Trev Alberts might be best to provide insight into Navy’s triple-option offense. Not only did Alberts play linebacker at Nebraska in the early 1990s, when the Cornhuskers were running the I-option, but he has called two Midshipmen games this season as an analyst for CBS College Sports Network. The Pitt-Navy game will make it three.
Alberts believes the first play of the game will be a great indication of how the Panthers will fare. If the Midshipmen see the Panthers overplaying the option and pressing the line with their cornerbacks, they’ll attempt a deep pass. Last year, Navy did just that, throwing a 49-yarder to O.J. Washington on their first play to the Pitt 28. Then it ran for gains of 17, 6, 1 and 4 for a touchdown and 7-0 lead.
If not, Navy will run a fullback dive with 6-foot-1, 243-pound Eric Kettani.
“If you start with the fullback getting stuffed, you’re OK defensively,” Alberts said. “Watch the first quarter, it will be telling. If Eric Kettani is getting 5 yards, it doesn’t look good. Adjustments have to happen, and that’s where it gets going.”
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt cautioned that when opponents take away one facet of Navy’s offense, the Midshipmen simply turn the page of the playbook and use something else. The confusing part, Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said, is that the Midshipmen can run all of their plays with the same personnel and out of seven formations, although four of them are unbalanced formations.
“That’s why Navy does what it does. It’s been doing what it does for so long that it has seen every imaginable variation,” Alberts said. “The difference is from an athletic standpoint. Pittsburgh’s defensive line has played very well, especially against USF.
“Half the battle is walking on the field and seeing wing backs who are 5-7, 175, and not saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But this seems to be a veteran defensive team with great character.”
Alberts is familiar with Bennett – both are former Big Eight guys – and has a great deal of respect for him. Alberts believes Bennett’s background with the Wishbone and other forms of the option gives him an advantage, and that the Panthers have now bought into Bennett’s coaching after their success in the 26-21 victory at USF on Oct. 2.
The main factor, however, is the health of Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who has been sidelined at times this season with a hamstring injury.
“Kaipo is still doubtful,” Alberts said. “If he does play, he’s still not 100 percent healthy. They’re not strictly an option team with Bryant. But Kaipo’s got a real ability to get to the outside. Once he does that, he can make things happen.”
Alberts is looking forward to the game, expecting it to be another good one.
“I’m so excited,” Alberts said. “I think it’s going to be one heck of a football game. I think we’re in for dandy.”
* Alberts weighed in with some other Pitt-Navy thoughts:
* On Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop: “I think Pitt has a huge advantage having a guy like Scott McKillop roaming the field. I’m really impressed with his football intelligence. When you combine his natural athleticism with football intelligence, you can understand why he’s a special player.
“What catches my eye is this, and any linebacker will tell you this, any linebacker can go out and have 10 tackles. The difference between good players and great players is consistency. That’s what Scott McKillop has. He’s dependable, accountable and consistent. Every single game, he’s making crucial stops. That’s what a defensive leader does.”
* On Pitt tailback LeSean McCoy: “Really impressed with him. I think he was challenged a little bit. The fumbles are a concern. I know Navy will be trying to strip the football. He’ll need to make sure he protects the rock. I think he’s that type of guy willing to stick his nose in there, especially the last two weeks.
“Sometimes when you’re a big-time back and have all of this ability, learning a little patience isn’t a bad thing. He’s a terrific back, he really is. He’s got it all – power, he’s elusive, has a great attitude, he’s humble – and sounds like a great teammate.
“That, to me, is what Pittsburgh is all about.”
* On Pitt quarterback Bill Stull: “If you look at all teams in college that are contenders or good teams, all of them have good quarterback play, veteran quarterback play. Rutgers is struggling because Mike Teel is struggling, West Virginia because Pat White has been injured. There were all these expectations. The problem is, because Stull was out all last year, he was a rookie at the start of the year. You saw him against USF, saw him settling in. It doesn’t matter how good of a running back you have. If you can’t complete some passes on third down, you can’t do anything. I think (Pitt’s success) is up to the development of the quarterback. I hate to put pressure on the kid, but quarterback play at the college level is crucial.”
* Finally, on Pitt alum Ralph Cindrich, who represented Alberts when he was the fifth pick of the 1994 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts: “I went to Pittsburgh. His folks had a big farm (in Avella), and I grew up essentially on a farm in (Cedar Falls) Iowa. I consider Ralph a dear friend. In a world of unscrupulous agents who take advantage of kids, Ralph is one of the few who is in it for the right reasons. He’s the best. He did great for me. It was a shame I didn’t represent Ralph Cindrich & Co. better.”
I shared with Trev a story I’d heard about one of his visits to Oakland shortly after he was drafted, when he walked into the old Caleco’s and announced that he was a No. 1 pick by the NFL and everybody in the house was drinking on him.
Alberts didn’t remember it so vividly, but he didn’t deny it, either.
* Wannstedt was concerned that the 16-day layoff between the USF victory and the Navy game could be a hindrance to Pitt’s momentum, so he made it a point to have full-contact work in every practice, even during the bye week.
“It’s a strange feeling, it truly is,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to get started fast. That will be the key.”
Wannstedt seemed more worried about the execution and timing of his offense than anything. Perhaps that’s because he knows the Panthers will have to score more than the 25 points they’re averaging this season, considering Navy is averaging 29.2 and hasn’t scored less than 23 points this season.
I asked Wannstedt if there was a certain number Pitt is eyeing for a victory.
“Fifty,” Wannstedt said to laughs. “If we can score 50, I’ll sleep good.”
If Pitt would have scored 50 against Navy last year, it would have won.
* Bennett didn’t take the bait when I asked him this week if there was anything in Pitt’s scheme against Navy last season that was easily identifiable and correctable. The main problem for the Panthers was playing a yard off the line of scrimmage – apparently in effort to avoid cut blocks – instead of punishing the smaller Midshipmen.
“Time will tell, but I think Paul (Rhoads) will tell you he wouldn’t play what he played if he had it to do it over again,” Bennett said of the former Pitt defensive coordinator now at Auburn. “I don’t know the total details, but it was a little bit complicated. I probably played it a lot and, in all honesty, have had some success and have not had some success. It’s still about players. The thing you’ve got to be careful of, you can’t be too complicated.”
Bennett is emphasizing two things: One is to be physical, the other to not key exclusively on the run game, especially if backup Jarod Bryant is at quarterback.
“They dumbed it down for us,” defensive tackle Mick Williams said, “and that makes it a lot easier.”
* Don’t underestimate the importance of the depth and talent on the scout team for this game. The Panthers didn’t simulate Navy with a bunch of walk-ons but rather scholarship players who could probably start for the Midshipmen. And they weren’t necessarily players at their primary position.
Where Tino Sunseri played Matt Grothe in preparation for the USF game, Wannstedt said Pitt used redshirt freshman receiver Aaron Smith at quarterback for the Navy game. Smith played quarterback at Gateway, which ran a read-option offense his senior year. The slot backs were redshirt sophomore Kevin Collier and freshman Chris Burns, while 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Shanahan portrayed deep threat Tyree Barnes.
The most interesting call might have been in simulating fullback Kettani with redshirt freshman tailback Shariff Harris, redshirt freshman linebacker Brandon Lindsey – who played running back at Aliquippa – and 265-pound freshman tight end Mike Cruz.
“All of those kids did a nice job, and the linemen did a nice job with the cut blocks,” Wannstedt said. “I think we got as good of a look from our scout team as we could have hoped for. It’s not what we’re going to see against Navy – we all know that – but under the circumstances it was as good as we could have hoped.”
* I wrote a story earlier this week about Pitt kicker Conor Lee, a former walk-on who shared that he received his first sign of validation that he belonged at the Division-I level in the summer before his sophomore season, when Steelers kicker Jeff Reed paid him an unsolicited compliment. They talk on a regular basis now, and are considered among the best at their position at their respective levels.
“It’s a small thing, but it helped so much,” Lee said. “I was kind of unsure of myself because I had never played before. I was a walk-on and had that mentality that maybe I didn’t deserve to be here. That meant a lot coming from him, that a guy who is that good thinks I’m pretty good at what we do.”
A film fanatic who studies both his own kicks and those of dozens of other kickers, Lee is devoted to constant improvement. Once a slave to superstition, Lee changed his mental approach after missing a 42-yard field goal in the season opener against Bowling Green and didn’t let it linger. He has been perfect in eight attempts since.
“I’m real big selective memory with kicking,” Lee said. “I always try to remember good kicks. When I have a bad kick in practice or warm-ups, I immediately just wipe that feeling out of my head. I watch film and just constantly go through my head what I need to do to make good kicks. When I get on the field, I go through and I’m fine.”
* There was a lot of confusion about how to watch the Pitt-Navy game on Saturday, so I’ll try to clear some things up, courtesy of Dan Sabreen, CBS College Sports Network’s manager of corporate communications. Many thanks to Dan for clearing this up, and for getting Trev Alberts on the phone to lend some insight to the game.
The game will be broadcast on CBS College Sports Network – not KDKA – which is available throughout the Pittsburgh area on Comcast through their Sports Entertainment Package. It is also available to fans across the country through local cable operators and via satellite on Dish Network (America’s Top 200 Package – Channel 152) and DIRECTV (Premier Package and Sports Pack – Channel 613).
The game will also be available online via streaming video through CBS College Sports Network’s Pay-Per-View service. Fans can purchase the game for $14.95 online. (A side note: Pitt fans can watch it for free, however, through Panthers All-Access at online).
The Pitt-Navy game will also be simulcast on the MOJO HD channel, available to Comcast digital customers with HD service throughout Pittsburgh and much of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The game also will be available on the new video board in the front lobby of Petersen Events Center. Admission is free, and the food court will be open.