GAME WEEK: PITT

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.

LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy

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.

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22 Responses

  1. Silly Vest Joint, Trix are for kids.

  2. Pitt’s AD really likes Wanny. He’s wanted him for a while, now, so when he was re-hired last year pretty much the first thing he did was extend his contract.

  3. The Wannstache is a fickle thing indeed. One never know what to expect.

  4. Really an outstanding piece tbd –> Great insight on PITT … and a realistic study on what Navy will have to do to be successful, … but perhaps can’t???
    Very curious to see what IJ has lined up for the Panthers.

    GO NAVY!!!

  5. McCoy is the real deal. He had offers from USC, Alabama, and just about anywhere else he wanted. He was ranked the number 5 running back in the country coming out of high school. He will be playing on Sunday. Wannstadt is the weak link in Pitts armor but without Kaipo well…

  6. Great stuff Mike. I think I remember that you were working on a post solely about the “squat”. Here’s my question: In the video above that shows the Pitt DE “squatting”, the FB still gained 6 yards. If that is representative of the “squat”, then Kettani should have a field day. Did another defender miss an assignment on that play?

  7. Call some God D passing plays for a change and dont sit there and handcuff JB with 3rd and longs as he is always in.
    If the game plan is same as Wake we may as well stay in the parking lot.
    The game will either be a close Navy win or full blown Pitt rout in either case we will know by midway through the second quarter what to expect.

  8. I would like to thank Wannstedt (please note proper spelling) for our double overtime victory last year. His decision to go for the win on the last play of the game was questionable, His decision to pass from two yards out when their running game had been so effective was eve more questionable. But not nearly as questiionable as Charlie Weis’ s fake punt on 4th and 13 . . .

  9. Gish– no missed assignments, just good blocking. But the DE won’t bother to try to read the quarterback if we aren’t running the triple in the first place, so if Kettani has a big day it’ll probably be for another reason.

  10. Gary, … Can’t argue too much w/ your logic, … but never can be too sure how a game will play out. Who would have ever thunk Navy would force 6 turnovers vs. the likes of WF???

    Very curious to see how soon & how much IJ will “open up the playbook” in this one???

    Beat PITT!!!

  11. Absolutely true Dan -plus can we block well enough for 15 or so passes?
    Its not the amount- its the timing of when they are done…I think we started Pitt game last year with huge pass play from Kaipo and that had them off balance.
    If WE can HIT as HARD as we did vs Wake- we got that opportunistic turnover chance that much more.
    Regardless it should be a beautiful day @ NMC and to everyone and all here that will be there-
    MAKE SOME NOISE!

  12. Great stuff as always Birddog. Had never heard of the ‘squat’ defense before. So glad I found your blog — great insights.

  13. Mike – terrific as usual. I thought you’d never get this out. I have begun to share your wonderful breakdowns with the SEC-fan naysayers in my office. And the GT grad loves the primer on PJ’s offense.

    With JB as the starter and a ranked Pitt team on a winning streak, we have little to lose.

    Take a chance, call the TO, call some passes, maybe even a reverse! Go wild. JB and the coaches know this far into the season if his ego is too fragile to withstand a few bad reads.

    If we’re in a position to hold a lead, call the game appropriately. I have no problem with the relative conservative strategy of KN and IJ. But until you have the lead, let it hang out. Try for the win.

  14. When I first read this post early this morning I predicted that it would not be posted at navysports.com – bet a dollar with a classmate in Pensacola and won. Mike knows why it was not posted and I will leave it at that.

    Great analysis and well-written.

    Before the Rutgers game, I decided not to pay too much attention to how bad we were and how all of our opposition were world beaters. I figured what the hell, they are all bigger, faster and stronger. It has worked so far – post Duke and pre-Rutgers.

    After the AF game, my daughter, Class of 05 and a great athlete, asked me why we were not running the TO anymore. I said because, apparently, we cannot. But, who cares – just find a way to win.

    That is exactly the way I fell – find a way to win!

  15. I am with Gary and midwatchcowboy on this one. The coaches should know whether they have corrected the issues that JB has had with the TO. They need to be prepared to open up the playbook and consider mixing in a more agressive passing attack. If he can’t execute on either front, then put RD in…what will we have to lose at that point. Regardless, we will need to play agressive to win. Playing conservatively should not be considered an option and will only result in a L.

  16. Niumat basically said those same words in his Wednesday presser.

  17. Navyblue, navysports.com did post a link. Why would they link to some of Mike’s blogs, but not this one?

  18. I have enjoyed and appreciated the education on the option . . . It makes me want to see each play in slow motion. Maybe I will tape the next games.

    You are all way too hard on Jarod! Sure Towson was not as comparable a matchup as the next five games, but those yards WERE triple option yards resulting from Jarod’s reads. . . supported by a Navy offensive line that dominated the Towson front.

    We seemed to revel so much in the ease of that first victory, that we forgot the upcoming games would have much better defensive units. . .

    The greatest difference in the other five games has NOT been primarily Jarod . . . it’s been the exposed relative inexperience of the Navy offensive line, compared to the competition. Towson was not good enough to expose this. But, ALL of the other teams have been able to.

    We are especially sensitive to it because of what we saw last year. Sure Kaipo was magical last year, yards seem to add up easily, the offense was textbook and beautiful . . .

    it drove anticipation for 2008: . . . Kaipo’s senior year! . . . a questionable but certainly better defense . . .

    OK so Kaipo’s been out most of the year, and yes he has a flair for the option. No doubt about it. But even when he has been in the game this year, the yards don’t come so easy. It’s the offensive line that is doing the learning this year. They are getting better, but they are nowhere near the level that the line was in 2007.

    Jarod has made plenty of good reads only to turn and face an unblocked defender. It happened plenty when Kaipo was in too.

    Coach Niumatalolo said it straight up this week . . . the offense hasn’t gotten it together yet, but we only see the guy with the ball. Yet we are still winning!

    Some other thoughts:
    – Ball State, Duke, Wake Forest and Air Force have a combined record
    of 16-3 without Navy, and when including Navy they are 18-5.
    – Currently Ball State, Wake Forest and upcoming Pittsburgh
    are all ranked in the top 25.
    – If Navy can beat Pittsburgh,
    Navy could go 10-2 or at least 9-3 for the season.

    I don’t know if they’ll beat Pittsburgh, but they are one great Navy team!

  19. I think David has it about right. We have a good coaching staff, and a good team. They will do their best. miracles happen, but not every week – let’s make some noise and let the team know – despite who is running the plays – that we support them and are proud of how they’ve been playing. Our O line gives up a lot of #s, we just need to live with that. At least they all know how to spell their names and aren’t majoring in “sports management”!

  20. I sure hope this blog forum doesn’t turn into the other board, where any critique, no matter how fair-minded and reasonable, is taken as a personal attack on a player or coach(es) and must be refuted. I think everything Mike wrote was on the money. It ain’t the O line. Kaipo was moving the ball easily against WF until he went down, and they’re by far the best D we’ll see this year.

  21. We ran maybe 3 triple option plays against Towson. And the guys you read are SUPPOSED to be unblocked. The offensive line is playing fine.

  22. This year’s Navy-Pitt game was a reality check, coming a year late, mostly because of Wannsteadt’s bungling last year. With his would be heroics and “now or never” decision to go for the gold in 2nd overtime, and then asking his QB who’s having a disastrous nite to perform a very difficult pass maneuver, and somehow forgetting Pitt had a back who’d run for 165 yards up to that point … well, God was looking down upon Dave, as that might have well been the end of the line for a great many coaches. It’s a good thing Dave is a Pitt alum, and maybe that there was no viable alternative at that moment. Anyway, now it’s looking like a reasonable non-move for the Panthers.

    But the real issue is this …Navy is a fine program, our program, generally well coached in a necessarily innovative, odd offense that’s fun to watch, requires outstanding and coachable athletes. But …aside from the very occasional Notre Dame win, it’s delusional perceiving that Navy will generally be able to make a game of these types of contests. Fortunately, we can construct a schedule of SMU’s, Wake Forests (which is in an anomalous good run that’ll not last), Hawaii’s, Delawares, Temples, etc. … and of course Army, USAF) that is entertaining and allows us to be cheering our fine lads to victory on more Saturdays than not.

    Let’s hope there are no injuries next year against Ohio State.

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