Redemption, and admittedly a little bit of relief, found Navy placekicker Nick Sloan Saturday afternoon in Annapolis.
Looking at a potential game-winning 30-yard field goal attempt with a second left on the clock at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Sloan did his best to erase the memory of missing an extra point in the second overtime last week at Toledo, as well as dismissing what a few of the coaches on the Pittsburgh sideline were saying about that during an ice-the-kicker timeout.
“I try to think of every kick as a new kick, so going into that kick, I heard some of the coaches on their team saying, ‘He missed a PAT last week,’ they were kind of giving me a hard time for that,” Sloan said after his field goal gave Navy a 24-21 victory. “Of course, I try not to think about it. I try to think confidence and visualize making this kick. That’s all I can do. It’s definitely relief, I’ll tell you that much.”
It was for Navy (4-3) too. The last-second victory before a Homecoming crowd of 37,094 helped halt what had been a two-game losing streak. It came at an opportune time, considering that the Midshipmen are going on the road Nov. 2 to play Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was “super happy” for Sloan, who had kicked erratically this season.
“The guy took a beating last week, like he was the martyr, he was the guy took the blame for everything,” said Niumatalolo, whose 44th win at Navy is one shy of his predecessor, Paul Johnson. “It wasn’t his fault last week, we lost as a team. And today we won as a team. But I’m just super happy that he was able to redeem himself. You couldn’t have drawn up a better script for that.”
If the victory helped Sloan regain his confidence, it also enabled the Midshipmen to right themselves after getting blasted two weeks before at Duke (35-7) and then losing a heartbreaker at Toledo (45-44) after erasing a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime. Pitt (4-3) had previously lost only at Florida and No. 16 Virginia Tech.
“This is huge, this kind of makes the pain go away from the last two weeks,” said senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson, who led a revived Navy defense with 12 tackles. “This is a huge momentum shift for us, it’s great, especially going into Notre Dame this week. We just kept grinding. We’re a tough group of guys.”
For most of the first half, Navy’s offense seemed to be overwhelmed by the size and speed of Pitt’s players, particularly 285-pound defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who came in leading the country in sacks and tackles for losses, and middle linebacker Shane Gordon. It led Niumatalolo to joke after the game: “The field was tilted this way [toward Pittsburgh].”
It tilted back toward Navy’s sideline, particularly in the fourth quarter.
After being held in the first half to 135 yards — 58 of them coming on a touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds that richocheted off one slotback, junior Geoffrey Whiteside, into the hands of another, senior Marcus Thomas — Navy had 162 yards on its two touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh dominated the first half in time of possession (22:18 to 7:42), yardage (252 to 135) and total plays (45 to 22).
“We really didn’t make any halftime adjustments,” said Reynolds, who threw an interception right before halftime and went into the lockerroom with a sore right ankle that was making him walk and run gingerly. “We just came to the conclusion that we had to execute, and that was the only way we were going to pull a victory out. We just had to work together as a team. There were plenty other guys in the lockerroom who were hurting. I just had to push through [the injury].”
Reynolds certainly had help putting together a fourth quarter comeback for the fourth time since he took over as the starting quarterback last season.
Third-string fullback Quinton Singleton finished a 16-play, 91-yard drive that took more than 81/2 minutes with a 9-yard touchdown run to help put Navy ahead 14-13 with 14:28 left in the game. While Reynolds set up his 2-yard touchdown run with a 31-yard sleight-of-hand run to help tie the game at 21, a strong three-and-out stop by the defense and a 20-yard Pitt punt set up Sloan’s kick.
“The kid’s a tough kid, he made some huge plays out there,” Niumatalolo said of Reynolds, who finished with 93 yards and a touchdown on 21. “He just continued to grind it out.”
Asked if he said anything to Sloan before his kick, Niumatalolo smiled.
“My days of playing Dr. Phil are over,” he said. “I get out of the way. I just asked him before the drive started, ‘Where do want to kick from if we have to kick the ball?”
Sloan, used a tip from assistant coach Steve Johns to keep his head down after he kicks, said he was looking for a chance to redeem himself.
“Of course, it’s every kicker’s dream to be in this situation, that’s definitely what separates the good kickers from the bad kickers,” Sloan said. “I just thought [of] it as just another kick. That’s all I can do. I didn’t even know what yard line, I wasn’t even paying attention. My job is to kick it straight and make it in between the posts.”
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