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Pitt unable to stop Navy's option in 44-28 Military Bowl loss

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In the Panthers' game against Navy in the Military Bowl, Pitt freshman Quadree Henderson took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead. Those would be the last points the team would score until late in the third quarter.

Pitt fell behind early, 21-7 and never recovered in a 44-28 loss to the Midshipmen in the final game of the year. For the Panthers, it marks another disappointing bowl game as the team has lost four of their past five postseason contests.

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was, as expected, spectacular. Not only did he reclaim his NCAA record rushing touchdown mark, but he ran the offense to perfection from start to finish. Pitt's defense was hard-pressed to come up with any key stops. Each time, it seemed, that they needed one, they couldn't get it.

Navy picked up a key third down pass completion early to extend a drive and eventually score a touchdown. They picked up a pair of fourth down conversions early in the fourth quarter. They got another one late in drawing Pitt offsides (on a fairly questionable call, notwithstanding). All of those kept extending drives and resulted in touchdowns. Reynolds led the team in rushing, passing, and even receiving catching a 47-yard pass on a trick play. The guy just did it all and was as good as advertised, finishing with 126 passing yards, 144 rushing yards, and the 47 receiving yards for four combined touchdowns.

Part of Pitt's problem was yet another slow start. If there's anything that needs to change for next season to be better, it's that. The Panthers spotted Navy a first-half 14-point lead and when you're playing against ranked teams, that's just too many points. They did make things a little closer in the second half thanks to a Jordan Whitehead takeaway and return for a touchdown, but the team couldn't really make much of a game of it partly from the early hole they dug. Pitt has been bad on both sides of the ball in the first half this year and that's something that has to be eliminated to beat the better teams.

One thing we saw from Navy a bit more than expected was the Midshipmen. Reynolds didn't have much of a reputation as a passer and while that hasn't really changed, Navy was able to move the ball in the air with some success. Also noteworthy was that Reynolds' 17 attempts he had today were a season-high (and third most in his career). Ironically, he threw 18 times against Pitt two years ago (2nd most ever) and that was also a season-high in 2013, too. If you're not going to have any success stopping the option, you've got to do some other things like taking away the pass, winning the turnover battle, and scoring on offense. That didn't happen and the result was an ugly loss.

For as great as Reynolds was, Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman didn't have a great day. He had three interceptions (two bad, one not really his fault due to Tyler Boyd slipping on a route) and was 13-21 for only 137 yards. Considering Pitt was playing from behind for most of the game, that's a really low total and speaks to not only how weak the passing game was, but also how much Navy dominated the time of possession. Navy had the ball for a whopping 42+ minutes and controlled the entire flow of the game. The time of possession was so one-sided and that was a huge issue.

A disappointing aspect was the offense under Tim Salem, who was auditioning for the offensive coordinator job. Pitt mustered only 14 offensive points since seven came on the kickoff return and another seven from Whitehead's takeaway and return. The Panthers' did some okay things in the second half, but this just doesn't bode too well for Salem, in my opinion. I think he was somewhat of a long shot heading into the game and this performance sort of cements what should be a fairly easy decision for Pitt to look elsewhere.

To be fair to him, though, the time of possession didn't give him a ton of opportunity so that has to be taken into consideration. The defense couldn't get off the field and Peterman's poor interceptions combined with the Boyd fall on one of them aren't really on Salem, either. I don't think pinning this on him entirely and declaring him inept is really fair. Salem should point to the fact that having the ball for less than 18 minutes isn't enough to evaluate him and, on its own, it's not. But when you combine today's performance with the other issues he has in suffering a prior demotion from his last offensive coordinator job as well as not having served in that role at a P5 program in about 20 years, getting the job seems like a long shot to me. I think he had to have a great performance today and that just didn't happen.

Defensively, I mean, I don't know. I don't have much here. Those guys didn't have a good day, but when the average player faces an option only a handful of times in their careers, it's hard for me to pin this all on them. We can talk all day about missed tackles (such as the one where they had a Navy player bottled up in the backfield only to let him escape for a 40-yard run), but it's just a tough thing to stop. There's a reason that Navy has run on everyone this year and was able to win ten games. Let me be clear - the option can be stopped so Pitt certainly didn't do its job today. Other teams had far more success than the Panthers did today so saying it's unstoppable isn't accurate. But considering they faced maybe one of the best option quarterbacks in recent memory, the task was a tall one to be sure. They needed to be better than they were today to give Pitt a shot and they just weren't.

I'll have more on this later, but I think the season was still a success overall. Still, to drop two games that looked pretty close on paper to close out the year is just frustrating. Pitt went from a team with a shot to win ten games this year to sputtering out and closing with eight. Things are looking up, but this just wasn't a great showing.

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