Some games are just good for the soul. For me, Pitt is one of those games. Like any other BCS school not named Notre Dame, I certainly don’t want to see Navy play them every year; it’s just not a smart thing for a service academy to do. But once in a while, it feels good to see the Mids take on some of their old Eastern Independent rivals like Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College (who knows if we’ll ever see Navy play Penn State again). Pitt has appeared on the Navy schedule off and on since 1912, when the Mids fought back after falling victim to an early goal line stand and came from behind to win, 14-6. Indeed, the Mids and the Panthers have a long history of notable games. In 1963, Pitt was undefeated and ranked #3 in the country when they came to Annapolis to take on the #11 Midshipmen. Four interceptions propelled Navy to a 24-12 win; it would be Pitt’s only loss of the season. Pitt won the national championship in 1976. Along the way, Tony Dorsett became the all-time rushing leader during his 180-yard, 3 TD performance at Navy. A different Pitt running back, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, willed the Panthers to another victory over Navy in a 10-6 slugfest in 1987. And of course there was the Mids coming out on top in a 48-45, two-overtime thriller twenty years later. That was a great win for Navy, and one that I think is a bit underappreciated by some newer fans that don’t yet have a feel for the history between the two schools.
While I might be giddy with nostalgia whenever I think of the Navy-Pitt series, Pitt’s coaches don’t appear to be as excited. Every once in a while we come across coaches, especially from BCS conferences, that talk a little too much about the cut blocks that are such an integral part of the Navy offense. Stanford did under Walt Harris for example, as did Tom O’Brien at Boston College. Dave Wannstedt is one of those coaches. Back in 2007, it was all about having his linemen wear shin guards during practice. Last year, Wannstedt spent his press conference talking about his players getting “chopped.” This year, Wannstedt has resumed the chop block talk:
“They do a lot of chopping and cut blocks on the perimeter,” said Wannstedt, whose Panthers (2-0) play Navy Saturday. “There is no soft way, there is no non-physical way to simulate it without getting out there in full speed with full pads, and so today we’ll be out there doing it.
“You take a chance [of injury to defensive linemen]. We’ve always had conversations about taking a risk with our players, but we’ve always come to the conclusion that for us to play effectively Saturday we need to see it, and so we take a little bit of chance by going full speed and doing chop blocks.”
DUDE, WE GET IT. You’d think that there would be something else to talk about after three years of playing Navy, but I guess not. Wannstedt has been a football coach for 35 years. When he played, he was an offensive lineman. He is aware of the difference between a cut block and a chop block. He knows what he’s doing by saying Navy “chops;” he’s 1) buttering up officials, and 2) telling his AD that he doesn’t want to play Navy anymore. They’re a dirty spread option team, after all.
Despite Wannstedt’s wishes, his Pitt team will face Navy at Heinz Field on Saturday. There’s no TV for the game, which is somewhat surprising for a game between Navy and a team considered to contend for the Big East crown. If you want to watch, you need access to ESPN360, plus a computer and internet connection with the heft to handle it. It sucks not to see the game, but you could do a lot worse than listening to Bob, Omar, and John.
The team lined up against the Mids on Saturday will be a lot different from the one that thumped them 42-21 a year ago. Pitt’s convincing victory came on the backs of its star players. LeSean McCoy ran for 156 and 3 touchdowns, while middle linebacker Scott McKillop led the defense with 9 tackles to help contain the Navy rushing attack to only 194 yards. McCoy is now in the NFL, which might make Navy fans optimistic about the Mids’ ability to improve their performance this time around. But McCoy wasn’t the only back that ran all over the place that afternoon; LaRod Stephens-Howling punched in two TDs of his own, and Conredge Collins– the fullback— averaged 5.6 yards per carry whenever Pitt’s coaches felt like giving McCoy a break. There was no questioning McCoy’s ability, but the reality was that it wasn’t McCoy’s overwhelming talent that did the Mids in. Pitt just manhandled Navy.
Although the Panthers have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, there’s little doubt that they’ll try to do the same this year. The offensive line features three seniors and a redshirt junior, and averages 293 pounds. In two games against Buffalo and Youngstown State, the Panthers have continued to show a commitment to running the ball, averaging 30 carries and 3 TDs per contest. The main beneficiary of this dedication has been McCoy’s replacement, tailback Dion Lewis. A 5-8, 195 lb. freshman from Albany, Lewis is smaller than McCoy, but that hasn’t mattered. He ran for 129 yards and two TDs in his debut, then followed it up with 190 more yards last week. Lewis is also the team’s second-leading receiver, with 8 catches. While it’s hard to jump to conclusions after two games with Youngstown State and Buffalo, the Pitt running game appears to be picking up right where it left off.
The Navy defense, however, is not, at least not from where Pitt last saw them. The Mids’ run defense in its first two games has been an absolute revelation. Louisiana Tech, believe it or not, was a top 30 rushing team in 2008. Last week against Navy last, they had only 11 yards. Ohio State had a top-flight running back of their own that they were looking to replace. The Mids held the Buckeyes to a respectable 153 yards on the ground. Even better than respectable is the way that Navy forced Ohio State to get those yards; very few came by running between the tackles. Most of that yardage came when Ohio State started running the option with Terrelle Pryor in the second half. The threat of a running quarterback is one thing that Navy won’t have to worry about this week, which could potentially make Pitt a better matchup for the Mids. Even if Navy doesn’t completely shut down the Pitt offense– and let’s be real, they won’t– the Mids have shown that they at least won’t be steamrolled again.
Pitt’s domination in 2008 was not limited to their running game. The Panthers were just as effective with their run defense, holding Navy to 100 yards below their season average. The key to Pitt’s gameplan was McKillop, who Navy simply wasn’t able to block. From his middle linebacker position, he was able to spy on Jarod Bryant on any triple option play, getting more or less a free shot at the quarterback at or near the line of scrimmage. Coach Jasper tried to adjust, even moving an extra tackle to the play side just to block McKillop; but the Big East defensive player of the year just ran around him. While defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says he’ll have some “new wrinkles”for Navy this year, it’s unlikely that he’ll stray too far from something that worked so well a year ago– especially if Adam Gunn keeps playing like he has. Gunn, granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing nearly all of 2008 with a broken neck, clearly intends to make the most of his second chance at football life. He already has five sacks through two games and leads the team in tackles with 19. Whether he’s as difficult to block as McKillop remains to be seen.
If Pitt does more of the same this year, it will be once again up to the tackles to make that block. If they are unable to do so, expect to see similar adjustments; an extra tackle, counters, some double option with the fullback assigned to block the MLB, or maybe even taking Teich outside on a fullback option. The Panthers aren’t quite as big up the middle as they were last year, so running the QB/FB midline might be a good way to force the middle linebacker to stay home. Coach Jasper tried that in last year’s game, only to see his o-line get repeatedly shoved into the backfield. That’s also a trend that will need to be fixed if Navy intends to take advantage of that great arm that Dave Wannstedt keeps hearing about.
Any BCS team, especially conference title contenders like Pitt, are going to be a huge challenge for Navy. With the defense playing the way it has, though, I don’t think it would be a stretch for the Mids to have a shot in this game. Easier said than done, maybe, but doable all the same.