This week, I enlisted the help of Bill Wagner, who covers Navy football for The Capital in Annapolis to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Midshipmen. Here are Bill's responses to a couple of questions...
1. How does Keenan Reynolds compare to past Navy quarterbacks? Is there anything that distinguishes him from past Midshipmen quarterbacks, and how is he health-wise at this point in the season after being banged up earlier this year?
Reynolds is obviously unique in that he is the first freshman to start at quarterback during the current triple-option era. It is extremely difficult to grasp this offense with such minimal experience, but Reynolds was able to do so, which speaks to his football IQ. Reynolds is the first Navy quarterback that I've seen that is strong in all three key areas - passing, running and reading the defense. Ricky Dobbs was a great thrower and ran like a fullback, but struggled with reading the defense and making sure the ball went where it was supposed to go. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was one of the best at reading the option and ran very well, but could not throw a lick. Reynolds possesses all three key attributes along with tremendous confidence, poise and leadership. Reynolds has not been practicing much the last three weeks due to a slight concussion suffered against Western Kentucky and having the flu prior to Toledo. He practiced every day this week and seems fine.
2. Who are the other skill guys Pitt has to worry about Saturday? It looks like, behind Reynolds, the carries have been split pretty evenly? How big a factor has the fullback been for the Midshipmen so far this year?
Navy finally got the fullback going last week as the tandem of Noah Copeland and Chris Swain combined for more than 200 yards. Up to this point, the fullbacks had not done much because opposing defenses were focused on taking away that element of the option. Copeland has regained the starting job after rushing for a career-high 153 yards versus Toledo. Navy has enjoyed great success on the perimeter this season with slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders, Darius Staten and Marcus Thomas all breaking long runs.
3. How does Navy stack up on defense? Is the defensive line big enough to handle Pitt's o-line and stop the running game? Where have the strengths of the defense been so far this year?
Navy has struggled to stop both the run and pass this season. Indiana, Duke and Toledo all put up big numbers in terms of points and yards. Navy is always going to be outmatched in terms of size, speed and strength by major conference programs such as Pitt. The Mids have perfected a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that is based on playing a soft zone, keeping the ball in front of them and gang-tackling. Navy wants to make teams drive the field in short increments and hope for a penalty, turnover or some other type of mistake that gets the offense off schedule. So far this season that philosophy hasn't worked as well as expected because the Mids have given up too many big plays.
4. After a disappointing 5-7 season in 2011, Navy bounced back to go 8-5 this year. What's the outlook like for this team? Do they still have the potential to get to eight or nine wins, or is this a team that you think will need to claw out six to get to a bowl game this year?
I think this is a critical game for Navy with Notre Dame looming next weekend. A loss to Pitt and Navy is looking at four straight losses and dropping five of its last six. Suddenly, the team's collective confidence is ruined and perhaps Navy doesn't beat teams on the back end of the schedule that it should (Hawaii, South Alabama, Army). Navy has proven for the past decade that it finds a way to get the job done and I would not bet against this team winning six games and going to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, for which athletic director Chet Gladchuk has a contract for Navy to appear.