Navy Stilled By Stull

Bill Stull(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It bears mentioning that last year, the Pittsburgh Panthers were simply too good for Navy. Well, it seems as though that narrative applies in 2009 just as much as it did in 2008.

The Men of Ken have to be muttering under their breath this week. More precisely, they have to be wondering why Pittsburgh manages to find its form against the Midshipmen.

Dave Wannstedt's Panthers have not yet sipped from the cup of Big East glory; the program's last conference crown came in 2004 under the watch of former boss Walt Harris, and even then, that year of Panther pride produced a modest 8-4 campaign in a diluted league that has been resurrected by Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia clubs and Louisville's lineups under Bobby Petrino. (The two programs are obviously sliding backward, though, under new coaches.) Pittsburgh—in college football, not the professional game—is synonymous with underachievement. The Panthers have historically been ripe for upsets, and in 2007, Paul Johnson's last Navy team went into Heinz Field and outfoxed Wannstedt's wide-eyed youngsters.

Apparently, that loss to the Mids has stirred loose an extra ounce or two of determination in the Panthers. In two games against the Men of Ken, Pitt has been on the prowl.

Saturday evening's 27-14 Pittsburgh win in the Steel City represented the second-straight tail-kicking delivered to the Mids by their Big East nemesis. Once again, a running back fouled the foremost plans of Navy's defense, otherwise known as the Buddy (Green) System; even more noticeably, Pittsburgh received razor-sharp play under center.

Indeed, the major storyline of this tussle—regardless of the boos and sarcastic cheers that have greeted him in past home games—was Bill Stull's standout performance. Stull has undeniably suffered through some tough days at the office in a decidedly uneven career, with last December's Sun Bowl setback—a 3-0 loss to Oregon State—representing the nadir of his quarterbacking odyssey.

How refreshing it must have been for his teammates—yet how cruel for Navy—to see Pittsburgh's pigskin propeller turn from pop gun to powerhouse in one evening.

Stull was superb in his team's previous game at Buffalo, hitting 12 of his first 15 passes in a 54-point showing against the Bulls of the Mid-American Conference. But that A-plus outing came on the road, away from the distractions that have dogged Stull at home. Wannstedt's trigger man had to deliver darts against a better opponent this past Saturday, all while being mindful of the rude receptions he's often received from his own fan base.

In this, the second year of Pittsburgh's literal "double-whammy" against Navy, it was apparent from the opening bell that Stull has obtained new-found mental strength, enough to still the raging waters of his mind while quieting Navy's defense in authoritative fashion. Stull fired darts in the first half, completing 12-of-14 passes and leading Pitt to a 21-7 halftime lead in the process. Yes, the home folks received help when Navy punter Kyle Delahooke botched a punt snap late in the second quarter—the miscue led to Pittsburgh's third and final touchdown of the evening—but the cold and unforgiving calculus for the Mids is that as long as Stull remained a stud, the Panthers posed a two-pronged attack that could outflank anything Buddy Green offered in response.

Stull's crisp, efficient effort was not widely expected before kickoff, but when the Panthers realized that quarterbacking wasn't the liability it has been in the past, Wannstedt and his staff realized they could hit Navy from both sides. Running back Dion Lewis didn't short-circuit the Heinz Field scoreboard, but the replacement for NFL resident LeSean McCoy made enough of an impression on his 23 carries, which netted 79 yards and a score. Lewis's slashing and dashing convinced Navy's Russ Pospisil that McCoy's replacement is nearly as good as the real thing.

"I thought Dion Lewis was almost as good as McCoy," Pospisil said after the game. The Stull-Lewis axis perfectly embodies the two-year hold Pittsburgh has on the Midshipmen.

For a second straight year, "too good" is the refrain traveling from Annapolis to Western Pennsylvania. True, Navy's running game—held to a meager 129 yards—didn't even rise to the level of "average"; coach Niumatalolo was very displeased with this performance, one of the flatter outings this team has had in a while. Yet, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that in team sports, the interplay between two squads means that one team's struggles are almost always caused by the superior effort produced by the opponent on the other side of the competitive divide. Navy didn't bring its best to the ballpark, but that's due in large part to the mastery of Pittsburgh, a team that's figured out the Mids for two years running (and passing).

Maybe you're of the opinion that Navy conceded this fight, and allowed Pittsburgh to gain too much of a foothold. Maybe so. However, tipping the cap—as painful as it might be—represents the best way for the Mids to learn from this loss, shrug it off, and return to the work of winning football games as their season progresses.

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