Never did Matt Cavanaugh expect to see Pat Bostick throwing 41 passes in one game, let alone a half – like he did against Connecticut – so the Pitt offensive coordinator developed an ultra-conservative game plan for Virginia.
“We went in and tried to keep the game close, very conservative, run the ball as much as we could, to keep it a tight game and have a chance to win at the end,” Cavanaugh said. “Obviously, that didn’t transpire.”
What did transpire was Pitt piling up a 27-0 deficit before Bostick attempted his first pass, a 9-yard swing to tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling in the second quarter of the 44-14 defeat at Virginia last Saturday.
Talk about your tale of two halves: After completing 27 of 41 passes for 230 yards with three interceptions and a touchdown against UConn, Bostick was only 3 for 3 for 30 yards in the first half at Virginia.
Will Pitt loosen the reins on Bostick against Navy?
“I sure hope so,” Cavanaugh said. “As a quarterback, I know it’s not much fun when, on most second-and-mediums and second-and-longs, you’re handing the ball off. But there was a reason we did it. It just didn’t work.
“We’re certainly not going to cut him loose and let him air it out every down, but there will be a better balance, hopefully, in the play-calling. I’ve got to do a better job with that. As long as he’s making good decisions and getting completions, we’ll try to be a little more balanced.”
To put Pitt’s season in perspective, consider that the Panthers’ starting quarterback is the same freshman who left on the eve of training camp and returned home to Lancaster to deal with “personal issues.” Bostick missed nine practices, then slowly worked his way back in before becoming the third-string quarterback at season’s start.
Now, he’s the starter.
And, considering the circumstances, handling the transition fairly well for a true freshman.
“He’s impressed some people with his knowledge of the offense, some of the decision-making,” Cavanaugh said. “As each week goes by and another opportunity to be on the field and get snaps, he’s going to get better.”
What has impressed Cavanaugh most is Bostick’s grasp of the game. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt noted that his quarterback is a “grinder,” a film junkie who shows up with a cup of coffee in the early-morning hours before class to watch film and break down the opposition.
“He gets it. He knows what he’s looking at,” Cavanaugh said. “I credit his high school coach. (Manheim Township coach) Mike Melnyk did a great job teaching him football. He doesn’t just come in, put his feet up and quickly go through a game. He analyzes it. He looks at statistics. He then backs it up by going back to the film and seeing if those tendencies hold true. If something’s a little odd, he’ll find it on the tape and take a good look at it.
“He communicates and visualizes very well. One of the characteristics I love in a quarterback is a guy who can visualize when you’re talking to him so you don’t have to stop and draw it up. We can communicate well enough together that we don’t have to waste a lot of time having to draw things on the board. That’s a strength of his right now. He’s very bright about the game of football.
“It’s usually something you’ve got to spend a whole year teaching somebody, how to analyze tape, how to visualize games and talk about what we’re doing versus what they’re doing and have a clear picture in your head when somebody speaks our language about what it means. He does a nice job with that.”
The big question is, how quickly has Bostick been able to translate what he sees in film onto the field?
“Very quickly,” Cavanaugh said. “Some guys are great in the classroom but when the ball is snapped, they can’t put it all together. I credit his high school coach, who did a great job explaining how coverages tie into fronts, how pressures tie into fronts and how coverages tie into pressures, all the things it typically would take a guy a year or so to learn, maybe more. He’s got a pretty good grasp on that.”
The numbers support Cavanaugh, as Bostick has completed 45 of 73 passes for 411 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions. Take away his cameo against Grambling State, when Bostick’s first collegiate pass went for an interception, and he has completed 62.5 percent of his passes over six quarters.
“He’s learned an awful lot the last two weeks, particularly last week,” Wannstedt said. “Playing in front of his home crowd will definitely help. We’re not going to have to be in silent snap counts, doing things at the line of scrimmage, doing checks and double checks to make sure everybody hears what’s going on out there – all the things you have to do when you’re on the road – he’ll be much improved. We’ve got a couple extra days to prepare, so we’re going to have extra practice, which we’ll need.
“I think there’s two or three reasons to believe Pat will go out and take a step forward.”
• If there is one area where Bostick’s inexperience has shown, just like redshirt freshman Kevan Smith before him, it’s at the line of scrimmage. The Panthers have had trouble either hearing or remembering the snap count, causing a multitude of costly pre-snap penalties.
Some of that responsibility is on the quarterback, especially when his cadence is off while trying to read the defense and make checks. Some of it is on the offensive line, which has continued to draw penalties despite the coaching staff’s adjustments to silent counts or first sound.
“I think it’s a combination,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s certainly some that were credited to Pat, when his cadence was off a little bit. Twice we jumped when we were going on the first sound. I’m not sure what people heard, but Pat’s voice should be pretty distinct to them. He hadn’t made a sound and we moved.
“We came back and said, ‘To heck with that. We’re going on a longer snap count.’ The first word out of his mouth, somebody jumped. I think it’s a combination of maybe him sounding a little bit different but just a lack of focus and not breaking the huddle being sure what the snap count is. That’s our fault as coaches. We’ve got to put an end to that. If a guy’s a repeat offender, he’s going to have to come off the field.”
Wannstedt blamed the pre-snap penalties on “inexperience,” but wasn’t specific whether that was the fault of a freshman quarterback or the front five.
“Guys just get a little bit anxious. Believe it or not, guys try too hard. Everybody wants to think if a guy jumps off-sides, he’s undisciplined or not paying attention or unfocused,” Wannstedt said. “In some cases, that’s true. In some cases, the guy is just wanting to go block his guy so bad that he jumps a little bit. Is the penalty just as bad. The reason doesn’t make any difference, but there are some of those reasons that those kid get in there and make some mistakes.”
• Considering the way they played against Virginia, Cavanaugh has less to worry about with the true freshman backfield of Bostick and tailback LeSean McCoy.
Bostick was 18 of 31 for 181 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while McCoy led the Panthers in rushing for the fifth consecutive game with 86 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
“It was nervousness to start with, and I’m started to get excited about it,” Cavanaugh said. “I trust both of them. They both work real hard at what they’re trying to get done. They have great effort in the classroom, great effort on the field and that’s encouraging for guys who are freshmen.
“I know we’re going to take our lumps at some point, but we’ve got some guys who are kind of leading by example right now and probably are a little too unwilling to be vocal as freshmen, but they’re setting good examples both in the classroom and on the field.”
• Wannstedt emphasized that, against Navy, every offensive possession counts. In fact, he’s talked more about Pitt’s need to play well offensively than he has about defending Navy’s triple-option attack.
“You need to make sure that, offensively, you do not waste a possession,” Wannstedt said. “You can’t go backwards and lose a possession because of a penalty, because of a turnover. You can’t go backwards because of a sack. You need to be very, very efficient on offense this week in order to win this football game.”
Cavanaugh said he watched Navy in victories against Duke (46-43) and Temple (30-19) and was amazed that in one of the games, the Middies’ first possession extended into the second quarter.
There’s no margin for error in play-calling.
“I went back and looked and whoever it was had a long opening drive, then Navy had a long opening drive and the quarter was over,” Cavanaugh said. “So they had one possession in the first quarter. They’re capable of doing that on their side of the ball, I’d imagine, so I think it’s imperative that we’re not a bunch of three-and-outs and putting the ball back in their hands because they can control the clock and give you a limited opportunity. Ours have to count and it would be ideal if we’re taking most of the time off the clock and getting points off it.”
Cavanaugh said he likes to script the first 15 plays – what he calls “openers” – but that game plan can change when penalties give the Panthers unforgivable down-and-distances with poor field position while facing deficits.
“We’ve had to come off that script a little too often,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re finding ourselves in second-and-long. I may have had a draw play called and we’re in second-and-26. Something’s changed where we’ve been off-script a little bit. That’s our fault as a unit and we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
• Navy’s offense averages 348.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the NCAA behind only Arkansas (358.8) after leading the country in 2005-06.
The Midshipmen have seven rushers with 100 or more yards and five with 200 or more yards. Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is the team’s leading rusher with 414 yards and seven touchdowns on 73 carries, while 233-pound fullback Eric Kettani has 318 on 51 carries.
Pitt, by comparison, has two rushers with 100 or more yards. Although LeSean McCoy has more yards (503) than any Navy player, LaRod Stephens-Howling’s 127 would rank eighth in rushing for the Midshipmen.
Stopping the triple-option will be a challenge.
“We have spent a lot of time with the execution part of it,” Wannstedt said. “Because it’s an option team, it’s real critical to not just run plays but to keep the proper distance between the quarterback and the pitch back and the fullback.”
• It’s not as if Navy doesn’t pass the ball, however. Kaheaku-Enhada has completed 26 of 49 passes (53 percent) for 460 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions, an average of 17.7 yards per completion.
“You’ve got to be real careful that you don’t over commit because they will throw the ball,” Wannstedt said. “When they throw the ball, they come up with big pass plays. Guys are usually open; it’s just a matter of if they hit them or not.”
Given that Kaheaku-Enhada has thrown an interception once every 12.3 attempts, it would be in Pitt’s best interest to get an early lead and force the Midshipmen to throw it. Then again, given Pitt’s inability to force turnovers the past three games, that’s no sure bet.
• The other unique thing about Navy’s offensive scheme is that its linemen cut block across the line of scrimmage on every play. Wannstedt had an interesting solution to preparing for that dilemma.
“We had our defensive linemen wear shin guards,” Wannstedt said. “We had the (scout team) offensive linemen cutting our players full speed in practice. We had two cases that were close to me standing here saying, ‘We’ve got two more guys redshirting.’ But there’s no way of getting ready for this without doing it live and without doing it full speed. We’re going to do that all along.”
Wannstedt compared Pitt’s preparation for Navy to his days at the University of Miami, when the Hurricanes had to play against Barry Switzer and Oklahoma’s Wishbone.
“We played them in a couple national championship games, and we went full speed with the scout guys cutting,” Wannstedt said. “You can’t simulate that. And if you don’t do it, it’s tough enough adjusting to that when the game starts, so you have to do some of that in practice.”
• In that sense, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Panthers. Although it appears they had extra time to prepare for Wednesday’s Navy game, Pitt used the early week to rest the players and concentrate on conditioning and waited until Wednesday to practice.
But Wannstedt said the Panthers have been prepping for this game since the summer, and believes the coaching staff has a “real good” game plan.
“Being that it’s different, it takes a little bit more time,” Wannstedt said. “Trying to prepare for this on a short week would be real tough.”
• Wannstedt was asked for a medical update on junior quarterback Bill Stull, sidelined since the season opener after undergoing surgery on his right thumb.
“I wish I could,” Wannstedt said. “He’s doing everything he can. It’s just week to week. He’s just in that rehab process right now.”
The chances of Stull returning this season become less and less with each passing game, especially when Wannstedt gives ominous answers when asked if the Panthers have pegged a date by which he will either return or be redshirted: “We haven’t even talked about that yet.”
• Aside from Stull, Pitt has lost starters in receiver Derek Kinder (knee), right tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder) and defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (knee) to season-ending injuries.
Wannstedt said former starting defensive end Doug Fulmer, who tore the ACL in his right knee in spring drills, “is getting close” to returning. Fulmer, a redshirt sophomore, missed most of last season with a leg injury.
“He’s just not 100 percent with that knee yet,” Wannstedt said. “We could use him, obviously. That’s another starter nobody even talks about.”
• Another player who has returned from injury is redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jared Martin, who was sidelined by shoulder surgery in spring drills.
“Jared Martin will be out here and do everything,” Wannstedt said. “That’s progress, just getting another offensive lineman out here with Pinkston being out.”