Pittsburgh’s defense was no match for 2015 Heisman contender Keenan Reynolds and the 21st-ranked Navy Midshipmen in the Military Bowl. Here are four thoughts from Navy’s 44-28 win over Pitt on Monday:
1. Keenan Reynolds showcases versatility en route to record-breaking performance
Navy’s superstar senior quarterback, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting this season, needed three scores to re-claim his FBS record for career touchdowns from scrimmage entering Monday’s showdown, and triple-option mastermind Ken Niumatalolo pulled out all the stops to make it happen. Reynolds rushed 24 times, passed a season-high 17 times and even logged a game-breaking reception on a trick play.
It was the highlight-littered exit expected of one of the most productive players in college football history.
Reynolds guided Navy’s devastating rushing attack to its sixth game of 40 or more points scored by punching in three rushing touchdowns — overtaking Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon, who set the all-time mark on Dec. 20, in the record books with his 88th career touchdown rushing or receiving.
That wasn’t his only record, either. Reynolds passed former West Virginia great Pat White and Michigan’s Denard Robinson for the most rushing yards by a quarterback in FBS history (4,559) with his 144-yard performance on the ground.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Niumatalolo allowed Reynolds to throw the ball early and often — his 17 passes ties for the third-most single-game attempts in his illustrious career. He wasn’t overly effective (9 for 17, 126 yards), but it was enough to keep Pat Narduzzi’s defense off balance, even hitting wideout Tyler Carmona for a redzone score. The Midshipmen finished with 590 yards of offense, the highest total Pittsburgh’s defense allowed all season.
All in all, Reynolds caps his career with more than 4,500 rushing yards, multiple major FBS records, a 33-16 record as a starter (becoming the first Navy QB to go 4-0 against Army) and three bowl victories. Navy will also finish the season ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since Paul Johnson’s 10-win season in 2004.
The modern-day Midshipmen rarely looked quite as dangerous as they did with Reynolds running the show.
2. Pat Narduzzi’s first season was a success, but the questions begin at quarterback
The former Michigan State defensive coordinator inherited an underachieving defense, question marks along the offense line and three major skill-position pieces, two of which did not play significant minutes (James Conner, Chad Voytik) and the third (Tyler Boyd) slogged through the quietest campaign of his three-year career.
The fact that Narduzzi posted an 8-5 record despite losing the reigning ACC Player of the Year in Week 1 — Conner tore his ACL against Youngstown State and was diagnosed with a Hodgkin lymphoma in early December, a diagnosis he aims to overcome and eventually return to football — is an accomplishment all to itself.
Pittsburgh underwent major changes in 2015. Outside of improving a defense that allowed 35 or more points in four of its final six games during the ’14 season — that happened just twice this season, both coming against ranked opponents (Notre Dame, Navy) — Narduzzi’s staff was forced to find new answers at running back and quarterback.
The former solution presented itself in the form of bruising redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison. The latter remains an issue.
Voytik, a former four-star recruit, was replaced early in the season by Tennessee graduate transfer Nathan Peterman, another touted prospect in the 2012 class. The results varied. Peterman functioned more as a complement to the running game for most of the season, posting quality numbers (20 touchdowns, eight interceptions), but he threw four picks and failed to hit the 200-yard mark in season-ending losses to Miami and Navy.
How the soon-to-be senior fits into Pitt’s future plans could depend on who Narduzzi tabs as his next offensive coordinator. Peterman was Pittsburgh’s best option in 2015, but with Jim Chaney heading to join Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia, he’ll need to fit into the next system as well. Boyd’s NFL decision could complicate matters for next year’s offense, but regardless, Narduzzi & Co. will eventually need to a settle on a long-term answer at the position.
3. Pittsburgh’s running game remains in good hands
Conner’s injury should have had a devastating effect. Instead, Ollison’s surprising season kept the Panthers’ offense humming at a decent pace.
Ollison wrapped up his redshirt freshman campaign with 1,121 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns after a solid Military Bowl performance despite his offense rarely holding onto the ball. Ollison ran for 73 yards and scored two touchdowns (one receiving) on just 10 total touches, his second-fewest of the year. There were disappearing acts along the way — Iowa, Notre Dame and Miami took him away entirely — but it’s a promising starting point for the Panthers’ next offensive coordinator.
After leading an offense that finished the regular season ranked 38th in efficiency (S&P+) in an improved ACC Coastal Division, expect Ollison to be a focal point in 2016.
4. Jordan Whitehead provides rare bright spot on forgettable day for Panthers’ defense
Navy’s triple-option offense gave Narduzzi’s defensive unit fits. The Midshipmen held onto the ball for more than 42 minutes and converted on 14 of their 19 third- and fourth-down plays. Add in the fact that Reynolds’ unit almost never turns the ball over, and it was a recipe for disaster.
The one bright spot for Pitt’s defense, a moment that briefly sparked hope before Navy’s 14-play, game-clinching drive, came from freshman Jordan Whitehead, who shared ACC Rookie of the Year honors with Ollison this season.
Whitehead took advantage of Navy’s lone turnover, a fumble off an up-the-middle run, with an electric return for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 10 in the third quarter. It was a highlight worthy of an ultra-versatile debut season: The freshman cornerback contributed all over the field for Pittsburgh — rushing and receiving (two offensive touchdowns), pass-rushing, forcing turnovers — and he could develop into one of conference’s top defensive players as early as 2016.
Whitehead was a crucial recruit for Narduzzi’s staff to hold onto after the coaching change, as the top in-state recruit and a consensus top-150 prospect held offers from practicelly every major program nationally. He’s already showing why.
The 5-foot-11 playmaker will be a key piece to this coaching staff’s ongoing turnaround effort.