Friday, September 02, 2005

Chat with Pitt Sports Blather | by Jay

Yesterday morning we caught up with the excellent Panthers blog, Pitt Sports Blather. We posed some questions to PSB about tomorrow's game, and PSB was more than happy to fill us in. This is a very condensed version of the chat, but if you want to read the whole thing, head on over to PSB where it is being posted in installments throughout the day.

Blue-Gray Sky: Hey, we just saw that Rashad Jennings gets the nod as the starting tailback for Pitt. Who is this kid?

Pitt Sports Blather: Jennings was supposed to be part of the class of 2004 but had to do a year of prep school for academics. Pitt got him over Virginia Tech. He fits the mold of the style of running back Wanny and Cavanaugh like. Big strong, in between the tackles, etc. RB depth was a question last year. Tim Murphy, the starting fullback spent time at tailback, and is one of my favorites. He does, however, have issues with staying healthy. Having both in the backfield actually gives Pitt some options and chances to confuse. He's older than the typical freshman and has the added feature of having NFL bloodlines ‑‑ both his brothers were minor players.

I think Jennings will eventually see the bulk of the work if he performs as expected. In the first game or two, though, unless he busts it huge, expect to see him get half with Brandon Mason and Murphy getting the rest. In fact an article in the P‑G today quotes Cavanaugh about the RBs.

Is the TE a weapon in the Wanny attack? Should we be looking for a play‑action pass to the TE on the goal line?

Well, it sure as hell was with Cavanaugh in Baltimore. Our tight ends go Gill, Buches, Strong and Pelusi. Gill, well, you guys saw him rumble last year...both Gill and Buches scored against the Irish last year. I'm sure they are on the mind of ND coaches. Buches is a solid blocker and decent hands. Not very fast though. Strong’s a converted WR, and is the best athlete and with great speed. His issue, and he's even admitted it, is blocking. Vital for a TE, but he is the most intriguing of the bunch. He’s a guy that would be expected to catch the ball either over the middle or on a screen. Strong came here over Auburn because he was promised a shot at QB ‑‑ quickly realizing that the Harris offense was too much. As a quarterback, he was kind of a mobile Byron Leftwich type. He dropped his weight and is now around 240, he's 6'5".

How about wide receiver Greg Lee. He’s pretty good, isn’t he?

Against ND, Lee is going to be facing double coverage (at least). The way he improved from the start of last year to the end of the season was astounding. Not only did he start to use that talent, but he got a mean, tough streak going. Fighting for the ball and at times ripping it from a defender. I expect Lee to face a lot of bumping off the line, but he is good enough to beat it. The shoulder ‑‑ again an article today ‑‑ is apparently fine. Last fall he missed some camp time with a leg injury. He, like so many WRs, seemed willing to nurse the injury to take some extra time.

After Lee, you’ve got flanker Joe DelSardo ‑‑ pure possession WR. 5' 7" great hands, willing to go over the middle, not speedy, but smart and precise route runner. Despite Wanny loving speed and size none of the bigger kids could beat his consistency or hands. The guy everyone thought might even beat DelSardo was Terrell Allen. He came in with Lee and was actually more highly recruited. As a freshman (‘03) he provided late season spark in the return game. He got a season ending injury in '04 spring drills and was easily injured again in fall practices. Very frustrating for all that he can't stay healthy. It was a free‑for‑all with no one getting too consistent until the end. Derek Kinder is the #3 WR. He caught one pass last year as a freshment ‑‑ a 3 yd TD against ND.

I remember that particular score – and the other four to go with it. Palko had quite a game. Speaking of Palko, he’s getting a lot of press. Does he deserve it?

Palko’s as good as advertised. His father is one of the top high school coaches from Western PA. Not just strong and athletic, but he has the head for it. Last year, he started very poorly ‑‑ the Walt Harris offense was very complicated and no matter how much you practice until you play it for a bit, you will struggle.

Do you think Wannstedt and Cavanaugh will let him scramble as much as he did under Harris ‑‑ at least it seemed he was always scrambling. That was one of his best weapons. I remember that really helped against BC last year.

Given the O‑line last year, he had no choice. He did his reads when he had time but he wouldn't waste inordinate amounts of time if they weren't there. At times he was prone to just taking off if he didn't see something right away. He has said that he likes to smack helmets. ND recruited him to be a safety.

Do you have a new O‑line coach or is he a holdover?

New. Paul Dunn, Pitt alum and formerly at Kentucky and K‑State for the O‑line. On offense, they are all new coaches, defense remained completely intact. Yep, even the DC who was (shudder) up for the top job.

Were Pitt fans happy with the defense last year?

No, we were not. The defense was a sore subject. I don't speak for all, but I'm not that high on Paul Rhoads the DC.

I read where Wannstedt won't be making the defensive calls. I was surprised.

I'm not sure I completely buy it.

We'll keep an eye on him this Saturday. If Wanny's making too many hand gestures to the defensive huddle, we'll know something's up. Anyway, What’s the word on Pitt special teams?

I think we've got the best 1‑2 PK and P combo in the Big East in Cummings and Graessle. The special teams are definitely emphasized more, and with more speed. Watch for freshman LaRod Stephens on kickoff returns. Lots more speed.

Let's get down to brass tacks, as Grandpa Simpson would say. PSB, Pitt's strengths in this game? Weaknesses?

Passing game, obviously. I think the running game will be a pleasant surprise, but not a strength right away. Definitely passing to set up the run. Secondary is a big strength ‑‑ provided Pitt is more aggressive and plays tighter coverage. Weaknesses include the D‑line. They'll be better (can't be much worse) but how much is a big question. Especially going against a well known strength of the Irish. Pitt was horrible against the run and only got 22 sacks for the season. The O‑line is a big question. Can they open holes for the run? I think they'll be fine for pass protection. I think the lines are question marks for both teams.

Line play, line play, line play. I'll be watching how it plays out in the trenches. mostly. Stuff in the secondary is "sexier" but a lot of that has to do with the type of coverage ‑‑ what kind of position does it put a defender in?

So, what does Pitt need to do to win the game?

Starting on the defense, the secondary has to be big. I have no doubt that Walker will get his yards. The defense has to be aggressive. Do some blitzing and not wait for things. That will have to come from Coach Wannstedt.

On offense, Pitt will be running. I expect a few 3‑and‑outs where they almost inexplicably run. Then the passing game will start. I would prefer to see Pitt come out and try and throw deep on the first possession just to really rev up the crowd if nothing else ‑‑ even on an incomplete – that would get people juiced. The passing game will likely dominate in the 2nd and 3rd qtrs. Only if Pitt's behind will they still throw more in the 4th.

Any predictions?

First game, new coaches, new systems, everyone a little too hyped. Some sloppy play with a bunch of penalties mar the first half.

Pitt, even when they were a pass‑oriented offense, still kept time of possession very even or better (check last year's box score). The run gets results, but it is still in the air. Still, it is a low scoring game, because neither head coach is a run up the score ‑‑ more just enough to win.

Pitt wins, 23‑19.

We're going with the Irish, 31-24. I think we need a friendly wager. How about...the loser puts up a picture of the winner's choosing on his blog?

Sounds fair. Picture goes up on Monday ‑‑ maximize the viewing pain.

Thanks for the chat. Best of luck on Saturday.

Thank you. One of us will look smart by Saturday night!