Not that Dave Wannstedt is beating his chest after three consecutive losses, but the Pitt coach believes the best solution to end its poor play is to rely upon a defense that ranks among the nation’s best statistically.
Panthers (2-3) will need their best defense to have a chance against Navy (3-2), which boasts a triple-option offense that leads the nation in rushing at 348.4 yards per game, when they play at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Heinz Field before an ESPN national television audience.
“It probably doesn’t show up in wins and losses, but … we’re still in the top 10 in the country in total defense and when you look at the last three games, you say ‘Well, how can that be?'” Wannstedt said. “Obviously, we’re doing some real good things on defense, but you don’t get a chance to stand up here and talk about them when you don’t get the win.”
After a strong showing at Michigan State, the Panthers have been left speechless by lopsided losses to Connecticut and Virginia.
Pitt’s defensive statistics this fall can be misleading, considering it has allowed 57 of its 78 points in the first half the past two games as its opponents cruised to victory.
Granted, Pitt’s aptitude for turning the ball over has given its opposition prime field position. Both Connecticut and Virginia took advantage to score in the game’s first two minutes, the Huskies using an interception return to Pitt’s 6 to set up their first touchdown and the Cavaliers recovering an onside kick with a 10-yard penalty to start at Pitt’s 39.
“That’s no excuse,” sophomore cornerback Aaron Berry said. “You still have to keep them out of our end zone, hold them to three points. I feel we’re a great defense and we’re going to keep our heads up the rest of the season.”
Stopping the run has been Pitt’s Achilles’ heel the past two seasons, as the Panthers have allowed an average of 225.8 yards rushing in their past eight losses. Only three teams eclipsed the 200-yard mark – all last season — as West Virginia ran for 437 on 47 attempts, Connecticut for 317 on 62 attempts and Rutgers 268 on 48 attempts.
No one runs for more yards than the Midshipmen, who average 5.8 yards per carry and have seven players with 100 or more rushing yards this season. Led by junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who has a team-high 414 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 73 carries (5.7 yards per), the Midshipmen are capable of long, methodical drives that take considerable time off the clock.
“They’re going to make first downs and they’re going to move the ball,” Wannstedt said. “You don’t want to give up the big play. They’re going to have an eight-minute drive and that is a win for us. If they can keep the ball for eight minutes and run 15 plays, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world. That’s how you defeat this offense, you make them earn every yard and eliminate the big plays.”
Navy also completes a high percentage of plays on third (49 percent) and fourth downs (75 percent), which will repeatedly test the fortitude of Pitt’s front four.
“They’ll go for it on fourth-down more than anybody that I’ve ever seen,” Wannstedt said. “When they get to midfield and on, they are going for it on fourth down. They put a lot of pressure on your defense. On the other side of that coin, when you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it.”
• Pitt’s top-10 defense will be tested against Navy’s triple-option offense, which leads the nation in rushing. Here is a comparison of where the teams rank nationally, according to yards per game statistics:
|Pitt defense||Navy offense|
|110.0 (27th)||Rushing||348.4 (1st)|
|157.4 (5th)||Passing||98.4 (119th)|
|268.4 (9th)||Total||446.8 (26th)|
|96.91 (10th)||Pass eff.||131.3 (51st)|
|33.3% (20th)||4th-down eff.||75% (10th)|
• The 10-day layoff between Pitt’s loss at Virginia and Wednesday’s game against Navy couldn’t have come at a better time. It allowed the Panthers, who have lost three consecutive games and are breaking in true freshman Pat Bostick at quarterback, time to regroup.
“The extra days that we have had to prepare for Navy have come at a good time, for a couple of reasons,” Wannstedt said. “With Pat (Bostick) at quarterback, it has given him a few extra days of practice and preparation which was needed.
“The other thing, more importantly, is that it gave our defensive coaches and players a chance to zero in on a defensive game plane to defend Navy’s offensive attack, which is different from a schematic standpoint. It is also different in the techniques that they use.
“It has been an interesting week and I think our defensive coaches have done a great job of coming up with some ideas and some different things in practice to give our kids a chance to get as true a picture as you possibly can when you have a scout team running the offense. The game gives us a chance to be prepared as we can be.”
• Playing Navy before a national audience on ESPN will give Pitt a chance to showcase its program while honoring a pair of former Panthers greats.
“I know that our guys are looking forward to getting out there in front of a national audience,” Wannstedt said. “We have a lot of good things going on here, as everyone is aware of with Tony (Dorsett) coming back and Curtis Martin coming into town. It will be an exciting night for our players; they are looking forward to it. We will be ready to go.”
Pitt will pay tribute at halftime to Martin, an Allderdice graduate who rushed for 2,643 career yards at Pitt from 1991-94 and recently retired as the NFL’s No. 4 all-time rusher with 14,101 yards.
In 12 seasons split between the New England Patriots and New York Jets, Martin scored 90 rushing touchdowns and was named to five Pro Bowls. Martin was a first-team All-Big East running back in ’93, when he rushed for 1,075 yards, and set a Big East single-game record with 251 against Texas in the ’94 season opener.
A pair of former Heisman Trophy winners and Super Bowl champions as teammates with the Dallas Cowboys, Dorsett and former Navy quarterback Roger Staubach will serve as the game’s honorary captains.
Staubach won the 1963 Heisman Trophy after leading Navy to a No. 2 national ranking and 9-2 record that included a 24-12 victory over Pitt in Annapolis. It was the only loss of the season for Pitt, which finished 9-1.
Dorsett won the Heisman in ’76, when he led Pitt to the national championship. He broke the NCAA rushing mark on a 32-yard touchdown run in a 45-0 victory over Navy, and finished with 6,082 yards.
Staubach and Dorsett played in two Super Bowls together, leading the Cowboys to a 27-10 victory over Denver in Super Bowl XII and losing to the Steelers, 35-31, in Super Bowl XIII. Both are in the Hall of Fame at the collegiate and professional levels.
Another former Pitt star, former Outland Trophy winner Mark May, will work the in the broadcast crew as color analyst alongside Rece Davis (play by play), Lou Holtz (color) and Quint Kessenich (sideline).
“I think that’s part of it. I talked to the kids this week and that’s why they all came here, to be on TV and get out there and show what you can do,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got that chance this week and we just have to go out and do it. The guys are excited about it. And we’ve got Tony (Dorsett) coming in and Curtis Martin coming in and Mark May and Lou Holtz broadcasting the game, so that’s all part of that ‘college experience’ that the kids talk about and look forward to. That’s something, along with our tradition, that we sell. Now we’ve got an opportunity, what are we going to do with it?”
• Navy employs a 3-4 defense, but uses multiple formations and frequently switches its coverage. Even so, the Midshipmen are susceptible to the pass. They are allowing 281.4 passing yards a game, and opponents are averaging 31.4 points and 453.6 yards a game.
“They have given up some plays against the pass,” Wannstedt said. “I think if we’re going to make improvement as an offensive football team we have to go back to being balanced, where we were in training camp and the first half of against Eastern Michigan. We’ve only really played one half where we’ve been in a situation to do what we believe in and what we’d like to do from an offensive standpoint.
“Navy is going to put some points on the board. They are going to move the football and it is important that our offense plays very efficient football. When we get opportunities to put points on the board we have to do it this week. We cannot settle for field goals. We can’t have a penalty to move us back and have to overcome that. We can’t turn the ball over and give them an extra possession.
“We have to be balanced, and that’s nothing different than what we’ve been trying to do around here for the last couple years. The last few weeks we haven’t been able to do that because we’ve been rotating quarterbacks and trying to get these kids a chance to function.”
• Wannstedt anticipates a high-scoring game, which means the Panthers will be forced to place some trust in Pat Bostick to pass the ball.
“We need to take a step forward,” Wannstedt said. “In order for us to win this game, we’re going to have to score 28 points, and we’re not going to do that totally on the ground. We’re going to come out of this game balanced and mix it up. Pat has had some very good practices. I believe he is into it and understands what we’re doing. He’s looking forward to the opportunity.”
• Wannstedt called the offensive line a “work in progress,” noting that sophomore Joe Thomas and redshirt sophomore John Bachman have been rotating at right guard and redshirt junior Chase Clowser is the “swing” tackle (he can backup both the left and right side).
Wannstedt raved about Dom Williams during training camp, but hasn’t mentioned the redshirt junior guard since. Instead, Wannstedt talked about possibly playing true freshmen Jordan Gibbs at tackle and John Fieger at guard.
“If they have to play, we’re going to play them,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to win the games. Hopefully, I’ll be standing up here after the Navy game saying, ‘Oh, we came together as an offensive unit.’ Well what made us come together? If we go out win the game, then all of a sudden you come together. That’s how that works.”
• Wannstedt said that, other than losing right tackle Jason Pinkston for the season to shoulder surgery, “nothing has changed” regarding the team’s health.
Wannstedt said left guard C.J. Davis is “OK,” noting that he has practiced “every day.”
There is “nothing new” on the status of junior quarterback Bill Stull, who had the cast removed from his right thumb but isn’t ready to return any time soon.
“They have him out there with the Nerf balls to increase his strength and flexibility,” Wannstedt said, “but it’s just a week-to-week thing.”
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Doug Fulmer, who has been out since spring drills with a knee injury, is “getting closer” to returning.
“There’s not a definite date yet, but the target date was the end of October,” Wannstedt said. “So we’re hoping to get him back for the last four games or so, which will be good because he’s already used up his redshirt. There’s no advantage to saving him.”
• Pitt won the coin toss against Virginia but elected to defer, then attempted an ill-fated onside kick that drew a 10-yard penalty and gave the Cavaliers the ball at Pitt’s 39.
Wannstedt realizes the importance of getting a lead against a team like Navy, which can control the clock by running the ball.
“It would be great from a confidence standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “Forget about how it affects our defense and how it affects them. From a confidence standpoint, to be able to drive the ball down the field and put it in the end zone is something that we need desperately.”
• Despite suffering three consecutive losses, Wannstedt likes how his young players have responded.
“LeSean McCoy and Pat Bostick, if they were in here right now, you’d think we were 6-0, from just an excitement standpoint and how badly they want to play,” Wannstedt said. “That’s good. They should be that way.”
Bostick hasn’t been made available for interviews since returning to the team Aug. 14 after going home to Lancaster to deal with “personal issues.”
• Wannstedt once again talked about his senior leadership, a recurring theme the past two seasons. For whatever reason, he has been extremely loyal to the Walt Harris leftovers even though he didn’t recruit them.
“I think the guys that take it the hardest are the upperclassmen, the seniors,” Wannstedt said. “We have a small group of seniors, but (defensive ends) Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop probably played their best games last week. Those guys played lights out.
“(Safety) Mike Phillips is having a good year and (offensive linemen) Jeff Otah, Chris Vangas and Mike McGlynn are the other seniors that are in the mix. We don’t have too many of them, but they are great kids and they’ve worked as hard as anybody out there everyday. You look at your leaders and see what these kids are about and that’s usually a reflection of how your guys are going to respond.”