They say that good things come to those who wait. “They,” however, usually doesn’t include college athletic directors, at least when it comes to football. The tattered and discarded remains of college coaching careers cut short by trigger-happy ADs are like prairie dog roadkill on a back road in Utah. They’re everywhere. To say that coaching football is a “what have you done for me lately” business would be an understatement. Nowadays, the football team’s success is 90% of what determines a successful AD. Every other program could be on probation, but if the football team is winning, then all is well. On the other hand, your school could have dynasties in soccer, swimming, and women’s basketball, but if they aren’t going to bowl games, then that AD is on the hot seat. Football is king, and athletic directors want to hitch their wagons to stars. Time to produce results is a premium for the newly hired.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this phenomenon. Rutgers was coming off of its sixth straight losing season when it hired Greg Schiano as head coach in 2000. Things didn’t exactly improve right away. Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to to four more losing seasons, including 2-9 and 1-11 campaigns in his first two years, before breaking through for a 7-5 record and a bowl game in 2005. Then there’s the curious case of Dave Wannstedt.
Unlike Schiano, who inherited a team that was absolutely terrible, Wannstedt was put in charge of a Pitt team that had seen some modest success. His predecessor at Pitt, Walt Harris, had led the Panthers to a 52-44 record over seven seasons. In the year before Wannstedt was hired, Pitt went 8-4 and won a share of the Big East title, earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl– the team’s fifth straight bowl game. But even though the team had clearly improved under Harris’ watch, he had come under fire. Harris left Pittsburgh for Stanford at the end of that Fiesta Bowl season, but it was rumored that he did so because Pitt probably would’ve fired him anyway. The Panthers had gotten good, but not good enough. They were stricken with nextlevelitis. If the rumors were true, and Harris was going to be shown the door, it makes Wannstedt’s tenure at Pitt all the more curious. Pitt has yet to finish with a winning record since he’s been hired. They looked well on their way in 2006, starting the season 6-1. They ended the season with five straight losses. Last year, Wannstedt limped into the last game of the season with a 4-7 record, but was still awarded a contract extension. It boggled the mind.
On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why the peanut gallery is the peanut gallery, while other people get paid to make these decisions. In the first game after signing his new contract, Wannstedt took his Pitt team into Morgantown and upset a motivated West Virginia squad that was playing for a berth in the BCS championship game. And this year, after a season-opening upset loss to Bowling Green, Pitt has rolled off four straight wins to make a return appearance in the top 25. One thing that Dave Wannstedt has always been given credit for is his recruiting, particularly in western Pennsylvania. As those younger players have matured, Pitt has started winning games that they would have lost last year. The Panthers have found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter of their last three games, but kept their composure and found ways to pull out victories. The last of those wins was an upset of #10 USF in Tampa that some in the media suggest will finally be the springboard to the Big East success that fans expected when the former NFL head man was hired.
The Pitt formula is simple and familiar; play defense and run the football. Their defense is ranked 27th nationally and anchored by linebacker Scott McKillop, who led the nation in tackles last year with 12.6 per game. Running back LeSean McCoy should need no introduction after running for 165 yards and three TDs against the Mids last year. McCoy set the Big East record for rushing yards by a freshman with 1,328; averaging 106 yards per game so far in his sophomore season, he’s picked up right where he left off. Those two should be familiar to you, but quarterback Bill Stull might not be. Stull missed most of the 2007 season with an injured thumb and did not play against Navy. His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but his 205 passing yards per game are second in the Big East. Ideally, the way to defend Pitt would be the same way that Navy defended Wake Forest: stop the run, disrupt the short passing game, and force Stull to throw downfield (which isn’t his strength). That is a whole lot easier said than done, though. Wake Forest did not have a running back like LeSean McCoy, and Pitt’s offensive line, to put it delicately, doesn’t miss very many meals. McCoy has 28 carries in each of Pitt’s last two games, and you can probably count on that trend to continue. Wannstadt will run him until the Navy defense proves it can stop him. Last year, they never did.
Stull isn’t the only quarterback in this matchup that’s different from 2007. Coach Niumatalolo confirmed at his press briefing after Wednesday’s practice that Jarod Bryant would be starting ahead of Kaipo. Kaipo is healthy enough to play in an emergency, but apparently not enough to play a full game. That’s bad news for Navy fans. I mentioned last week about how the offense flows from the triple option. Last year’s Pitt game gives us a great example, which we can take a look at here (at the risk of stealing my own thunder for future posts).
The basic idea for a quarterback in reading the give key is doing the opposite of what the defender commits to. If he takes the fullback, you keep; if he takes you, you give to the fullback. But what if the key doesn’t commit to either one? That’s called a “squat;” basically, the key is reading the quarterback the same way the quarterback is reading him. He doesn’t make a clear move to take either the dive or the keep. Take a look at the highlighted player here. He doesn’t commit on the snap; he only moves on the fullback after he sees that the fullback has the ball:
Once the coaches see the tendencies of the defense, they can exploit them. Paul Johnson did just that. Navy’s offense gained two first downs on the first three plays of its next drive. They did it by taking advantage of the squatting read, then anticipating his adjustments. The first play called on this drive was the fullback trap. When the DE sees the fullback get the ball, he commits. But when he does, he’s trapped by a pulling guard, leaving the fullback free to run wild. Because the DE squats, the guard has enough time to get to him and block him. Now that the DE has learned his lesson, he won’t squat anymore. He’ll cheat towards that fullback right away to make sure that the guard can’t block him in time. Knowing how the DE would probably react to being trapped, PJ could anticipate it and call the right play to take advantage of it; as we learned in an earlier post, DEs that cheat towards the middle set up the counter option play. That’s play number two. And once PJ was done picking on that DE, he simply repeated the process on the other side.
You know how sometimes you hear about thinking two or three plays ahead? This is the sort of thing they’re talking about.
But the important thing as it relates to tomorrow’s game is that it all flowed from how the defense was playing the triple option. Without that to start from, the real adjustments to take advantage of the defense can’t occur. And that’s where Jarod comes in. We know that for whatever reason, he just can’t seem to run the triple option play. Every week I allow myself to think that maybe this is the week when the light finally turns on for Jarod, and every week I realize that I’m just setting myself up. Before the Air Force game I said that as long as Navy didn’t turn the ball over, they would win by virtue of simply having more playmakers. This isn’t the case against Pitt. With players like McKillop and McCoy, Navy isn’t going to win on talent alone. They are going to need the full arsenal of the offense, but under Jarod Bryant it just hasn’t happened. The coaches try not to focus on him too much, talking about how the line could block better. But don’t you think it’s a little odd that the offensive line happens to play poorly when Kaipo is out, but plays fine once Kaipo’s back in? It isn’t the line, it isn’t the perimeter blocking, it isn’t the fullback, and it isn’t whatever other reason you can come up with. The problem is the quarterback, no matter how much we don’t want to single anyone out. Navy could get away with running a scaled-down offense against Air Force, but that won’t cut it against Pitt.
Dave Wannstedt has talked a bit about being more aggressive in defending against Navy’s offense. He has also talked about how the Mids’ passing game really threw him off last year. Christian Swezey wrote a really good piece before last year’s game, talking about Wannstedt’s history of defending the wishbone:
In terms of a game plan, the Panthers’ coaches have a history of two schemes against the option.
In victories over Oklahoma in 1986 and 1987, Wannstedt relied on a speedy nose guard to disrupt the fullback up the middle.
The middle linebackers flowed to the side opposite the nose guard. And the outside defenders used their speed to focus only on the run.
The Sooners were held to 186 and 179 yards rushing in those two games; the passing game was open, but the Sooners completed only 10 of 25 passes.
You know that scene in Patton? “Rommel… You magnificent bastard, I read your BOOK!” That’s gotta be what it’s like when this coaching staff does game planning. Pitt came out doing exactly what Swezey described. On Navy’s first play of the game, Kaipo faked a toss sweep. The secondary committed to the fake and ignored the wide reciever, O.J. Washington, who made his way to the abandoned side of the field and was wiiiiiiiide open.
Hitting this play right off the bat scrambled Pitt’s entire game plan. Navy’s offense is not the wishbone, and coaches who defend it like they’d defend the wishbone get burnt. Wannstedt was unprepared for Navy’s passing ability because none of those old wishbone teams could throw consistently. Pitt’s secondary barely played run support after that pass. Wannstedt does have a new defensive coordinator, so it’s hard to guess how they’ll line up this time around. Paul Rhoads was picked up by Tommy Tuberville at Auburn, and in his place stepped former SMU head coach Phil Bennett. Bennett’s SMU team is the only win Navy had in Paul Johnson’s first year as head coach in Annapolis among schools whose names don’t rhyme with “Vest Joint.” I don’t know how the Mustangs lined up then, but at least we already know it didn’t work.
Of course, none of this matters if the quarterback can’t direct the offense. It sucks that there’s this much pressure on one guy, but it pretty much comes with the territory. Navy’s defense is improved to the point where McCoy won’t have quite as ridiculous a game as he had against the Mids last year, but he will still get his yards, and he’ll still score points. Navy’s offense will have to keep pace. Without Kaipo, I don’t know that they will. Here’s hoping for a breakthrough.