When Pitt opens the season on Saturday, several Panthers will be making much-anticipated debuts. Where some fans can’t wait to see the aerial acrobatics of freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin or the fleet feet of quarterback Greg Cross, we here at Sitting Ringside (namely, me) will be watching with great intent how Phil Bennett performs.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt hired the former Southern Methodist coach to replace Paul Rhoads, who left for Auburn after eight seasons as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. Bennett will be tested right away, as Pitt opens against Bowling Green and its spread offense.
One of the reasons Wannstedt turned to an old friend like Bennett instead of candidates with Pitt ties and NFL experience – Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Sal Sunseri and Arizona Cardinals secondary coach Teryl Austin come to mind – was because Bennett had prepared for every imaginable offensive scheme in the college game.
Bennett has his work cut out for him, going against an Urban Meyer protégé in Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon. Then again, Bennett has a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive minds. With nine months to prepare for this game, his Panthers should be ready.
Bennett shared his thoughts on the keys to stopping Bowling Green’s offense with reporters this week:
“They’ve got a nice package,” Bennett said. “I view it as what Navy does. It’s an equalizer, and they’ve got good players. They’ve got a good quarterback, good receivers, skilled running backs. It balances things out for them. The package is dictated by what you do. They have taught it well.”
Bowling Green quarterback Tyler Sheehan passed for 3,264 yards with 23 touchdowns last season, his first as a starter. The Falcons moved Anthony Turner from quarterback to running back, and he ran for a team-best 519 yards and nine touchdowns. Freddie Barnes leads a talented receiver corps that returns starters Corey Partridge and Marques Parks.
Look for the Falcons to operate out of a lot of different sets.
“They’re a four-wide team, a three-wide with two backs, a two-tight end with a back and out of those three personnel groupings, they’ll line up the same way,” Bennett said. “They’ll go empty in all of them. They’ll go three-by-one, two-by-two. The best word is they’re ‘very multiple.’ What makes their package similar to a lot of people in the run-and-shoot – we ran this at SMU – is they do all the same things in the same package, so their protections don’t change. It makes it easier for the linemen.”
Bowling Green also employs a no-huddle offense, which can be confusing because the plays can come from either the offensive coordinator or the quarterback and will determine if it’s a run or pass play, depending on how the Panthers are aligned.
“Most of the time, they’ll look at what they’re doing and they’ll get into a formation and they’ll get a play from the press box. We call it ‘blackjack.’ When they want to change the tempo, you’ll see No. 13 (Sheehan) come to the line and he calls it. They call that ‘Indy’ tempo,” Bennett said. “It’s hard to prepare for. It’s a little bit like the option, with the speed of it. You’ve got to really get your calls in and you’ve got to get set.”
Bowling Green’s starting tailback, sophomore Willie Geter, has been suspended for the game. So it’s hard to imagine the Falcons being as effective in the run game. But they could use Turner there, just as they could line him up at quarterback and receiver. The key will be to identify him on every play and make sure that he is constantly covered.
The extra preparation time has allowed Pitt to install some special packages specifically for this game. Pitt led the Big East and ranked third nationally against the pass last season, and should be better because of a fearsome front four and an athletic secondary.
“The passing game is about distribution,” Bennett said. “There’s five eligible receivers and, if you don’t blitz, there’s seven defenders. We’ve got to get the right distribution down.”
* As for Baldwin’s long-awaited debut, his contributions could be significant or minimal, depending on who you ask.
Baldwin has remained humble, downplaying any comparisons to Pitt freshmen stars of the past, whether it’s Larry Fitzgerald or LeSean McCoy. That doesn’t surprise Wannstedt, who sees the shy side of Baldwin.
“I think he’s different,” Wannstedt said. “The personality Jonathan is displaying right now is what he consistently has been since I’ve known him. I can remember when he came to our camp when he was a junior and we were talking, and I remember him leaving and saying, ‘Geez, this guy is an impressive person.’ Then you put the ability on top of it, and there’s great potential there. How much he plays, I don’t know, and I told him that. I said, ‘We’re going to try to get you in, expect to get you in but I don’t know when or how or what. We’ll just play that by ear.'”
But McCoy heaped heavy praise on Baldwin.
“God has blessed him with great size and great ability,” McCoy said. “The kid is 6-6, is put together, jumps a 40-inch vertical, makes catches out of this world. I think he’ll have a better year than I did as a freshman.
“Coach is going to give him an opportunity. Coach Wannstedt, you show him you can play, he’s going to give you a shot. With Jonathan, I’m very confident – and so is the team – in his ability. Don’t be surprised if he winds up being the No. 1 guy, the go-to guy.”
Wannstedt, however, tempered those expectations by reminding everyone that Baldwin is the backup at split end behind redshirt junior Oderick Turner and will likely be used in spot situations.
“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to go out there and try to win this game,” Wannstedt said. “I do have confidence in him. Right now, he’s playing behind Oderick. He’s close to being ready. There’s certain things he does pretty well right now and that’s the list we’ll be picking from when he goes in the game.”
* Redshirt junior quarterback Bill Stull isn’t making his debut – he started against Eastern Michigan in the opener last year – but he will be trying to finish a game he started for the first time in his college career. Wannstedt believes the Panthers are fully behind Stull.
“I think Billy’s got the personality, the work ethic and he’s played well and practiced well,” Wannstedt said. “The reasons that players on our team have total confidence in him as the starting quarterback (are) because of what he’s done, not because I’m standing up there telling everybody that he’s the starting quarterback. I think there’s a difference. It’s real.”
* McCoy said Wednesday that Wannstedt hasn’t pulled anything out of his motivational bag of tricks just yet, but it’s evident that he has warned the Panthers of overlooking their opening opponent.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a while, since that West Virginia win gave us that spark,” McCoy said of the 13-9 victory in the 100th Backyard Brawl. “We’re ready. Coach Wannstedt has done a great job just getting us focused. We saw the game with Appalachian State at Michigan (last year), so we’re not overlooking anybody.”
* Center Robb Houser, a junior-college transfer, is eagerly anticipating playing in his first major-college football game.
Houser grew up in small-town Chico (Calif.), where he played high School and college football before small crowds. How small? Houser said the announced attendance of 7,549 for Pitt’s Blue-Gold spring scrimmage at Heinz Field was the largest crowd he’s played before.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Houser said. “My high school was really small, and we had more people come to our (Pitt) practices than we had (attending) games at my junior college.”
Houser was nervous before Pitt’s first scrimmage during training camp and bobbled a snap and mistimed a few calls before settling down. It will be interesting to see how he handles playing before a crowd of 40,000-plus. He promises to be focused strictly on the game once the ball is snapped.
“Running out on the field will be exciting, but come game time I’m going to see 11 defenders,” Houser said. “That’s all I see.”
* A couple of interesting items from Bowling Green:
* Brandon called McCoy a “premier running back, one of the best in the nation” but was even more effusive in his praise of Pitt’s defensive line, which should be the major difference in this game.
“Their front seven will probably be better than anybody we face all year,” Brandon said. “Their two inside guys are like fire hydrants, tough to move in there. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our kids.”
Without hesitation, he added, “and they’re ready for it.”
* Bowling Green’s top defensive player is senior Diyral Briggs, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound end who was named first-team All-Mid-American Conference after recording 54 tackles, including seven for loss, five sacks, four quarterback hurries and two pass breakups last season.
“Diyral is a very explosive pass-rusher, quick off the edge, a little light by big-time standards but makes up for it with great athleticism,” Brandon said. “When his motor’s going, he’s tough to stop. When we played Temple last year, coach (Al) Golden remarked to me, ‘He’s back?’ To me, that’s the mark of a good player, when the opponent, it catches their eye. It’s certainly that way with LeSean Mccoy for us.”
* Bennett isn’t the only one stressing turnovers.
Bowling Green was a minus-5 in turnover margin last season, and Brandon said the Falcons won the eight games where they led the turnover ratio and lost the five when they didn’t.
“We’ve got to take care of the football,” Brandon said. “That’s a cut and dried stat. If you can overcome turnovers, that’s great. But against better people, on paper, that’s one thing you’ve really got to stress.”
* Speaking of turnovers, Stull has yet to throw an interception in a college game. But the last time he shared a field with one Bowling Green fifth-year senior, Stull threw four picks.
Marques Parks was responsible for three of those interceptions, returning one 62 yards for a touchdown, in South Fayette’s 25-14 victory over Seton-La Salle in a Century Conference game in 2003.
No worries, Pitt fans. Parks starts at receiver for the Falcons.
“It was a game I will always remember, one Bill Stull will try to forget about this week,” Parks said earlier this week. “They got the best of my high school when he was a senior, so he got his revenge.”
Stull opened the 2004 season by completing 18 of 28 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-0 victory over South Fayette at Heinz Field. Stull later completed 19 of 35 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-35 victory over Aliquippa in the WPIAL Class AA championship, believed to be a WPIAL finals-record.
By my count – those two high school games, plus cameo appearances against The Citadel and Toledo in 2006 and two-plus quarters against Eastern Michigan last year – Stull has completed 55 of 89 passes (61.8 percent) for 889 yards and nine TDs in five games at Heinz Field.