For the first time this season – and, perhaps, since the middle of the 2006 campaign – Pitt put together a game where all three phases performed well. The 42-21 victory over Navy Saturday afternoon was impressive in itself, and it could have been better.
The offense rolled up season highs of 244 yards rushing and 499 yards total offense, as tailback LeSean McCoy rushed for a season-high 156 yards on 18 carries (8.7 yards per) and receiver Jonathan Baldwin produced his first career 100-yard game.
The defense held Navy to its lowest rushing total in two seasons, 194 yards on 47 carries. The Midshipmen didn’t have a 100-yard rusher, their fullback finished with 13 yards and their only consequential scoring drive was six plays for 63 yards.
Pitt had more first downs (22-12), controlled the clock (33 minutes to 27:00) and had fewer penalty yards (37-30) and punts (one) than Navy (three). The Panthers essentially dominated every phase of the game, winning by their largest margin since a 52-7 victory over Central Florida on Oct. 13, 2006.
“It was probably the first game all year that I felt like we were really hitting on all cylinders, as far as offense, defense and special teams,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “I thought that all three phases contributed.”
And it could have been worse for Navy.
If not for a Bill Stull interception on a third-and-5 at the Navy 13 that was returned 91 yards to the Pitt 8 and set up Jarod Bryant’s touchdown run in the second quarter, the score could have been 49-14. If not for Stull’s interception at the Navy 30 and a last-minute touchdown drive directed by backup quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for a 4-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left, it could have been 56-7.
Not to be greedy.
But it was as impressive of a victory as the Panthers have had since they ran off victories of 51-6 against The Citadel, 45-3 against Toledo and 52-7 against UCF to start 6-1 in ’06. Of course, we know how that season ended, with five consecutive losses. But Pitt appears to be getting better, even as the competition improves.
That pleased Wannstedt.
“Offensively, when we’re holding the ball for 20 minutes and they only have it for 10 at halftime, you’re doing some good things,” Wannstedt said. “Defensively, we gave up that one big play on the opening drive. It was the timing of the speed, a couple guys got chopped pretty good but they executed it well. I thought our coaches made real good adjustments at halftime on both sides of the ball. I’ll tell you what; the kids never lost their energy. That’s what was exciting to me. Coming off the bye week and playing against this team here, I thought our guys played with energy from the opening gun.”
* What gets me is that Pitt has its most dominant win of the season, and Panthers fans are consumed with two things. One is why the coaches ordained Pat Bostick as the backup quarterback (after starting eight games last season) and burned his redshirt by having him hand off three times on one series and take a knee in victory formation on another in the final quarter. The other is why strong safety Elijah Fields, also ordained a backup instead of a co-starter, did not make an appearance, even in mop-up time.
For the record, here is Wannstedt’s explanation:
On Bostick: “We’re trying to win. He’s our backup quarterback right now. If something happens to Billy, he’s got to go in and play so we wanted to get him a little bit of playing time.”
When asked directly if Wannstedt wanted to preserve another year of eligibility for Bostick, he answered tersely. “No.”
On Fields: “He wasn’t going to start. We got down toward the end of the game … He’ll be back next week strong. Next week, we’ll have him in nickel and bandit (packages). He’ll be on the field a lot, like he was at South Florida. That’s what’s tough. We’d like to play everybody every week and it just doesn’t work out that way. Some guys, we think, fit a little bit more than other weeks.”
It’s easy to look at both of these situations from a long-term viewpoint. Bostick lost his chance to redshirt and preserve a year of eligibility. Fields took a backseat to sophomore Dom DeCicco, who has since been declared the starter.
I intend to address both issues in greater detail with either stories or blog updates this week, but one thing is abundantly clear: Pitt is acting as if everything is at stake – its season, a bowl berth, the Big East Conference championship and even a BCS bowl – and playing to win every game. It’s not putting any individual concerns over that of the team, which is a strong statement in the short term but a potentially dangerous one overall.
While burning Bostick’s redshirt could prove costly down the road, either to him or to Pitt, the main message sent was that Pitt’s coaches don’t trust redshirt sophomore Kevan Smith enough to make him the backup when they had an opportunity to sit Bostick. At this point, neither Bostick nor Smith looks like the long-term answer.
* The real story was that LeSean McCoy cracked the top 10 of Pitt’s all-time rushing leaders on the same field where Tony Dorsett broke the NCAA’s career rushing record, which Wannstedt witnessed as an assistant coach in 1976 and shared with his players at a team meeting on Thursday night.
“They laughed at me,” Wannstedt said.
McCoy, however, paid attention.
“He was aware of that,” Wannstedt said, “and that was neat.”
McCoy rushed for 128 yards in the first half — which bested the 124.5 Navy was only allowing this season – and only had four carries for 28 yards in the third quarter. Dorsett, by the way, rushed for 180 yards against Navy on Oct. 23, 1976. They have been linked since McCoy broke Dorsett’s freshman touchdown record last season, and McCoy took delight in sharing another moment with Dorsett.
“It’s pretty cool,” McCoy said. “I didn’t look into it that much. Coach was reminding me all week that this was where he broke the record. I mean, he’s Mr. Dorsett, a great back in the college and the pros. It’s pretty cool to know he’s from my college. I try to represent him and keep that running back thing going on in Pittsburgh.”
Although McCoy has played only 18 games – starting 15 – he is now 10th on Pitt’s all-time rushing leaders with 2,017 yards. He passed Joe McCall, who had 1,978 yards from 1980-83, and needs 3 yards to pass Charles Gladman, who played from 1984-86.
That McCoy scored three touchdowns against Navy tied his career high for a single game. He also had three trips to the end zone against Grambling, Navy and South Florida in 2007 and against Buffalo this year. McCoy now has 24 career touchdowns, including 10 rushing this season. That’s as many as Dorsett had through his first two seasons.
McCoy’s big day distanced Pitt from the distractions of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where there are constant reminders that the U.S. Naval Academy isn’t your ordinary Division I-A football program.
As one colleague mentioned to me, imagine another Division I-A coach taking Navy’s talent and playing the same schedule. Very few would produce winning seasons the way the Midshipmen have this decade. Navy’s discipline and fearlessness is evident on every snap, even when the Midshipmen are outmatched man-for-man.
“The good thing is coach played here and was telling us stories of how that can be a distraction,” McCoy said. “It was different because the fans were so nice to us. We’re not used to that. They were so respectful. We were playing to overlook that. Our main goal was to come out of here with a win, don’t let the distractions get to us.”
* Pitt had three turnovers to Navy’s two, leaving the Panthers with a minus-4 turnover margin this season. It was the third game this season in which Pitt lost the turnover battle. The Panthers have won the past two of those games, beating South Florida and Navy after losing the opener to Bowling Green.
That’s not to say Wannstedt’s overemphasis on turnovers is a moot point – Pitt won’t fare as well in the Big East if it doesn’t protect the ball – but that turnovers can be overcome. To me, the timing is the most important aspect of turnovers. Jabaal Sheard’s sack and strip of Bryant and Gus Mustakas’ recovery at the Navy 17 set up a scoring drive that gave the Panthers a two-touchdown advantage against a run-oriented team.
That helped offset Stull’s first interception. Had Pitt instead been leading, 14-7, Bryant’s 8-yard run would have tied the game. Pitt had a 21-point lead by the time Navy’s Nate Frazier intercepted a tipped pass in the third quarter. Pitt was leading, 42-14, when fullback Conredge Collins lost a fumble in the fourth quarter.
* Speaking of head-scratchers, you have to wonder why Collins was taking carries at tailback instead of redshirt freshman Shariff Harris in the fourth quarter. The Navy game would have been a perfect time to give Harris an opportunity to run the ball in a no-pressure situation, especially with LaRod Stephens-Howling graduating after this season and McCoy possibly jumping to the NFL.
* Add Navy players and coaches to those impressed by McCoy and Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop, at least by their post-game commentary:
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo: “Their two stars played well. We had a hard time blocking McKillop on offense and a hard time tackling McCoy on defense.”
Navy slot back Shun White: “Their linebacker was all over the place. We couldn’t get a body on him.”
* Finally, a special thanks to Mark Tallarico and Alissa Repanshek of the Chesapeake/Potomac Pitt Club chapter for their hospitality at the Pitt Alumni Association tailgate in a tent outside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Their chapter drew 1,150 Panthers fans and raised $3,000 in local scholarships for two high school students from the Washington, D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia area, a number Pitt matches, Tallarico said.
“This is the biggest event we’ve had,” Tallarico said, “and the PAA said it was their largest alumni event ever. It was huge. We only had 150 for Virginia last year.”
For those interested, the chapter also is selling tickets for the Pitt-Georgetown men’s basketball game Jan. 3 at the Verizon Center. For more information, check out the club’s website, www.pantherclub.org.