(AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
The Pittsburgh Panthers have come a long way in the year since the Navy Midshipmen ambushed them in the state of Pennsylvania. If you think that Ken Niumatalolo has a crisis on his hands after a decisive 21-point loss, relax. It’s the next two weeks that will shape the remainder of this season in Annapolis.
When Navy lost to Duke earlier, a golden opportunity went by the boards. When the Men of Ken couldn’t beat Ball State on a September Friday, a few makeable plays stood in the way of victory. But on other occasions, a team simply has to tip the cap to its conqueror, and move on to the next game. That’s what the Midshipmen have to do after being smacked by the sons of the Steel City on Saturday in Navy Memorial Stadium. To appreciate this, briefly consider what Pitt has gone through in the past 12 months.
After Navy outlasted the Panthers, 48-45, in last year’s wild night fight at Heinz Field, Pitt continued to struggle, as the blundering Big East outfit lost three of its next five games. But before exiting the stage in 2007, coach Dave Wannstedt’s crew left one memorable mark, as they rode into Morgantown and, on national television, rocked West Virginia right out of the BCS National Championship Game. In one magical moment, a program found its way out of the darkness… or so it seemed.
Pittsburgh, so full of promise and potential, endured an embarrassing, pie-in-the-face ambush on opening day against Bowling Green. The humbling home loss put Wannstedt on a temporary hot seat, and raised blood pressure levels among the program’s perplexed partisans. The Panthers were heading for the Pitts once again. The word “crisis” genuinely applied to this team as the 2008 season started.
Much like many of Navy’s recent teams, however, the Panthers fought through September, grinding out close wins despite failing to play at a particularly high level. Then, on Oct. 2, something changed for Pitt, as Wannstedt’s warriors traveled to Tampa and soundly defeated then-No. 10 South Florida in a Thursday night showcase game. Under the radar after their letdown losses to inferior opponents over the years, the Panthers scored a second shocker over a highly-touted foe. Confidence has come to define Pittsburgh football; crumbling under pressure no longer seems to be part of the Panthers’ football identity.
In light of that brief explanation, it logically follows that the team Navy beat in 2007 was most certainly not the parade of prowling Panthers who took the Men of Ken to the woodshed on Saturday afternoon.
Without a clutch second-quarter interception from Navy’s Rashawn King, who returned the pick 91 yards to the Pittsburgh 8, the Midshipmen would have lost by far more than 21 points. As it was, the home team had precious little chance on a day when Pitt’s stud running back, LeSean McCoy, ran roughshod against Navy’s overmatched defense. Pitt had the studs in the stable; the drama surrounding Saturday’s game—which didn’t last for very long—surrounded the Panthers’ ability to remain mentally tough. When Pitt accompanies its athleticism with full-on focus, the Panthers are a very tough team to turn aside. Pitt evidently concentrated and competed with distinction against the Midshipmen, which simply left Navy with a paucity of options. Tipping the cap to one’s deserving conqueror was and is the only thing the Midshipmen can do right now; the fact that they went 2-1 in this three-game gauntlet against Wake Forest, Air Force, and Pitt stands as a substantial accomplishment for the program.
As Navy deals with this lopsided loss, heads should not be drooping in the locker room or on the practice field. Navy just completed the hardest part of its schedule with a 4-3 overall mark, beating teams that prominent football schools (think of Clemson and Ole Miss against Wake Forest) couldn’t manage to topple.
Now that the teeth of the 2008 slate has been navigated with relative success, Navy needs to feast on frail foes before Notre Dame comes calling in November. The next two weeks, against Southern Methodist and Temple, give Navy two beatable teams, and two ideal chances to get to six wins before a tricky closing stretch involving the Fighting Irish, a talented Northern Illinois club, and the grand finale against those boys from West Point. If Navy wants to bag another winning season, the next two weeks need to go well. In order for that to happen, the Midshipmen—far from being disappointed about their lack of potency against Pittsburgh—need to realize that they’ve had a positive campaign so far.
An upbeat mindset—rooted in an ability to use this Pitt loss as a learning experience instead of viewing it as an emotional blow—will enable the Men of Ken to tackle SMU with passion and purpose. There’s a temptation to view a game against an inferior opponent as a time when the ball can just be rolled out, but that’s exactly what leads to a stunning upset loss. Navy will thrive this upcoming Saturday if it treats the matchup with the Mustangs as the opportunity it in fact is.
Pittsburgh grew up in the past year, learning from its 2007 loss to the Midshipmen. Navy’s current crop of gridiron performers needs to emulate the example provided by the Panthers. With humility and hopefulness, and an ability to turn losses into lasting lessons, the Midshipmen will soar in the upcoming weeks, and bring yet another bowl bid to Annapolis.
Then there will be yet another reason to tip the cap to the conqueror, a Pitt team that simply proved to be too good for the Men of Ken.