. 4 Pitt met No. 10 Navy in 1963, an Annapolis-record 30,231 fans were on hand. In 1989, the last season of a seven-year annual series, more than 50,000 fans came to Pitt Stadium for the ninth-ranked Panthers' 31-14 victory, a number somewhat buoyed by Homecoming, but still 16,000 more fans than the previous year's homecoming crowd.
The most famous game between these two teams was probably the aforementioned 1963 contest. Navy beat Pitt, 24-12, in a game that wasn't even that close. The "Tars," as Navy was sometimes called then, held a 17-0 fourth quarter lead behind Roger Staubach's 168 yards passing, including seven completions to Jim Campbell of Homestead, Pa., and two more to Nick Markoff of West Mifflin, Pa. Staubach also rushed for 80 yards and two scores, while the Midshipmen picked off four Panther passes.
Ultimately, the defeat cost Pitt, who would finish 9-1, a chance at an undefeated season, possible national championship, and even a bowl game. Meanwhile, the victory meant No. 2 Navy would meet top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Back to present day, Pitt can deal Navy a similar blow to what the Panthers' 1963 team suffered with a Military Bowl victory. It would prevent the Middies from enjoying a school-record 11 victories and potentially a national ranking, though their future would still seem to be bright after Ken Niumatalolo decided he would stay at Navy after a brief flirtation with BYU.
Furthermore, a 9-4 record for the Panthers would guarantee Pitt a better final record than Penn State, vital to intrastate recruiting battles with the rivalry set to renew in 2016.
Pittsburgh vs. Navy (Annapolis, Md.)
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET (Monday, Dec. 28)
Spread: Navy -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Keenan Reynolds against Pitt's run defense
Reynolds is Navy's best quarterback since Staubach, having rushed for a Division I-record 85 touchdowns in his career. If he can rush for 217 yards against the Panthers, he will break Denard Robinson's record of 4,495 rushing yards as a quarterback.
Pitt was effective in stopping the run against every opponent this season but one, Georgia Tech. And the Yellow Jackets' use the same triple option style that Navy does.
The player to watch, therefore, isn't one of Pitt's regular defensive starters but rather quarterback-turned-backup safety Jevonte Pitts. Head coach Pat Narduzzi pulled Pitts off the bench in Atlanta to be an extra run stopper and on a day where no Pitt defender had more than five tackles but 18 different players had at least one, Pitts collected three of his six total stops on the season. But he also was blocked out of the play on two 58-yard runs by Marcus Marshall.
Navy had eight players this season with a running play of at least 30 yards. If this trend continues, the Midshipmen will have a good chance to win.
2. Line play
It is commonplace for service academies to struggle with rushing the passer as their linemen are undersized. For instance the defensive linemen in Navy's base 3-4 are, on average, 40 pounds lighter than Pitt's five interior offensive linemen.
And even though a pass rush usually comes from outside rushers than inside, this hardly bodes well for Navy if it wishes to defend bowling ball back Qadree Ollison inside.
Bowl games generally attract more daring play calls. Going for it on fourth-and-1? Asking Nate Peterman to throw deep more often with the extra time in the pocket? An early Pitt lead could hold up.
3. Could this be Tyler Boyd's showcase game?
Boyd was generally used as a possession receiver this year as he often drew double coverage, but Narduzzi found a way to get him involved in returns and even the running game.
Since this is likely going to be the junior's last college football game before declaring for the NFL Draft, how will Boyd be used? Remember when James Conner rushed for 229 yards against Bowling Green while making appearances on the defensive line two years ago in the Little Caesar's Bowl?
Don't be surprised to see something just as memorable from Boyd in the Military Bowl.
Worth noting: It should be mentioned that even with all the great players that have played for the Panthers in modern times, an argument can still be made for Marshall Goldberg as the greatest player in University of Pittsburgh football history as he was the greatest player of the program's greatest era.
He also was a Navy SEAL in World War II.
So a big shout out to the Middies' backup fullback Will Huntsman, who following graduation will follow in Biggie's footsteps as a Navy SEAL himself.
It may be a sign of the times with an overabundance of bowls, but it's worth noting this is Pitt's ninth straight season ending with a bowl appearance and Navy's 12th in 13 years.
However, Navy hasn't fared that well in bowls against teams from the Power 5 conferences during this time, posting a 1-4 record.
True, Pitt hasn't exactly overwhelmed in its postseason appearances either, and the Panthers fell to the Midshipmen in their most recent meeting back in 2013.
But Pitt is simply bigger and stronger than Navy.
Prediction: Pitt 35, Navy 21
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.