GAME WEEK: PITT

Some games are just good for the soul. For me, Pitt is one of those games. Like any other BCS school not named Notre Dame, I certainly don’t want to see Navy play them every year; it’s just not a smart thing for a service academy to do. But once in a while, it feels good to see the Mids take on some of their old Eastern Independent rivals like Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College (who knows if we’ll ever see Navy play Penn State again). Pitt has appeared on the Navy schedule off and on since 1912, when the Mids fought back after falling victim to an early goal line stand and came from behind to win, 14-6. Indeed, the Mids and the Panthers have a long history of notable games. In 1963, Pitt was undefeated and ranked #3 in the country when they came to Annapolis to take on the #11 Midshipmen. Four interceptions propelled Navy to a 24-12 win; it would be Pitt’s only loss of the season. Pitt won the national championship in 1976. Along the way, Tony Dorsett became the all-time rushing leader during his 180-yard, 3 TD performance at Navy. A different Pitt running back, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, willed the Panthers to another victory over Navy in a 10-6 slugfest in 1987. And of course there was the Mids coming out on top in a 48-45, two-overtime thriller twenty years later. That was a great win for Navy, and one that I think is a bit underappreciated by some newer fans that don’t yet have a feel for the history between the two schools.

While I might be giddy with nostalgia whenever I think of the Navy-Pitt series, Pitt’s coaches don’t appear to be as excited. Every once in a while we come across coaches, especially from BCS conferences, that talk a little too much about the cut blocks that are such an integral part of the Navy offense. Stanford did under Walt Harris for example, as did Tom O’Brien at Boston College. Dave Wannstedt is one of those coaches. Back in 2007, it was all about having his linemen wear shin guards during practice. Last year, Wannstedt spent his press conference talking about his players getting “chopped.” This year, Wannstedt has resumed the chop block talk:

“They do a lot of chopping and cut blocks on the perimeter,” said Wannstedt, whose Panthers (2-0) play Navy Saturday. “There is no soft way, there is no non-physical way to simulate it without getting out there in full speed with full pads, and so today we’ll be out there doing it.

“You take a chance [of injury to defensive linemen]. We’ve always had conversations about taking a risk with our players, but we’ve always come to the conclusion that for us to play effectively Saturday we need to see it, and so we take a little bit of chance by going full speed and doing chop blocks.”

DUDE, WE GET IT. You’d think that there would be something else to talk about after three years of playing Navy, but I guess not. Wannstedt has been a football coach for 35 years. When he played, he was an offensive lineman. He is aware of the difference between a cut block and a chop block. He knows what he’s doing by saying Navy “chops;” he’s 1) buttering up officials, and 2) telling his AD that he doesn’t want to play Navy anymore. They’re a dirty spread option team, after all.

How Dave Wannstedt sees Midshipmen

How Dave Wannstedt sees Midshipmen

Despite Wannstedt’s wishes, his Pitt team will face Navy at Heinz Field on Saturday. There’s no TV for the game, which is somewhat surprising for a game between Navy and a team considered to contend for the Big East crown. If you want to watch, you need access to ESPN360, plus a computer and internet connection with the heft to handle it. It sucks not to see the game, but you could do a lot worse than listening to Bob, Omar, and John.

The team lined up against the Mids on Saturday will be a lot different from the one that thumped them 42-21 a year ago. Pitt’s convincing victory came on the backs of its star players. LeSean McCoy ran for 156 and 3 touchdowns, while middle linebacker Scott McKillop led the defense with 9 tackles to help contain the Navy rushing attack to only 194 yards. McCoy is now in the NFL, which might make Navy fans optimistic about the Mids’ ability to improve their performance this time around. But McCoy wasn’t the only back that ran all over the place that afternoon; LaRod Stephens-Howling punched in two TDs of his own, and Conredge Collins– the fullback– averaged 5.6 yards per carry whenever Pitt’s coaches felt like giving McCoy a break. There was no questioning McCoy’s ability, but the reality was that it wasn’t McCoy’s overwhelming talent that did the Mids in. Pitt just manhandled Navy.

Although the Panthers have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, there’s little doubt that they’ll try to do the same this year. The offensive line features three seniors and a redshirt junior, and averages 293 pounds. In two games against Buffalo and Youngstown State, the Panthers have continued to show a commitment to running the ball, averaging 30 carries and 3 TDs per contest. The main beneficiary of this dedication has been McCoy’s replacement, tailback Dion Lewis. A 5-8, 195 lb. freshman from Albany, Lewis is smaller than McCoy, but that hasn’t mattered. He ran for 129 yards and two TDs in his debut, then followed it up with 190 more yards last week. Lewis is also the team’s second-leading receiver, with 8 catches. While it’s hard to jump to conclusions after two games with Youngstown State and Buffalo, the Pitt running game appears to be picking up right where it left off.

The Navy defense, however, is not, at least not from where Pitt last saw them. The Mids’ run defense in its first two games has been an absolute revelation. Louisiana Tech, believe it or not, was a top 30 rushing team in 2008. Last week against Navy last, they had only 11 yards. Ohio State had a top-flight running back of their own that they were looking to replace. The Mids held the Buckeyes to a respectable 153 yards on the ground. Even better than respectable is the way that Navy forced Ohio State to get those yards; very few came by running between the tackles. Most of that yardage came when Ohio State started running the option with Terrelle Pryor in the second half. The threat of a running quarterback is one thing that Navy won’t have to worry about this week, which could potentially make Pitt a better matchup for the Mids. Even if Navy doesn’t completely shut down the Pitt offense– and let’s be real, they won’t– the Mids have shown that they at least won’t be steamrolled again.

Pitt’s domination in 2008 was not limited to their running game. The Panthers were just as effective with their run defense, holding Navy to 100 yards below their season average. The key to Pitt’s gameplan was McKillop, who Navy simply wasn’t able to block. From his middle linebacker position, he was able to spy on Jarod Bryant on any triple option play, getting more or less a free shot at the quarterback at or near the line of scrimmage. Coach Jasper tried to adjust, even moving an extra tackle to the play side just to block McKillop; but the Big East defensive player of the year just ran around him. While defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says he’ll have some “new wrinkles”for Navy this year, it’s unlikely that he’ll stray too far from something that worked so well a year ago– especially if Adam Gunn keeps playing like he has. Gunn, granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing nearly all of 2008 with a broken neck, clearly intends to make the most of his second chance at football life. He already has five sacks through two games and leads the team in tackles with 19. Whether he’s as difficult to block as McKillop remains to be seen.

If Pitt does more of the same this year, it will be once again up to the tackles to make that block. If they are unable to do so, expect to see similar adjustments; an extra tackle, counters, some double option with the fullback assigned to block the MLB, or maybe even taking Teich outside on a fullback option. The Panthers aren’t quite as big up the middle as they were last year, so running the QB/FB midline might be a good way to force the middle linebacker to stay home. Coach Jasper tried that in last year’s game, only to see his o-line get repeatedly shoved into the backfield. That’s also a trend that will need to be fixed if Navy intends to take advantage of that great arm that Dave Wannstedt keeps hearing about.

Any BCS team, especially conference title contenders like Pitt, are going to be a huge challenge for Navy. With the defense playing the way it has, though, I don’t think it would be a stretch for the Mids to have a shot in this game. Easier said than done, maybe, but doable all the same.

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28 Responses

  1. He’s a lumber jack and he’s OK, he sings all night and he works all day!

    We will have the “chop” blocks working this saturday and will give Pitt a game for sure. It will be a HUGE challenge, but I think we have a shot!

  2. Glad to see there are still some that want to see us play “BCS Top programs” instead of all those saying we should stay away from potential beat downs. Its as Navy AD Tom Lynch said way back ” we want our boys to play the best- the hardest schedule”.
    I think we can beat Pitt because its not like their 1/2 empty home field is any true advantage (it will be alot of Steeler fans that cant get tix to those games)- there will be plenty of gold seats with no voice.
    Could it be a game where Dobbs really opens up?
    We beat this larger team a few years ago here but scary part is they look as if they have a great running game again.
    NO TV IS A FREAKIN JOKE for such a key and good team recognition game! NOWHERE! THESE DAYS? INCREDIBLE!
    YET WE CAN SEE WESTERN KY AND RICE GAMES?
    Whoopty damn do!

  3. Gary, they’re actually expecting a great crowd for this game. 55K tickets have been sold. Among other things…

  4. Don’t let Army fans see that pic; based upon that magnificent face fur that ol’ Paul the Chopblocker is sporting, they’ll agree with Wannstedt

  5. Crap- sorry Mike- guess I was thinking back a few years when 35,000 was the norm. Still it aint no 105,000 screaming “hardcore” college football fanatics and most will be there for the Primantis before and after. I have never been overly impressed with Pitts “fans” as an intimidation factor maybe since Dorsett left.

  6. Is there any factor either way because this will be Pitts FIRST GAME of the year in week 3 already?
    They “twinkie munched” the first 2 weeks! Could we nail em with the fact that WE ARE THAT GOOD and we aint a “Twinkie”?

  7. Gary, if you’re comparing everyone’s crowd to Ohio State, just about everyone is going to come up lacking.

  8. 1. The 105,000 “screaming” fans at OSU maybe actually screamed on half a dozen plays. It was just like the noon game I went to last year at the swamp between Florida and Kentucky…no fans were really up for it. I guarantee you that the 35k people in NMCMS will be louder for the Air Force game than Ohio Stadium was opening week.

    2. Buffalo is hardly a cupcake. They are lead by one of the best non-BCS coaches out there in Turner Gill (how he’s not at a BCS school and Kiffin and Chizik are coaching SEC schools is beyond me). They are certainly worlds better than, say, Nichols State. I think that is evidenced by the fact that Buffalo put up 500 yards…the game was partially swung towards pitt by the 4 turnovers Buffalo had.

    3. I’m not shocked that Navy and Pitt is on 360. CBS has no control over this, and frankly nobody in the country really cares about the Big East at this point. The talking heads and the teams themselves have done a fair amount of character assassination on the BE.

    4. Besides, RICE AND WESTERN KENTUCKY ARE HOME GAMES…GAMES FOR WHICH OUR NETWORK AGREEMENT COVERS. THIS IS A FREAKING ROAD GAME. Rice isn’t getting on TV vs. Oklahoma State this weekend. It’s not like CBSCS said “WOW THAT RICE NAVY GAME IS GOING TO BE HUGE! LET’S PUT IT ON TV!”

    This is going to be a really tough game for Navy. Probably the best test of the year. I don’t think Pitt is going to get caught looking past us for NC State.

  9. LOL @ Navy fans being louder than anyone.

  10. I agree that this will be a tough game, but if we play anywhere near the way we did at OSU, we’ll win. I’m probably wrong but I don’t think PITT is that good. They haven’t proven anything yet. yeah UB won the MAC, but they are still an up-start program.

  11. you know I was thinking they would not have a big crowd for the game but I guess I was just thinking back to the 2007 non-Saturday night game that had all those empty seats …. the weather is supposed to be great too … I might just go after all

  12. Please dont tell me Buffalo was “no cupcake” Pitt had them down 27-7 at the half! they surely were a cupcake for Pitt and they lost 54-27 and Pitt ran for almost 200 yards on them- so what the heck are they? Oh ok they are a freakin mallomar of you want to sound smart to me!
    Tough MAC?????- our nemesis last few years Ball State 7 1/2 underdog to FREAKIN ARMY tomorrow.
    Noise from 37,000 at NMCS? How much you counting of for AFA support noise then? Come on our crowds are “polite -opera” sounding compared to most.
    Anyway it could end as easily be like last years Pitt game as we know too.

  13. Buffalo actually outgained Pitt by a wide margin. Of course, they also kept giving Pitt ridiculously short fields to work with.

  14. please don’t tell me you’re comparing this Ball State team to those of a few years ago…

    more importantly, here’s hoping we block well on O. After watching GT miss block after block last night – you really appreciate the speed and execution our line and backs have shown themselves capable of. Against Pitt they’ll need to keep it up for 60 minutes.

  15. No but – just last year Ball State last year that beat us opening game- to have fallen so far that Army is favored at all but by that much? Sorry but sounds to me as if Ball State” Marshalled” itself and nobody is left- its that bad?
    Talk about a fall?
    ok- ok I know enough on it.
    This Pitt game is so important to our Top 25 aspirations so lets hope that we come out firing on all cylinders from both sides of the ball so we can begin our ascent to that spot and go to 6 – 1 for Wake Forest.

  16. We don’t know how good Pitt is yet. Neither does Pitt. But they are playing with confidence and belief. Buffalo was not a weak team (neither was LaTech).
    We (Navy) know we are better than we thought at the start of the season (OSU game), but we also know we can make enough mistakes, turnovers, etc. to loose an otherwise winnable and great game.
    I think the Navy offense is just now coming together. We have had very few plays where blocking worked across the board. . . . our backs are good enough for some big gains and this is the game to make it happen.
    Teich will start making those 2 & 3 extra yds on second effort . . . remember Katani last year?

  17. ITT Gary fails to understand player turnover of non-BCS schools

    and Gary, that Marshall comment is completely inappropriate and classless. you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking something like. you’ve gone from just ignorant to down right effing stupid. the faster you find a different team to latch onto, the better

  18. I’m still trying to figure out when Tom Lynch was the Navy AD from Gary’s OP.

  19. geez g-lax. calm down.

  20. He was the Supe. Lengyel was the AD.

  21. You can’t point out everything wrong in a Gary post. You just pick one thing, then let the next person in line pick something out, then the next person… There’s usually enough to go around.

  22. Top 25 aspirations? Forget that non-sense (we saw what a good ranking got GT last night) and let’s just focus on the team playing tough, winning games we should and sneaking in a few ‘surprises” this year. It would be a wonderful accomplishment if we can knock off Pitt tomorrow night!

  23. What offense did Pitt run whilst Wannstache was playing there???

    Its some sort of run offense I remember.

    It’s quite sad really for an OT in a run offense to not know the difference between a chop and a cut block.

    I now loathe the man even more. Which is saying something since I’m a Dolphins fan.

  24. @tphuey – I know. I was working in Luce Hall at the time.

  25. sorry for getting fired up like that but i still feel like using the deaths of a football team as some sort of an analogy for a team reloading is so far beyond bad taste i can’t find words

  26. Concur with goalielax: that was a horrible analogy.

  27. You know I could easily become an Army fan with all the anger here..but nahhhhhh its a free country right boys-haha
    In this time of internet use you go off on my analogy?
    Good God what is this a bunch of priests here or the snobby arrogant “Gods of football and life” you all portray yourselves as?
    Come on and have some fun in your so serious life.
    I concur that you all concur-so what else is new?

  28. 86, I knew you knew. That was for Gary’ s sake!

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