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Feeling the pressure

The Baltimore Sun

Jarod Bryant has been on the field for Navy significantly more than Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada this season, starting three games and playing more than a half in two others, mostly because of a recurring hamstring injury to his fellow senior quarterback.

Bryant will make his fourth start overall and third straight when the 4-2 Midshipmen take a three-game winning streak into Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium today against No. 23 Pittsburgh (4-1).

Navy's recent stretch that includes road wins over then-No. 16 Wake Forest and Air Force has been fueled by a suddenly respectable defense, despite the struggles Bryant has had running the triple option.

"The quarterback always takes the brunt of the stuff," said first-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, a former quarterback. "When you look at the plays and at the film, there are other guys besides Jarod who are messing up, but everyone sees the guy with the ball."

Bryant rushed for 101 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown in a 33-27 victory two weeks ago over Air Force, but he also fumbled three times, losing one. He became so tentative in running the triple option that Niumatalolo abandoned it in the second half.

Since Niumatalolo is expecting the same kind of shootout the teams played last season in Pittsburgh - the Midshipmen won, 48-45, in double overtime - Bryant and the offense need to be sharp in executing against the Panthers. Bryant has played well in spurts but has fumbled seven times, losing three.

"I've got to play a complete game," Bryant said. "I think you've got to put blinders on the bad things. A quarterback is going to make mistakes, but you can't let the guys around you see that you're frustrated."

For Bryant, as for others who have run Navy's triple option, it is more about reading the defense and then reacting than simply remembering what plays to call.

"Every play you've got to be on cue as far as your mind," Bryant said. "There are so many little things that you've got to see. It's a mental game. You've just got to go do it."

There are other forces at work as well with Bryant.

"Being team captain, he puts a little too much pressure on himself," said Ivin Jasper, Navy's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "I think he tries to do a little more than he needs to do. He needs to do his job and not worry about anybody else. I just want him to get back to where he's having fun."

Said Bryant: "I think I have put too much pressure on myself at times. I think that is the way I am just naturally. I've got great guys playing around me. All I've got to do is just spread it around and run our offense."

Jasper said he doesn't think Bryant is intimidated by playing in big games, considering his background. Bryant played at acclaimed Hoover High outside Birmingham, Ala., where he was named the state's "Mr. Football" as a senior, the season before ESPN's cameras followed the team for its Two-A-Days reality show.

"It was a big deal; there was a lot of pressure to win," Bryant said of his high school experience. "The TV [show] wasn't 100 percent accurate, but it was pretty crazy. It was pretty intense."

A passing quarterback in high school who was invited to walk on at Auburn, Bryant remembered his first reaction to watching Navy's triple option.

"My jaw dropped," he recalled. "Watching them come off the ball, watching our linemen blocking safeties. You don't see that. It's pretty amazing."

Bryant knows that's still possible, given the talent Navy has in fullback Eric Kettani, slotback Shun White and wide receiver Tyree Barnes, considered among the best to have played their positions for the Midshipmen.

"We played pretty well against Wake, we really did," said Bryant, whose short touchdown run in that game gave the Midshipmen a 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter. "[Against Air Force] we played hard, but we didn't execute. One game when we put it all together, it will be special when it happens."

midshipmen today

Matchup: No. 23 Pittsburgh (4-1)

at Navy (4-2)

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

TV: CBS College Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Pittsburgh by 2 1/2

Series: Pittsburgh leads 20-13-3.

Last meeting: Navy won, 48-45, in double overtime Oct. 10, 2007, in Pittsburgh

Navy offense vs. Pittsburgh defense: The Panthers gave up only 116 yards on 35 carries in their Oct. 2 upset of then-No. 10 South Florida, but the triple option gave Pittsburgh fits a year ago, gaining 497 yards, including 288 overall from QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. Slotback Shun White is due for a big game after struggling the past two, but he will have to get pitches in the right places from QB Jarod Bryant, who will start again in place of the injured Kaheaku-Enhada. The Panthers have blocked two field goals, an extra-point try and a punt. LB Scott McKillop has had 11 games with at least 10 tackles, including one with 14 against Navy last year.

Navy defense vs. Pittsburgh offense: The Midshipmen have slowed their past two opponents and have made big plays in the past three games, but the Panthers present a different problem; sophomore TB LeSean McCoy. McCoy, who rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns against Navy last season, seems to be hitting his stride, picking up 291 yards in Pittsburgh's past two games. S Wyatt Middleton, who had 12 tackles against the Panthers last season, will likely have to come up big again. The Midshipmen need to keep the Panthers out of the red zone, where they are 17-for-17 in conversions, including 12 touchdowns.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 23, Navy 17 (OT)

Don Markus

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