Fri Nov 04 09:48am EDT
(Trying this blogging thing again)
With Ray Graham on the sidelines, redshirt senior Zach Brown will be Pitt's starting running back the rest of the way. But the Panthers will need to play at least one and perhaps two of the team's freshman running backs, so here's a primer/refresher on those three players.
So far, Davis is the only one of Pitt's three freshman running backs to see the field. He has played in all eight games and has recorded eight yards on three carries. But most of his action has come with him split out wide in the formation; even the carries have come on jet-sweeps and similar "motion" runs.
As a senior at Gladewater (Tex.) Davis rushed 207 times for 1,745 yards (8.4 ypc) and 28 touchdowns, and he added one receiving touchdown and two scores on kick returns. He also had four 200-yard games in 2010, including two games of 290-plus rushing yards. He was named to the All-District first team and the All-State second team.
The lightest of the three freshmen, Davis' game is built on speed.
A Tulsa (Okla.) native, Bennett seems most likely to be the next freshman in line.
As a senior at Booker T. Washington, Bennett missed four games due to an ankle injury but still gained 1,372 yards and 14 touchdowns on 143 carries for an average of 9.6 yards per carry. And he came up big when it mattered most, rushing 27 times for 222 yards (8.2 ypc) and two touchdowns in the state championship game. He added a third touchdown when he threw for a score.
Bennett is a big back and was projected to play Pitt's three-back position (essentially a hybrid H-back/tight end). His game is power.
After a big junior season, Crockett, from Takoma Park (Md.), was ready to break out as a senior at Friendship Collegiate Academy, but an ankle sprain limited him to just seven games. He made his playing time count, though, rushing for 810 yards and five touchdowns in those seven games.
Throughout training camp, Todd Graham referred to Crockett as an "every-down back." If Davis is the speed back and Bennett is the power back, Crockett is a mix of the two.
For something a little more recent, here is video that features the freshman running backs working in training camp.
Mon Oct 10 09:15pm EDT
The problem with making definitive statements about sports is that, eventually, you're going to be wrong.
For whatever reason, sports observers - fans and media alike - have an unfortunate habit of dealing far too much in absolutes. Watch ESPN, listen to talk radio, read message boards, or have a conversation with the second coming of Chuck Noll at a bar, and you'll hear it.
You'll hear that Player A is inherently incapable of accomplishing Task B.
You'll hear that Coach C refuses to execute Gameplan D.
You'll hear that Team E will never achieve Goal F.
And eventually, at some point, Player A will accomplish Task B, Coach C will execute Gameplan D, and Team E will achieve Goal F. It's the natural ebb and flow of sports, and the constant fluctuation is exactly why we keep coming back and watching the games.
Since Pitt is 3-3 and followed by a group that needs no introduction beyond the title of "Pitt fans," there has, inevitably, been an internet-sized dumpster full of definitive edicts and absolute determinations issued, particularly in light of the Panthers' embarrassing, awful, and Jerseylicious 34-10 blowout loss at Rutgers.
Those same edicts and determinations, those definitives and absolutes, are nothing new. They were issued in the aftermaths of Pitt's losses to Iowa and Notre Dame, as well as the wins after Buffalo and Maine.
Yes, after the wins.
But here's the problem: every time someone says Pitt will never win with Tino Sunseri at quarterback, they're not just putting forth an image of the lowest common denominator of Pittsburgh sports fans - those who cannot think beyond the base criticism of "it's the QB's fault" - but they're also letting the entire world know that, in the end, they don't actually watch the games.
Because if they watched the games, they would have seen Tino Sunseri look pretty good in the win over South Florida. They would have seen Sunseri throw four touchdown passes against Syracuse last year. They would have seen him complete 21-of-27 for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns against Rutgers last year.
And if they really watched the games, they would know that sometimes you have to dissect each game to accurately evaluate a player's performance. They would know that Sunseri sandwiched bad drives around a really good drive against Maine. They would know that Sunseri completed 14-of-20 for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns while spotting Pitt a 21-point lead in the first three quarters against Iowa.
But thinking about that kind of stuff is hard. Looking that deep at a game or a player is hard. It's much easier to just make a blanket statement, a statement rooted in an absolute definitiveness that comes not from reality or experience or informed analysis, but from lazy knee-jerk reflexivity.
I've got my own questions about Tino Sunseri. I have questions about how well he can truly operate Pitt's offense. I have questions about certain things he is being asked to do and whether or not he can accomplish those things to the level necessary for the offense to be effective. And I have serious concerns about his ability to process information on the field.
But I'm not overreacting. I'm not giving into visceral, unthinking-fan logic that dictates the following:
"Sunseri has struggled; therefore, Pitt can't win with him as the quarterback."
Pitt has won. And Pitt will probably win again. Not all of the credit for those wins - past and future - goes to Sunseri, but to say Pitt has no chance with him is to ignore the times when Pitt's offense has actually worked with him at quarterback.
And really, Sunseri is just one example. Sports fans - and media - all over the place say ridiculous absolutes and definitives all the time, and pretty much every one of those statements is inherently false and gets played out as such eventually.
Because there is no black and white in sports; the whole thing is a gray area. And the worst part about it is this:
You actually have to think when you're talking about sports.
Sun Oct 09 05:06pm EDT
Lots of thoughts on this game and I'm still trying to process some things, so I know we'll be talking about it a lot this week. But here's what I'm thinking about today.
I wrote an article today about how the loss was a total-team effort, with breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams. And to a large extent, that's true. But when it really comes down to it, this loss is on the offense.
I know I'm not breaking any new ground on this - in fact, it's pretty obvious - but it's a serious issue right now, because this isn't the first time this has happened this season. Notre Dame was a game the offense lost, and that was the case once again on Saturday.
Now, this is not to let the defense completely off the hook. The defense obviously gave up a game-winning drive to Notre Dame, and they also gave up the 60-yard screen pass to Rutgers. And it wouldn't have hurt to hold Rutgers to field goals on a few of the Scarlet Knights' touchdowns. But of Rutgers' three touchdowns, two came on drives when the Scarlet Knights got the ball inside the Pitt 20.
Other than those two short drives and the long screen pass, Pitt's defense was stout against Rutgers. Sure, they could have forced three-and-outs instead of 6-and-outs, and that would have helped the cause, but it's hard to fault a defense that gives up one long drive and, really, one big play.
Special teams deserves some blame, too. The segue from offsides on the kickoff to a kickoff out of bounds was pretty bad and was eclipsed only by Pitt getting flagged for having two players wearing the same number on the field at the same time (although that was declined, as was the substitution penalty that came on the previous attempt at the punt). But the Rutgers drive after the dual-penalties resulted in a punt, and nothing ultimately came of the rather ridiculous "failure to wear proper equipment" flag, since it was declined.
All of those penalties added to the overall sense of ill-preparation/readiness, but the biggest special teams gaffe was a 73-yard kickoff return that gave Rutgers the ball at the Pitt 18 and ultimately led to a Scarlet Knights' touchdown to make the score 27-10.
At the end of the day, though, Pitt's offense lost the game. Take your pick of the issues:
- Four turnovers
- Six penalties
- Six sacks allowed
- 4 minutes and 41 seconds of possession in the third quarter
- 14 drives of 4 plays or less (out of 17 total drives)
- 2-of-14 on third down
- 271 yards of total offense
- 9 punts
Just like the Notre Dame game - well, not exactly like, but a lot like it - Pitt's defense played well enough to win the game, or at least well enough to keep the Panthers in the game. But the offense gave it up.
This, of course, comes immediately on the heels of the offense looking really, really good against South Florida. To me, that was the biggest storyline of Saturday's game. The reappearance of this kind of performance after doing so well against USF is a very troubling occurrence, and while Rutgers certainly had a lot to do with Pitt's struggles, it seems pretty clear that the reports of the offense turning a corner after the USF game were a little premature.
The USF game was a step forward, to be sure, but the Rutgers game was a step back.
Tue Oct 04 09:07pm EDT
Yeah, I'm not really into Tom Petty much anymore. Late-teens and early-20's, definitely; now, not so much. But the song fits, even if the obvious reference is a bit groan-inducing.
Anyway, it still jives with a Pitt discussion. After four weeks of "waiting" - and eight months before that - the Panthers finally looked like they were supposed to look last Thursday in a 44-17 blowout of South Florida.
Obviously the fans and the media were waiting for that. But the players were waiting for it, too, and so were the coaches. So the "waiting" - waiting for the team to start looking like it was supposed to - was a theme during Todd Graham's weekly press conference on Monday.
"I think one of the things that was exciting about that game for us was that there was a big buy-in to show them that, hey, if you execute the system, the system will work for you. So I was excited about that."
I added the emphasis there, because this wasn't the first time that's been a theme in Graham's Monday pressers. It was the theme last week and the week before, and really every week since the season started.
The system works if you execute it. The problem's not the system, it's the execution. And Graham was criticized for those comments last week, so he added an important addendum a day later. To paraphrase, he said that the system does, in fact, work if you execute it; but if you're not executing it, then that's on the coaches for not finding a way to facilitate the execution.
Apparently a fix was found on that end, too.
"I think it's just the process of running a new system and getting better at what you're doing every week, and our kids are getting better. What I mean by buying into it (is), we're actually getting them taught. I think these guys have bought in and want to win from the time we walked in here. These guys are winners. I just think that it's been a challenge to get everything taught."
So maybe it was just a matter of time all along (let's not get too hung up in the possibly fraudulent South Florida Bulls). And I'm coming to realize more and more that I - and maybe you, too - seriously underestimated the transition process. I watched Pitt in spring camp and training camp and saw them get better and more comfortable and heard them all talk about how it was really coming together and saw passes get completed and plays get made and thought, this thing is going to hit the ground running.
But as you're so often reminded while covering a college football team, there's a world of difference between practice and games. There's a world of difference between taking on the same opposing scheme every day and going against an opponent's scheme that you've only seen on tape, or one they haven't shown on film yet. There's a world of difference between facing teammates who won't ultimately hit you and opponents who - regardless of level of competition - are going 100% every play trying to kill you.
It's going to take time to get comfortable doing it in games, when different things are happening on every play and after the snap and everything is live and it's all a new ball game. I'm as guilt as anyone of thinking it would happen much quicker and that the learning curve wouldn't be so…well, underwhelming in its development.
Of course, I'm talking about Tino Sunseri. But I think I've written enough for now. We'll talk about Tino tomorrow.
Mon Oct 03 08:39am EDT
Pitt released its weekly game notes, including an updated depth chart. Here are some notes from the new two-deep.
You can view the new two-deep here.
- There were no changes on offense.
- There were a number of changes on defense, though.
- Brandon Lindsey is listed as the sole starter at defensive end. Last week, Aaron Donald was a co-starter; he is now listed as the first backup behind Lindsey. In the games, though, Donald has been working almost exclusively at nose tackle in recent weeks and Justin Hargrove has been Lindsey's primary backup.
- Khaynin Mosley-Smith has been added to the two-deep at defensive tackle. Chas Alecxih is the starter, Mosley-Smith is the backup, and Tyrone Ezell is the second reserve. Ezell's reps have been limited, since Alecxih rarely comes off the field. And Mosley-Smith has rarely played in recent weeks.
- Greg Williams is now the backup Panther linebacker behind Ejuan Price. Last week, Lindsey was the listed backup, but he has not played the position in several games. Meanwhile, Williams has been working at that spot when Price comes off the field.
Williams also takes snaps as the backup behind Todd Thomas at Spur linebacker.
Fri Sep 30 05:16pm EDT
(Sorry for the title; I just thought it was too clever a play on words to ignore. Really this is just a wrap-up of post-game thoughts.)
- It's hard to find a lot of negative in Pitt's 44-17 win over South Florida on Thursday night. Virtually everything that happened in the game - with few exceptions - was a positive. Even though I don't think a whole lot of South Florida - I wouldn't say the Bulls are frauds, but they certainly entered the game unproven - it's still tough to fault a home win over a ranked opponent in the Big East opener.
Heck, it took the last head coach two and a half seasons to beat a ranked opponent, but let's not dwell on the past.
- The post-game atmosphere was a good one. These are players who just lived through two tough losses and two underwhelming wins, with all the questions and criticisms that come with performances like those. They may or may not have been questioning themselves, but everyone else sure was. So to come out and play a game where all three phases were clicking from start to finish was just what the doctor ordered, and you could sense that feeling from the players.
Not only were they excited about the win and the performance and all of that, but they were also clearly high on the notion that they finally showed what this team could look like in the new schemes. They put on a demonstration for the fans and for themselves, and that can instill a whole lot of confidence going forward.
That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to beat Rutgers 44-17 next week, but they got a considerable boost from Thursday's game.
- On some specifics of the game, let's start at the end. It was very interesting to see Todd Graham's "new" approach to clock management with the lead in the fourth quarter. Ray Graham didn't help the clock-killing on the first drive of the quarter by running for 20 and 31 yards on the first two plays of the drive, but things were clearly slowed down the rest of the way. Pitt drove 35 yards for a field goal and took 6 minutes off the clock, and then drove 7 yards in 4 plays but ate 2:23. Todd Graham probably hasn't had many situations when it took his team almost 9 minutes to drive 42 yards, but that was the approach.
- I'm not the first to notice this or speak on it, but Todd Thomas looks like he is on the verge of being a big-time impact player on defense. Just look at the last two games, as the coaches have used Thomas in a variety of ways: against Notre Dame, he played his regular Spur outside linebacker position, handled the slot coverage responsibilities of that position, and also lined up as a deep safety on a number of third downs. Then, against South Florida, he was the Spur, had coverage responsibilities, and moved to inside linebacker for a lot of third downs.
Thomas' combination of size, speed, and athleticism makes him a threat at a lot of positions, and really, nose tackle is probably the only position where I would be surprised to see him line up. He still plays a bit reckless - on more than one occasion he tried too hard to strip the ball rather than just making a tackle - and he's clearly still a redshirt freshman, with all the mistakes and learning curve that come with youth. But if Thomas keeps improving and gaining more trust from the coaching staff, I think his role will only increase.
And that's bad for opposing offenses. Thomas can grow into the kind of player who has to be accounted for on every play - have you seen the way he blitzes? - and that allows the defense to do a lot of different things.
- On the topic of blitzing, I thought it was interesting that Todd Graham said after the game that the coaches were playing a little too conservative in the first half, almost out of fear of USF quarterback B.J. Daniels. But in the second half, they decided to just cut loose and go back to being aggressive. So they started firing away, and it was effective.
I think Pitt would be wise to continue that. They've got a number of players who can be weapons as blitzers - look at what Andrew Taglianetti did on the blitz against Notre Dame or what Jarred Holley did on the blitz against South Florida - and it's in their best interests to continue using those players. Obviously you have to be smart, but if you can deploy those blitzes wisely, you can really make up for any deficiencies you might have.
- On offense, I think it will be interesting to see what happens at receiver, as the youth movement took a bit of a hit on Thursday night. Three of Pitt's four fumbles came from freshmen Ronald Jones and Darius Patton, and Jones also had a muffed fair catch attempt. The coaches have wanted to work Patton and Jones more into the lineup, and that reached a high point against Notre Dame when Jones and Patton combined to take more snaps at the "two-receiver" position than Cam Saddler.
But on Thursday night, I think the coaches saw some of the value of an experienced veteran like Saddler. Jones and Patton may be more explosive than Saddler, but the redshirt junior from Gateway was clearly the more reliable and steady player against South Florida. Maybe the coaches will sacrifice one attribute (explosiveness) for another (reliability), although Saddler isn't exactly "non-explosive."
- Redshirt freshman Anthony Gonzalez's role as an H-back increased quite a bit after he returned from his two-game suspension, but he was not in uniform on Thursday night due to a shoulder injury. The injury has been described as "minor."
What's more interesting to me is the role of Hubie Graham. The redshirt junior transfer from Illinois caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown on Thursday, but his role has been pretty decreased lately, at least in the passing game. In the first three games, he averaged four passing targets per game; in the last two, he has four targets total. Perhaps that's due in part to the emergence of Gonzalez and redshirt freshman Drew Carswell - although Carswell has some of the same "reliability" issues that the true freshmen have - but I think Graham can do certain things pretty well for this offense. I think he's a strong safety valve in the passing game and a target they should be looking for on third down and in the red zone.
- I guess I didn't really mention some of the key components on offense, namely Ray Graham and Tino Sunseri. So here goes:
Graham is really, really good, and Sunseri had his best game yet.
I think that about does it. I'm sure I'll have more posts about this game over the next few days - it's a long time until Rutgers - but for now, those are the things I'm thinking about.
Wed Sep 28 05:58pm EDT
Each week on Panther-Lair.com, I go Inside the Numbers for a closer look at Pitt football and what's been happening with the team from a statistical perspective. Here are a few interesting factoids I came across in looking at the Notre Dame game and the season thus far:
- The penalties were obviously a big problem on Saturday. Pitt was flagged nine times against Notre Dame, and some of them were really crucial. Obviously there was the running-into-the-kicker penalty on Andrew Taglianetti that turned a three-and-out into an extended - but point-less - drive to open the game. But the false starts were more problematic.
Pitt was charged with five false start penalties on Saturday, and four of them were on the offensive line. Three of those were called on senior Lucas Nix, giving him four false starts on the season. What made the penalties even worse was that three of the false starts came on first down, and another false start turned a second-and-1 into a second-and-6.
- The penalties really stuck out because Pitt had been pretty good about not getting flagged until Saturday. The Panthers had drawn 12 penalties in the first three games - and just 7 in the two games leading into Saturday - before getting flagged nine times against Notre Dame.
- Pitt's offensive line also took a pretty crucial penalty in the third quarter. First-time starter Cory King was called for a hold after Tino Sunseri ran for 11 yards on second-and-8 from the Pitt 40. The play pushed Pitt back to a second-and-18 and eventually led to a punt.
- Maybe I am just a dork about fantasy football and that's what makes me think like this, but I find passing targets to be pretty interesting. For instance, if you had to guess right now, who would you say is Pitt's leading target in the passing game?
Answer: It's a tie between Devin Street and Ray Graham. Each has been targeted 27 times this season.
- What's interesting about that is that the leader in targets has changed just about every week. Mike Shanahan led the team with 8 targets in the opener against Buffalo, and then Street took over for two weeks with 10 targets against Maine and 9 against Iowa. But Graham has been right there with the proper receivers (7 targets against Maine, 7 against Iowa, 9 against Notre Dame).
- I think we all expected Ray Graham to be involved in the passing game, but his role might be even bigger than most of us expected. As mentioned, he is tied for the team lead in targets, he leads the team in receptions (21), and he is even the top target on third downs by a large margin.
Tino Sunseri has thrown to Graham 12 times on third downs this season. For context, Sunseri has thrown 32 total passes on third down so far, meaning Graham has been the target on 37.5% of the third-down passes. For further context, Shanahan and Street have the next-highest number of third-down targets with 4.
- And even more context: Graham's 12 third-down targets have yielded 10 receptions and 41 yards but just 3 third-down conversions. Shanahan and Street each have 3 conversions despite only being targeted on 4 third-down passes.
- While we're at it, consider this: Ray Graham is averaging about 4 yards per third-down reception. The average distance on Pitt's third downs is 7.2 yards. To be fair, on the average distance on the third downs when Graham has been targeted is 6.8 yards. I'm guessing they aren't looking for the four-yard gains on third-and-6.8.
Tue Sep 27 03:56pm EDT
So, Todd Graham's comments during his weekly press conference on Monday certainly stuck out to me, and I catalogued them in The Monday Notebook. In case you missed it, here were some of the highlights from the 26-minute press conference (which you can also watch here):
"We're attempting to run the offense; we're not executing it the way we need to. But we're very, very close to being able to do that. The main thing is being disciplined enough to do what we're coached to do."
"People ask me, what do we need to do? We need to execute our system."
And the press conference was full of those sentiments, which boil down to this:
The players aren't executing the system.
I don't think I'm reading too much into what Graham is saying to come to that conclusion, particularly since a number of others came away with the same idea.
On Tuesday, Graham apparently reconsidered that way of stating his position. From today's press briefing:
"One of the things that I want to make sure we make perfectly clear is that everything that we do, I'm accountable for. Period. I am. We're not pointing fingers and you'll never hear excuses come from me. When I say 'we' aren't getting the ball off on time, I'm not talking about Tino Sunseri, I'm not talking about Trey Anderson; I'm talking about 'we.' I'm talking about Todd Dodge, I'm talking about Todd Graham, because it's our responsibility to coach and teach them.
"So I wanted to make sure that everybody understands that. I believe in these kids. We've repeatedly said how much we believe. And I can't emphasize enough that Tino's our quarterback."
It seems, on the surface, to not necessarily be a change of tune, per se, as much as a point of clarification. In retrospect, Graham seems a bit unsure about the points he was trying to make on Monday and the way those points were conveyed.
The fact is, much of Graham said on Monday is true. The players aren't executing. The quarterback is holding onto the ball too long. The receivers aren't making the proper breaks. The defense isn't playing its assignments soundly.
There is truth in all of that.
But Graham seems to be keyed in on another important point.
"It's something that's very important to me, and I want to make sure to our fans, to our fanbase, to everybody out there: hey, let me tell you something, we're getting there. We're going to get there. And the one that's responsible for that is me and that's how it works. I want to make sure that everybody understands what I'm saying when I say 'we' aren't getting the ball off on time, I'm talking about me, I'm talking about the coaches. We're obviously not getting those things coached and taught, so I want to be clear about that.
"When you lose close games, and I've said this over and over again, you lose them because of leadership, and that means that it starts with me. We're not getting everything across."
Now we're really getting somewhere. Because I can buy that the players aren't executing, and I can buy that the lack of execution is the reason that the team is 2-2 and not 3-1 or 4-0. But I can't buy one-sided culpability (not that I think Graham was trying to assign one-sided culpability).
When it comes down to it, the players have to execute the scheme. But if that's not happening, then the coaches have to find ways to make it happen, whether that's through adjusting the scheme or the personnel or the teaching/coaching approach. Somehow the coaches have to find a way to get the players to execute.
If we come to the end of the season and these issues haven't really been resolved and Pitt is 7-5 or 6-6 or 5-7, I think there will be equal accountability - perhaps culpability is a better word - for players and coaches alike. The players will deserve blame for not executing, but the coaches will also deserve blame for not doing a better job of facilitating the execution.
So I think Graham was, in essence, saying two things on Tuesday:
1. "I'm not throwing the players under the bus."
2. "We're not just throwing our hands up about the players not executing; we're really trying to do something to fix it."
Which was probably the case all along. I highly doubt that Graham and the staff were sitting back and saying, "Well, the players aren't executing and we're screwed until they start. Wake me when they figure it out."
In my estimation, what changed was that Graham realized the perception of his comments on Monday. And since we, media and fans alike, read into the comments as we did (or at least as some of us did), Graham apparently felt it was important to restate his sentiments.
Thu Sep 22 04:09pm EDT
On Tuesday I wrote about the end of the Iowa game and Pitt's decision not to run the clock. That turned into a pretty informative discussion on the message board about the merits of running the clock, and I have to admit, there were some pretty good points made, almost to the point that I'm beginning to question the approach in the fourth quarter myself.
Mostly, I wanted to run a hypothetical simulation of what might have happened if Pitt had run the same plays with the same results, but used the play clock more gratuitously. But there's a bigger issue in play here, and it's one that developed in that discussion.
It's the issue of a coach's dedication to the system. Because that's what it's really about: Pitt didn't run clock at the end of the game because that's not the system. The system is to hurry back to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball in 15 seconds.
A number of Pitt fans have accused Todd Graham of being stubborn in this regard, and I can't say that I necessarily disagree with that assessment. Consider this quote from Graham's Monday press conference when he was asked specifically about slowing down the tempo in the fourth quarter.
"No. No, no. Our whole philosophy of what we do is not going to change, because it's something that I believe strongly in. As we progress and become more and more mentally and physically conditioned, we will get better."
So yeah, he's not going to change. And while I agree about the assessment of being stubborn, I'm not sure that's entirely a negative. I don't fully agree with Graham being stubborn about his system - at times - but I think there are reasons behind the emphasis on staying with the system.
Consider the following quote, also from Monday:
"There are times that we will strategically slow down and do things differently. But you just can't…when you're running an offense, an offense is about a rhythm, and you can't just change the rhythm and expect to be successful. We wouldn't have changed anything about our tempo in that game."
I think Graham is saying several things in that quote. There is the point about tempo, which has some validity; this offense is built on its tempo, and its effectiveness derives quite a bit directly from the tempo. So if you find yourself in a position where it doesn't look like your defense will make a stop - and the trends were leaning that way - then you decide you'll need to rely on your offense to keep the team ahead. And if you're going to rely on the offense, then the offense needs to be run the way it is run.
In that game - and, I would guess, in quite a few games over the course of the season - Pitt needed its offense to close out the game because the defense wasn't going to hold up. That means moving the ball and getting into the end zone, and the most effective way to do that is to run the offense the way you're comfortable running it.
In a way, it's stubbornness on Graham's part; but maybe, at the same time, it's a necessity from having spent the last six months working on the offense at a certain tempo.
Like I said, the discussion in that previous thread has me re-thinking the topic somewhat, but I still maintain - and I think most would agree - that there were a multitude of issues that cost Pitt that game, and those issues extend to players and coaches alike. A final Todd Graham quote:
"That's not why we lost the game. We lost the game because we turned the football over and because we made too many mental errors."
Of course, there's some merit to the idea that more ball-control in the fourth quarter could have helped overshadow the errors and mistakes that plagued Pitt earlier in the game. As it stands, though, Graham doesn't seem to agree that the clock management was an issue; if he does agree, we won't know until Pitt finds itself in a similar situation later this season.
Wed Sep 21 06:06pm EDT
Pitt's early-season escapades have brought plenty of questions to the fan base, and understandably so, since the Panthers looked mostly-average against Buffalo and Maine and suffered a late-game collapse to lose to Iowa.
And while the quarterback has been the target of controversy, the defense hasn't been ignored. In some ways, the defense has been criticized even more, because at times it has looked like the team might bring to light the worst fears of Pitt fans who agonized over Tulsa's 2010 defensive stats:
Total defense - 450.9 yards per game (111th nationally)
Scoring defense - 30.3 points per game (85th nationally)
Pass defense - 319 yards per game (120th nationally)
Yes, Tulsa's pass defense ranked dead last nationally in 2010.
Now, after three games, Pitt isn't far off from those marks:
Total defense - 416.3 yards per game (96th nationally)
Scoring defense - 25.3 points per game (70th nationally)
Pass defense - 336.3 yards per game (119th nationally)
Yes, Pitt's pass defense ranks next-to-last in the country. Iowa really jacked the numbers with 399 yards passing on Saturday, but Pitt still ranked in the bottom 20 after playing Buffalo and Maine (108th, to be precise). The bulk of the damage against Iowa came in the fourth quarter, when exceedingly-average quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 162 yards and three touchdowns.
Buffalo and Maine weren't much different. Buffalo threw for 103 yards in the fourth quarter of the season opener, and Maine dropped 150 on Pitt in the fourth quarter of that game. So of the 1,009 passing yards accumulated by Pitt's opponents - for contrast, Pitt has thrown for 721 - through three games, 415 have come in the fourth quarter.
That's approximately 41% of the passing yards allowed. 41% accrued in roughly 25% of the game. And that doesn't even mention the fact that six of the 10 touchdowns Pitt has allowed this season have come in the fourth quarter.
Simply put, Pitt's fourth-quarter defense has been bad. Really bad. And, quite frankly, a stark contrast to the defense the Panthers have played in the first three quarters of each game. Four total touchdowns in nine quarters of football? That's not a bad ratio. The problem is in the fourth quarter.
But why? What is it about the fourth quarter? I asked defensive coordinator Keith Patterson that question today, and here was his response, which is directed mostly at the Iowa game. I have included it word-for-word in the interests of totality.
"If you really look at it, it was nine minutes and 55 seconds; to that point, we played absolutely, I mean, as clean of a football game as I've been a part of. I think there are a lot of things, intangibles, that go into it, you know? When you really look at that, the way the whole momentum got started, we kick a ball out of bounds on kickoff cover. They hit a big play, guy makes a great catch on the boundary. They score on that drive. Then our punt team, after the shanked punt, great field position; next play, what? Vertical shot, right down the seam to the tight end, gets the ball in scoring position in one play. Two scoring drives, and then the crowd gets into it, momentum kind of hit. And you have to give Iowa credit; if you really go back and study the film, the coverage, we're there in coverage. We get a P.I. on a big third down where we're off the field; that absolutely killed us. Then our blitzing in the second half, especially the fourth quarter: we weren't as explosive. We were bouncing off the quarterback in the first half, about four or five times we hit him, and then in that fourth quarter we were about a step away most of the time in trying to get the pressure there. So you have guys playing man-coverage a couple of times, we don't get there, we get a P.I., we don't get there again on two different occasions, and he hit two completed balls. You know, it all goes hand-in-hand, the coverage is tied to the front, you have to be able to impact the quarterback, we didn't do that in the fourth quarter, and Iowa executed."
The only thing I can really take from that is that the coaches feel the fourth-quarter meltdowns resulted from a variety of circumstances. Perhaps that's accurate, in which case Pitt is just incredibly unlikely. But later Patterson offered a far more succinct summation of the results:
"It's almost like, in that fourth quarter, we tried not to lose the game."
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih issued a similar sentiment after the game, and he reiterated it this week.
"We have to finish. We took our foot off their throat, and we can't do that if we want to be successful. So we're going to finish games from now on.
"I think we got up by so much, so early…we just got complacent and we weren't playing like we were behind. We weren't playing like it was still a close game. We were playing like we were up 21, which we were, but as you saw, that's dangerous to do. The key is not doing that."
To be quite honest, there might be an element of complacency in all three games (although head coach Todd Graham flatly denied that notion with regards to the Iowa game). But it seems to me that there are deeper issues at play, and perhaps the biggest one is in the transition to the new defense. I don't believe that these players can't play the new defense, but I do believe they're not comfortable in it yet.
Graham seemed to say as much on Wednesday.
"There have just been critical errors that we've made. I think some of that you have to look at and say, you know what? Maybe we can't run all the things we're running. We need to really simplify and get good, and that's what we've done this week."
Whatever it is, Pitt needs to fix it. You can't give up (on average) two touchdowns per fourth quarter and expect to keep winning.