Entertaining questions from the media probably ranks pretty low on Matt Cavanaugh’s list of favorite things to do, but the Pitt offensive coordinator was willing Tuesday to discuss everything from play-calling to the quarterbacks.
What has to be disconcerting for Cavanaugh is that when the Panthers were averaging 31.8 points per game last season, the defense couldn’t stop anyone. Now, when Pitt is holding opponents to 16 points per game, the Panthers have become turnover-prone and struggled to score.
The blame has been pointed at the play of freshmen quarterbacks Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick. By extension, that is a direct reflection on Cavanaugh, and as Pitt’s quarterback coach, he’s willing to acknowledge as much.
“In my opinion, we have not been very successful or very productive offensively because our quarterback play has been poor,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s got to change. We’ve got to game-plan the right way. We can’t put the quarterback in a position where he feels like he’s got to go win the game for us. He’s got to understand ball control, protecting the ball, getting it to the people who make plays for him.”
Kevan Smith’s inability to do so has forced Pitt’s hand, thrusting Pat Bostick into the starting lineup much earlier than either Wannstedt or Cavanaugh had desired. In addition to dealing with “personal issues,” Bostick is still adapting to the speed and pace of college football.
That showed in his first taste of live action, when he threw an interception on his first pass against Grambling State. Bostick didn’t fare much better against Connecticut, entering with a 27-7 deficit in the third quarter, and completing 27 of 41 passes for 230 yards with three interceptions and a touchdown.
“Quite honestly, I was nervous with him going into the game,” Cavanaugh said. “I wasn’t sure how much he was ready to play. Obviously, the situation wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t like he was going in with a 20-point lead and trying to run the clock out, giving them a couple throws here and there. We were down, we needed some points and he threw 41 times, which is for us, right now, a formula for disaster, if we’re throwing 41 times with a freshman quarterback in the second half.
“It was not the ideal situation but what I did like about it was he did look to get more comfortable as he was back there throwing. He got knocked down a couple times, had a couple turnovers but hung in there and kept competing and that’s a positive.”
Bostick threw the three interceptions before settling down and leading the Panthers to a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. Two of the picks came on screen passes, which made the conservative play-calling a challenge.
“Unfortunately, he got into a situation where we were behind and he put us behind a little more with a bad throw on a screen,” Cavanaugh said. “One ball got tipped and one he threw right to a defensive lineman when he just needed to drift out of the pocket a little bit to find a throwing lane.
“He’s played a lot of quarterback. He’s been in a lot of games in high school and I think he understands that position can be fragile. You can’t get down. You’ve got to come back on the field and overcome it. I was pleased that he did that.”
• While Cavanaugh said his “biggest concern is the freshman quarterback,” he has plenty of faith in starting freshman LeSean McCoy at tailback.
“The freshman running back has shown he can handle those kind of situations,” Cavanaugh said. “He did it at Michigan State on the road and played well. I don’t have any doubt that he’ll go on the road and play well at Virginia.
“He’s a special back. So is LaRod (Stephens-Howling). I’m convinced both of those guys can do a lot of the same things. LeSean’s had a little more productivity, but I have just as much confidence in LaRod.
“Between those two, Darrell Strong, Oderick Turner, Marcel Pestano, Nate Byham, we’ve got some people to get the ball to we feel confident can make some things happen. We just haven’t been doing a good job at the quarterback position. That needs to pick up, on top of silly turnovers, silly penalties – things that have been shooting us in the foot for the last couple weeks.”
• It’s not as if Pitt’s problems are restricted to quarterback play. The number of penalties and turnovers has incapacitated the offense, forcing Cavanaugh to be ultra-conservative in his play calling.
“As constant as it’s been, it’s hurt quite a bit. It’s put us behind. It crushed us against Connecticut, not just turning the ball over but stopping some drives, calling big plays back, them scoring on the turnovers we throw to them,” Cavanaugh said. “When you’re doing stuff like that, it changes the whole game plan. We really felt we could win, just like we did at Michigan State, if we protect the football and keep the game close and run the football, we’d have a chance to win on the road. It didn’t work out that way. We came in with a similar mentality last week, to protect the football and we didn’t do a good job of that again. It put us behind and changed the game plan drastically.”
• Cavanaugh also addressed the implementation of the Wildcat formation in Pitt’s offense, noting that the Panthers borrowed a page from Arkansas’ playbook because it liked the way the Razorbacks have featured Heisman Trophy candidate Darren McFadden in their “WildHog” scheme.
“The idea was that we felt with some of these young players coming in, we were going to have some people we wanted to get the ball to,” Cavanaugh said. “One of the ways, obviously, is if your quarterback is veteran enough to distribute the ball and get it to them. Another way is to direct snap it to them.
“We had noticed that McFadden was getting a lot of touches at Arkansas last year and was very productive, so we watched some of their tape and noticed this little package. We went out and visited with them and were impressed with what they were getting done and felt it fit some of the things we were doing with our run scheme and came back and experimented with it in the summer and liked it.”
• Now that Smith has been benched, it’s clear that he was having problems communicating in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. Cavanaugh tipped his hand when asked if he had an explanation for the number of offensive penalties called on the Panthers.
“I can reason away every one of them, but I’m not going to do it,” Cavanaugh said. “The bottom line is, it’s just too many. The offensive line at Michigan State not hearing the snap count, going on a center snap; the quarterback starting the cadence instead of raising his heel and confusing the line; they’re jumping off-sides because of that.
“The personal fouls, there’s no excuse for that. We bring it to their attention. The net result is that it’s stifling us offensively. We can’t overcome those types of things. We’re not that good, that we can create four, five turnovers a game, six, seven penalties a game and overcome those things. That will kill us.”
Cavanaugh has called plays from the booth instead of the sidelines, and took the blame for some of the mishaps by his quarterbacks last week against Connecticut.
“Some of it was simply reading the wrist band wrong and not understanding how we’re setting a formation on that play,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ll get those things corrected, and we will have to simplify.
“I don’t want a freshman quarterback going out there with 30 different formations that he’s got to know. We can settle some of that down by paring down the number of looks with which we give a defense.”
• Although Cavanaugh has been criticized for being ultra-conservative in his approach to the offense, he claims to be willing to experiment with whatever works.
“I really don’t care what we’re doing: running or throwing, all spread out or bunched up,” Cavanaugh said. “I went through a couple years in Baltimore where everybody knew we were running the ball and we ran it anyway. We didn’t turn the ball over, we took time off the clock, our defense played sound and we won a lot of games – so I know that works.
“I felt I had a lot of liberties with some of the people we had here last year that we could open it up a little bit more, take more shots, overcome some (incomplete passes) on first down and end up second-and-long and still overcome it. We may not be there right now; in fact, we’re not. So, whatever game plan we put together, it’s got to be one that gives us a chance to win.”
• Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said he has the final call on all personnel decisions, which Cavanaugh seconded. But both are equally culpable for starting Stephens-Howling over McCoy against UConn, as well as only handing the ball to the freshman sensation 11 times.
“We don’t do anything that isn’t democratic,” Cavanaugh said. “We put a game plan together and he sits in with us and we discuss why we’re doing things and who we plan on using, who will be in for that particular play, particular series, particular personnel group. We work all that out and there’s agreement in that room, so I don’t think there’s any surprises when we put our personnel on the field, that any of the coaches are surprised by who’s out there. We know who we want on the field.”
That said, junior Bill Stull’s injury forced their hand at quarterback against Eastern Michigan and Smith’s poor play necessitated another switch against UConn.
“Obviously, we made a decision at halftime that Kevan wasn’t playing well enough to continue playing, so we made a decision that was talked about,” Cavanaugh said. “Coach (Wannstedt) walked in our coaches’ locker room at halftime and said, ‘What do you think about playing Pat?’ We all agreed. He has the final decision. If I want to do something and he doesn’t want to do it, we don’t do it.
“We discuss all those things, but you’ve also got to be adaptable enough during the course of the game that if things change and you need another body in there, you better have one ready.”
• That leads us to Pitt’s next dilemma.
If Bostick struggles or, God forbid, is injured, the Panthers have little choice but to return Smith to the starting lineup unless they abandon their offense.
That makes it incumbent upon Cavanaugh to help Smith refocus on his new role despite his disappointing play the past two games. Then again, if anyone was ever qualified to handle a backup QB, it’s Cavanaugh, who spent the majority of his NFL career as a second-stringer.
“I’ve got to do some of that,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s the life of a quarterback. That was my career, if I remember right, being able to be ready and come off the bench. I wasn’t quite good enough to start every week but I knew that they were counting on me as the backup that if the guy in front of me went down I had to go in and perform.
“It’s as much his responsibility as it is mine that even though he knows he’s not starting this week he’s got to prepare himself as if he is. Heaven forbid something happens early in the game and Pat goes down, he knows he’s the next guy. Kevan’s, if I can use the term, professional enough to turn understand that he’s got to battle his way back.
“Sitting around moping about it and making excuses is not the answer. Just go out, work hard, throw the ball well, complete balls, make the right decisions, don’t turn it over and he’ll get an opportunity to get back on the field.”