Countdown to Football Frustration

Next Frustrating Hoops Victory

Next Lacrosse Annihilation

Shootin' the Breeze

Chas from PittSportsBlather and I have been exchaning questions and comments about this Saturday's tilt between the Orange and the Panthers. They are of the style of running streams of consciousness, which makes the exchange fairly interesting.

As more questions are posed and answered, I'll dutifully post them here.

Part I

Early in the season, Pittsburgh seemed plagued with some issues on the offensive and defensive lines. Has Pitt turned the corner up front on both sides of the ball, or are they hoping that this game against Syracuse gives them the medicine they need to remedy their problems?

There is no doubt that the line play has improved in the last two games, but it is hard to say how much of it is improved play and how much is just playing Cinci and USF.

The offensive line has just not held up well against teams that blitz a lot. By the end of the Rutgers game, they were having trouble with 3-man fronts. After that game, though, was when the team started playing some of the freshmen more. Line play has since started to improve, but it is still a big question mark.

The problem on the defensive line is a lack of overall team speed and penetration. H.B. Blades is the best player on the line, is often double teamed, yet still leads the BE in tackles. That's why teams have had the most success running, when they go off-tackle, sweep or try to go outside. It's away from Blades and if the back has speed he can usually get at least 4-6 yards before the safeties and corners come in to help. Pitt's lack of speed, also showed in the lack of sacks and fumbles generated for the first 5 games. No pressure.

Against USF and Andre Hall, they stuffed the box and forced USF to the air more. I expect/assume/hope they are planning the same for Syracuse and Damien Rhodes.

Wannstedt, at least in the pros, was a guy that always seemed enamored with running the football. Do you think that he will/has transition/ed to this approach in the college game? How will this affect the tradition of receivers that Pittsburgh has been able to bring in the last few seasons? Has there been any residual effect from this possibility in regards to recent recruiting?

He is still enamored with the running game. That is why I don't think he realized how bad the pass protection was on the O-line early in the season. He wasn't thinking about needing to pass as much. He came in stressing that he wanted to be "balanced" on offense, but instead went too much to the run. It has gotten a little better, but he definitely prefers to run rather than pass. I have no problem with the run, but Coach Wannstedt and OC Cavanaugh are still brainlocking that with the O-line there and the backs Pitt have (and the freshmen backs have been a very pleasant surprise) that Pitt can't just run it straight up the middle. They have to do more off-tackle and get outside more.

I think, ultimately, if they are going to be successful at Pitt, Wannstedt and Cavanaugh will have to pass more. Even if they are short, quick passes and screens. Offense in the college game (and this is admittedly my opinion) has tended to favor aggressive approaches in the last 10 years. Talent levels are still much more varied from team to team in college than the pros, and mistakes are much more likely in college. Conservative offensive gameplans almost seem riskier because things stay too close and allow things to turn too quickly on one mistake or turnover.

As for receivers and recruiting, well that has been a pleasant surprise. Wannstedt has been an outstanding recruiter. He has a top receiver/athlete (Dickerson) and a top TE recruit (Byham) in the class, so the receivers are still coming.

How do you feel about Greg Lee's season so far and what the heck happened to Joe DelSardo?

Greg Lee has great talent, but is prone to inexplicable drops. At least once a game, a ball will just go through his hands or off his body. He has dropped several touchdown passes that were perfect. He is doing okay, but he could still be so much better if he could stay focused.

DelSardo is a victim of a couple things. He is slow, and Coach Wannstedt loves speed. Second, and more importantly, he was/is being misused. He is a possession receiver who will run a precise route. He is not going to get many yards after the catch and is best used in between the hashmarks. They were running plays where he was on the sidelines. The plays were too slow to develop which gave corners time to react and break-up or intercept.

There has been a lot of talk about Big10 expansion and the two primary targets being Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Has this conversation drifted into Panther Nation? How do you feel about it and is a reasonable possibility? Would Penn State stand in the way of Pittsburgh's admittance to the Big10 just as a the BigEast schools did to Penn State by admitting Pittsburgh?

This has been a regular conversation, since the ACC raid. The feeling is that it will happen at some point, and it will come down to Pitt or Syracuse.

As for the role PSU would play, I think that would have to do with whether Joe Paterno is still running the show. Paterno, somewhat insincerely in my opinion, has been quoted as liking the idea of Pitt in the Big 11 so the rivalry could resume. He said that, though, a few months before the ACC became public; and there was no reason to think Pitt would want out of the BE. As demonstrated by his decsion to end the annual Pitt-PSU game, Paterno is venal enough and holds a grudge forever that he would do his best to block Pitt behind the scenes. The only thing that would hinder that for him would be if there was sufficient political pressure like the Virginia politicians brought on UVA.

What were your expectations preseason? How have things changed? Is the focus on the future (like it is now in Syracuse), and if so, you must like what is in store for the Panthers considering their recruiting haul?

Preseason, I bought the hype. How could I not? The worst case scenario was 7-4. 10-1 was thought to be not unreasonable. 9-2 was expected. Like you, there was no way we saw the start we had coming. 1-4 was never a possibility. Losing to Ohio? Rutgers? Inconceivable.

I think the majority of fans (at least judging by attendance) are focused on the future. Pitt fans aren't to Syracuse's levels yet because of the last two wins, but we were very close before that.That has given a little hope to salvage the season. The Big East being a complete mess kind of provides a glimmer of incentive to keep believing. It's faint, but it is still there, despite the hideous start. Pitt, however, can't make any mistakes the rest of the way.

As for the future, everyone is really pumped by the recruiting class -- which had only added to the preseason hype. There are a few Wannstedt-haters who are in permanent Eeyore mode, and think the future will still crash and burn.

Most importantly (well, at least to me), how about Adam Graessle? Punting at almost a 44 yard clip, did you expect more or about the same?

Wow. A Graessle question, you'll have to explain that. I think he's punting about where expected. He's gotten a lot better about getting the ball off faster -- a bit of a problem last year -- and his hang time is improved. Pitt's punt coverage, though, has not been as good so the overall net is not great. He's doing about what was expected.

Part II

It seems like Pitt's biggest problem this season has been jumping out of the gate effectively. In the ND and RU games, Pitt couldn't recover after getting down early. What are you looking for early in the game for Wannstedt to establish?

I expect Pitt to go 3 and out.They want to get off to a good start, and they know they haven't in any game this season. I think it starts to weigh heavily on the coaches and the entire offense. The closest thing they had to a good start was actually in the ND game -- yes, Pitt actually had a lead in that game. Twice. They even took it into the 2nd quarter for 2 minutes or so. (Technically, the Ohio game started well when Stephens-Howling took the opening kick-off for a touchdown.)

Since then, the offense has completely struggled. The defense was usually good (excepting the ND game), but was often put in a hole with bad field position -- which is what happened early with Rutgers.

I said all that, because the expectation is that Wannstedt is going to run the ball early and often. What I think will happen is Pitt will run on its first play then try to pass on the second. PItt's offensive line is where the slow starts originate. They stiffen up in the pass protection as the game goes on, so I expect the first few series will be very frustrating for Pitt.

Syracuse has been beaten just about a million different ways this season. Between Virginia and Connecticut smacking around Syracuse with the QB scramble to Florida State and Rutgers passing downfield, each week poses a new way for the Orange to yield yards. How do you expect Pittsburgh will turn the screws on the Orange this week? Focus on the run? Downfield passing? Balance as opposed to exploiting a particular weakness?

Now that's faith.

In no way do I, nor should any Pitt fan, take this game for granted. This is Syracuse. This is a team to whom Pitt lost 11 straight (1991-2001), and the record for Pitt versus Syracuse from 1984 through last year is 3-17-1. Pitt has found some truly stunning ways to lose to the 'Cuse.

I have to admit that I haven't figured out the game plans going into the last two games. I'm going to have to assume it will be on the ground. The last 2 games Pitt has rushed 42 and 41 times, while Palko went from 59 attempts in the Rutgers debacle to 32 then down to 21 last week.

Personally I'd like to see some more underneath passing and involving the tight ends some more, but given your team's solid secondary, I'm not sure Pitt will do that.

From what I understand, Pittsburgh is honoring Mark May and the 1980 Pitt squad on Saturday. Will this have a residual affect on attendence? Full house?
It's also homecoming, for whatever that is worth, so hopefully the students will be in full force. On the downside it will also be wet and chilly.

Given the attendance the previous two home games, I'm not wildly optimistic. Actual (not paid or reported) attendance has been a real casualty of Pitt's bad start. As much as some punditry pointed to the beating taken from ND at the start of the season as a major deflator (and it was), the subsequent road losses at Ohio and Nebraska were absolutely demoralizing. By the time Pitt limped back to Heinz Field, most people were writing off the season. I can only imagine the bath taken by scalpers who were speculating on this season.

What do you specifically fear (if anything) from Syracuse's offense/defense? Are there weaknesses that you have seen from Pittsburgh that Syracuse may be able to exploit that a casual Big East fan may not have noticed?

After last season, I am still in fear of Damian Rhodes. Pitt's run defense has been so inconsistent. They did a good job against Andre Hall of USF, but that was aided by getting the lead and forcing USF to pass more. Against the backfield of Rutgers, Pitt did not look good.

I suspect Pitt's D will play conservatively, at least initially, by not stacking against the run. Pitt's DC, Paul Rhoads, hates to risk giving up the big play. So despite all information suggesting that Syracuse's passing game is, uh, limited he will have the safeties playing off and I expect the run to be there early for Syracuse.

To steal a question from you, what three players don't Syracuse fans know on the Pittsburgh roster who may be key difference makers?

DE Vernon Botts. He has been backing up Sallet, but Sallet was injured last week and is questionable for this game. Botts showed some great instincts in stopping some running plays in the backfield and having better speed than expected. Even if Sallet plays, expect Botts to be in there more.

TE Darrell Strong. He is big, strong, good hands and fast.Has been seeing more and more action as he has been more willing to block. He is a load to bring down, if he even gets a step after the catch.

FB Conredge Collins. This is a reach, but I think this is the kind of game where the freshman gets a real chance to pound the ball.

Final Score/Prediction?

I think Syracuse keeps it tighter than expected (I would like). I also think Pitt won't score as much as expected.

27 - 16, Pitt wins.

If you believe that Pittsburgh wins on Saturday, how does that affect, in your opinion, Pittsburgh's post-season opportunities?

It's still up-hill. Pitt has 3 games left and needs 2 wins. A home game against UConn -- and who knows whether #1 or #2 QB will be back by then. Before that, though, is a trip to Louisville -- and Pitt hasn't won a game this season on the road. Then the regular season ends in Morgantown for the Backyard Brawl. I'll be generous and say Pitt has a 1-in-3 chance of getting to 6 wins assuming a win this Saturday.

Thanks to Chas for all the great comments!

0 Responses to “Shootin' the Breeze”

Post a Comment

Links to this post

Create a Link


  • Air Your Grievances

  • This About Sums It Up

  • I am less smart for having read your blog.
  • - Anonymous Georgetown supporter.
  • You are an idiot...
  • - Anonymous Nunes/Magician Reader.
  • Congrats on not being very good at what you do.
  • - Anonymous ACC supporter.
  • You are a dweeb, my friend. Grow a backbone.
  • - Anonymous UConn supporter.
  • ...vacuous, asinine, and mind numbing...
  • - Anonymous commenter.
  • Honestly, just admit that you are pathetic...
  • - Anonymous commenter.
  • You just don't have hoops experience.
  • - Twitter commenter.
  • Leave the journalism to talented people. Brian is just another hack and another fair weather fan.
  • - Twitter commenter.
  • A bad blog about Syracuse athletics.
  • - UConn Fan on Twitter (after winning NCAA).