Just when you thought Pitt’s offense couldn’t get much worse, the Panthers went from vanilla to Neapolitan by dumping the conventional West Coast offense in favor of the Wildcat formation against Michigan State.
Pitt has long been awaiting an opportunity to use the direct snap to a tailback and the options that comes with having the ball in the hands of its fastest and most dynamic players. Giving it away against Eastern Michigan or Grambling State would have been foolish, considering the relative ease with which the Panthers won those games.
While watching Pitt install the offense – learned from Arkansas – throughout training camp, there were two schools of thought. One was that the Panthers were spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for West Virginia; the other was they had a trick up their sleeves.
What Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt revealed after Saturday’s 17-13 loss is that the Panthers didn’t go to the Wildcat just because of Kevan Smith’s sub-par passing performance. Pitt planned to use the offense all along, no matter who won the starting quarterback job.
“Foresight into where we’re at with this offense,” Wannstedt explained. “Whether we had Billy Stull or not, we were going to use this offense.”
It will be interesting to see how the Panthers use it, especially in Big East Conference play. Wannstedt warned that Pitt won’t employ the Wildcat formation full-time, simply because it’s not as effective in pass situations.
Nor is it suited for a team trailing on the scoreboard.
“When LeSean McCoy was your quarterback half the game,” Wannstedt said, “it’s tough to play catch up.”
McCoy hinted that Pitt has numerous options out of the Wildcat and that we saw only a few, mostly him keeping it or handing off to receiver T.J. Porter. McCoy said it’s a more dangerous set when he and LaRod Stephens-Howling are in the backfield together, and it’s easy to envision them becoming a dangerous and dynamic duo in the offense.
After rushing for 172 yards in his first start, McCoy was asked how much different major-college football is from high school and prep school.
“Biggest difference I can see is the size and the speed,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to think about what you’re going to do that fast, in the blink of an eye.”
Imagine, being a defender, in the blink of an eye, trying to determine whether the ball is being centered to McCoy or Stephens-Howling, whether that back has kept it or handed off, whether the options include a reverse handoff, a shovel pass or a pitch to a player who can throw it and then trying to stop the ball-carrier in the process.
Now, if it’s starting to look as if Pitt’s next-best option at quarterback is actually the tailback, then you’re seeing the same things I watched during training camp.
• And, if you follow recruiting like I do, you’ve got to wonder whether Jeannette superstar quarterback Terrelle Pryor was watching the Pitt-Michigan State game on ESPN and imagining how he’d look running that offense next to McCoy and Stephens-Howling next fall.
Pitt is, at best, a long shot to get Pryor. But the Panthers have some serious issues at quarterback. Now, they have something to show Pryor how he fits into their scheme.
Not predicting Pitt will get Pryor – far from it – but stranger things have happened in recruiting. Remember, Anthony Morelli was headed to Pitt at this time in 2003, and McCoy to Penn State at this time last year.
You never know.
• Watching Pitt practice during training camp is extremely beneficial because it gives you an idea of what to expect once the Panthers start playing games.
It was no surprise to see the Wildcat package unveiled, just as it was no shock to see Smith struggle to complete short and intermediate passes.
He has the strongest arm of the three scholarship quarterbacks, but he also has the least amount of touch on his passes. That has something to do with his relative inexperience at the position, as he only played 12 varsity games at Seneca Valley High School.
In that regard, he was as much at fault for throwing a pass too hard and behind his receiver as Oderick Turner was for letting the ball deflect off his hands and into those of safety Travis Key for a 31-yard touchdown return.
By the way, the last time a Pitt quarterback’s interception was returned for a touchdown was in 2005, when West Virginia’s Jahmile Addae had a 40-yard touchdown off Tyler Palko.
Although Smith completed only 9 of 18 passes for 85 yards, he could have been better statistically if Turner hadn’t dropped a 44-yard pass at the goal line. That play alone would have made Smith 10 of 18 for 129 yards, not to mention tying the game at 14-14 late in the third quarter.
Because Smith struggled with the short game, there is a school of thought that Pitt should have substituted freshman Pat Bostick for Smith. This was Wannstedt’s answer:
“Would changing quarterbacks have made a difference today? I don’t think so,” Wannstedt said. “We never got in a position where we were out of the game. We had a chance to win it at the end. You stay with that type of continuity, and Kevan got most of the practice reps.”
Pitt can’t afford to give up on Smith so soon, especially if Bill Stull is out longer than expected. It would destroy his confidence and make him wonder if he has a future with the program. The Panthers are thin behind Bostick, with only walk-ons at quarterback.
• Now that McCoy has proven to be the big-time back Wannstedt has wanted, Pitt’s offensive success, or lack thereof, will be determined by the play of its offensive line.
“We’ve got to bring that group along a little bit,” Wannstedt said. “They’re getting better, they are. I don’t know what the numbers were but I thought our offensive line has improved week after week – not to the point where we’re happy about it and getting excited. That’s, unfortunately, the last group to get together.”
It has to be disturbing, though, that two fifth-year seniors contributed costly penalties against Michigan State. Center Chris Vangas drew a 15-yard facemask penalty that negated a 4-yard run by McCoy to the Spartans’ 4 and pushed the Panthers back to a first-and-goal at the 23.
“Vangas had the one where he was just blocking the guy,” Wannstedt said. “They called him with his hand in there, holding. He did not grab the guy by the facemask, but I’m sure he got his hand in there. It was probably the correct call.”
Wannstedt noted that instead of scoring the go-ahead touchdown, Pitt had to settle for a 29-yard field goal that cut it to 14-13 with 7:47 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“We get down there and get called for a holding penalty that takes us out of a possibility of scoring a touchdown and have to settle for a field goal.”
Five minutes later, one play after Smith completed a 19-yard pass to tight end Darrell Strong, right guard Mike McGlynn drew a 5-yard flag for a false start on a first-and-10 at the 50. Despite Smith getting sacked on successive plays, Pitt overcame the penalty with a 9-yard run by Smith and a 26-yard pass from Smith to receiver Marcel Pestano.
The final drive, however, saw Smith get sacked three times for losses totaling 23 yards. Despite poor protection, especially from injured right tackle Jason Pinkston, Pitt still managed to get to Michigan State’s 40.
Pinkston appears to have a separated shoulder and was replaced for a few plays by redshirt sophomore John Bachman, but later returned to play the final series.
“Jason Pinkston, his shoulder slipped out of the socket,” Wannstedt said. “He goes back in and tries to play with one arm at the end. They’ve got a couple guys that are good players. We got into some mismatch problems. They pressured us a lot and we got into some pressure problems, which we anticipated.”
Now, Pitt has to determine what to do about its line. It could leave Vangas at center, but he was overmatched against Michigan State and could have trouble handling Big East play. It could move McGlynn to center and return Joe Thomas to the starting lineup at right guard, but McGlynn might have to play right tackle if Pinkston is unable to play. The other options are Bachman and Chase Clowser.
• For all of its depth, the defensive line also has issues.
Defensive tackle Gus Mustakas is out for the season with a torn ACL. His backup, Mick Williams, was in and out of the game with shoulder problems. Tommie Duhart played well in reserve, especially late, when he blocked a field goal and stopped Jehuu Caulcrick on a fourth-and-2.
At one point, Rashaad Duncan moved from nose guard to defensive tackle and played alongside John Malecki. That solves one problem – Duncan had seven tackles and two sacks – but depletes the depth at another.
Pitt could be forced to move a defensive end inside – its top options would be Tyler Tkach or Joe Clermond – move Craig Bokor back to defense or burn the redshirt of freshman Myles Caragein.
Defensive end Chris McKillop also left the game with an injury, forcing the Panthers to use redshirt freshmen Greg Romeus, Tkach and true freshman Jabaal Sheard.
“We were banged up,” Wannstedt said. “Guys were rolling in and out of there.”
• Pitt’s defensive effort was impressive, considering it held Michigan State well below its averages with 144 yards rushing (220), 183 yards passing (272.5) and 327 yards total (492.5).
The Panthers also sacked quarterback Brian Hoyer six times for minus-40 yards and stopped the Spartans twice on fourth-and-short. Michigan State did convert eight times in 19 tries on third down, but only scored twice in four trips to the red zone and both came on short fields after turnovers.
“It wasn’t because of effort. It wasn’t because of want-to,” Wannstedt said. “We just made a few more mistakes than they did. I don’t know what more you can ask of your defense. I thought they played consistent the entire game.”
• Middle linebacker Scott McKillop led all defenders with 17 tackles, although 10 were assists. Strong safety Mike Phillips also had double-digit tackles (13) with nine coming on assists. Clermond was third with nine stops.
• Aside from Duncan, Pitt got sacks from Clermond (minus-5 yards), Williams (minus-8), cornerback Aaron Berry (minus-4) and Malecki (minus-12).
• McCoy’s 172-yard performance ranked seventh by a Pitt freshman back. Just in case you’re wondering who was ahead of him, here’s a look at the top six:
1. Tony Dorsett – 1973
2. Tony Dorsett – 1973
3. Tony Dorsett – 1973
Opponent: Notre Dame
4. Curvin Richards – 1988
5. Curvin Richards – 1988
(tie) Curvin Richards – 1988
Opponent: Boston College
Dorsett has the top three and four of the top 10 all-time (162 against Army now ranks 10th), while Richards had four of the top 10 before his 159-yard game against Penn State was bumped out by McCoy.
The only other freshmen to rush for more than 159 yards in a game are Curtis Martin (170 vs. Minnesota, 1991) and Elliot Walker (169 vs. Temple, 1974).
I have a feeling McCoy has a few more in him.
• Pittsburgh Trib columnist called it correct when he said McCoy is the first back Pitt has had since Martin capable of making that 64-yard touchdown run.
“I take what the defensive gives,” McCoy said. “Any running back that actually breaks a long run, it’s probably because he had good blocking up front and downfield. They recruited me to make one guy miss and outrun him.”
• McCoy is the first Pitt freshman to rush for back-to-back 100-yard games since Martin went for 170 yards against Minnesota and 121 against Maryland in ’91.
Did McCoy anticipate such success so early?
“Everything’s happening so fast,” McCoy said. “One minute, you’re taking the SATs, then practicing and, next thing you know, you’re in the Big Ten with 75,000 yelling fans and big-time guys running after you. It’s definitely been a fast pace for me, the last three weeks. It’s all new to me, you know, I got three years of it. Or four.”
Or two, if McCoy takes advantage of the same loophole that Larry Fitzgerald did by jumping to the NFL three years after his high school class graduates.
Enjoy him while you can.