The Briefing Room: Navy at Pittsburgh

Heinz Field (AP Photo/Don Wright)

With their 32-14 victory over Louisiana Tech last Saturday, the Midshipmen made quite a statement about the direction in which their season is going, taking the first step towards achieving an unprecedented seventh straight bowl berth. The competition level takes another step up this week, however, as Navy travels to play 2-0 Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

The Panthers are one of the most talented teams in the Big East, and proved it last year when they dispatched the Midshipmen 42-21 in Annapolis. And while All-American linebacker Scott McKillop and running back LeSean McCoy move onto the NFL, the Panthers will still present plenty of matchup problems for Navy. Here are three position battles that will help decide the outcome of Saturday's game.

 

Navy WR Greg Jones vs. Pitt FS Elijah Fields

 

Midshipmen fans have been hearing about the speed of the 5-foot-10 former slotback for the better part of a year, and finally saw it on Saturday when Jones hauled in a 57-yard touchdown pass from Ricky Dobbs. The play was called back however due to a holding call, but it may have provided a sneak peek of things to come. The Midshipmen have been incredibly opportunistic and aggressive in the passing game through the first two weeks of the season, with Dobbs averaging just under 130 yards passing through two games. While Pittsburgh has started off 2-0 in impressive fashion, the Panthers have had problems in the secondary, giving up 433 passing yards to the Buffalo Bulls and their first year starting quarterback last Saturday.  In fact, if not for four Buffalo turnovers, Saturday's game may have looked very different for Pittsburgh. This week, Dobbs and Navy's receivers will have an excellent opportunity to show just how far they've come in their development. While Mario Washington and Michael Schupp will likely get the start and see the bulk of the action, look for coach Ken Niumatalolo to try to take advantage of Jones' downfield speed and separation ability. Fields is relatively untested as free safety, and will be making his first start of the season after coming in for Andrew Taglianetti (torn ACL) during last Saturday's game. The junior struggled with his tackling when forced to play in space, and could be susceptible to a speedy receiver like Jones getting over the top off of play-action.

 

Navy LT Jeff Battapaglia vs. Pitt DE Jabaal Sheard

 

One of the reasons Pitt was so successful in defending the triple option last year was because the Panther defense employed a strategy of "blocking" the playside tackle on option plays, using a defensive end to impede the tackle's progress to the second level of the defense. This allowed Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop to flow freely, and contributed to a number of big Pittsburgh defensive plays. While McKillop is gone, the Panthers still have two outstanding ends in Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus (Freshman All-American last year) and both will present a challenge for Navy tackles Jeff Battapaglia and Matt Malloy to overcome on Saturday. Not only must Malloy and Battapaglia work to overcome the blocks of Pitt's ends, but they will have to be at their best in pass protection. If Navy can neutralize Sheard and Romeus with several early (and successful) pass attempts, look for the option game to open up later in the game.

 

Pitt RB Dion Lewis vs. Navy Rover Wyatt Middleton

 

The biggest question marks for the Panthers coming into the season were on offense, in particular the issue of how Pittsburgh's offense would function without stud running back LeSean McCoy, who gashed Navy for 156 yards on only 18 carries last season. While McCoy left early for the NFL, the Panthers seem to have found his replacement through the first two games of 2009, as the true freshman Lewis has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the team's first two games. Lewis had 190 rushing yards against Buffalo, and also proved an effective receiver out of the backfield, snagging six balls for 72 yards. For a Navy defense which failed to keep McCoy contained last season, it will be essential that the Mids limit Lewis' big plays this weekend. That job will likely fall on Navy defensive back Wyatt Middleton, who has had a quiet start to the season. Middleton is a solid open field tackler, but if he is unable to get a read on Lewis than it could be a long afternoon for the aggressive Navy defense.

 

Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be reached at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.

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