While You Were Sleeping: Pittsburgh Defense
In the first of what I hope becomes a sporadic fixture on this blog, I will examine an aspect of a particular team that may have slipped by you in the tumultuous college football season. Our first stop takes us to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
On the final weekend of college football's regular season, the Pitt Panthers did what numerous underdogs had done before them; they vanquished a heavy favorite, on the favorite's homefield no less. The Panthers held an explosive West Virginia offense, one that only a week before had run for over 500 yards and scored 66 points, to a lone touchdown. And lest you think that was an aberration, the Panther defense had been playing quite well for most of the year. Just looking at points allowed, you would very likely disagree. The Panthers allowed 24.3 points per game in 2007. That figure was good for 42nd in the nation. With 119 teams playing Division IA football, that number is not even in the upper third. If you stopped right there, you'd have a hard time believing the Panthers were anything but a mediocre defensive team. But look a little closer. Here are the Panthers' rankings in a few other defensive categories.
The Panthers rank better than 42nd in nearly all the important statistical categories. In terms of yards per game and yards per play, they are outstanding. Of course, part of that is due to the fact that teams ran the ball so much against them (they faced more rushing plays that 80 teams as teams were often nursing leads) and runs on average are shorter than passes, hence the great yards per play number. But that still does not explain why their points allowed falls so far below their other defensive statistics.
This helps explain a lot though. When the Panthers punted or kicked off, their opponents often ended up with great field position. It's hard for a great defense to consistently keep opponents off the board when they are time and again given good field position. Pitt's defense was hardly great, but this is one of the hidden reason why their achievement did not match their performance.
And here's one more reason. For all the things Pitt did well on defense, they did not force turnovers, especially interceptions as they had only 8 on the year. Even a casual observer of football knows that turnovers are a big deal. When an offense turns the ball over, they have no chance to score, and depending on where it occurs, it can lead to a great scoring opportunity for the other team.
So what are Pitt's prospects heading into next season? Can the defense continue it's strong performance and can can the offense improve to lead Pitt to their first bowl bid in Wannstedt's tenure?
First the defense. The Panthers do lose their leading sacker, defensive end Joe Clermond, but they return 6 of their top 10 tacklers, including all 3 starting linebackers. The defensive backfield loses one starting corner and one starting safety. Even if the Panthers suffer some regression in the performance department, their results can hold steady if they can just force some more turnovers. But can they? Turnovers are essentially a random event, and Pitt as had some relative turnover success in Wanny's tenure. They finished tied for 34th nationally with 14 interceptions in his first season (2005) and tied for 38th nationally in turnovers forced last season. What about the other aspect that distorted the perception of the Pitt defense in 2007, special teams? At best Pitt has been mediocre on limiting punt and kickoff returns under Wannstedt. In 2006 they were 62nd in the nation in opposition kickoff return average and 46th in 2005. They were also 57th in opposition punt return average in 2006. But at their worst, they have been atrocious. In 2005 they were dead last (119th) in opposition punt return average. It appears the best Pitt can aspire to in regards to limiting the return game in 2008 is mediocrity. Still, even marginal improvement in limiting the return game and creating more turnovers in 2008 could mean Pitt's defense goes from under the radar to nationally respected.
And what about the Pitt offense? That unit was rather anemic in 2007, scoring only 22.8 per game, while being held to under 20 points in half of their 12 contests. There is hope though. Freshmen running back LeSean McCoy rushed for over 1300 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per rush. Unfortunately, his backfield mate, quarterback and fellow freshmen Pat Bostick did not adjust quite as easily to the college game. He was erratic at best, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions in a game only once. He did complete over 60% of his passes as a freshman, so there is a real chance at improvement in his sophomore season...Especially with all four of his top wide receivers returning. In fact the only player with a reception not returning is tight end (and 3rd leading receiver) Darrell Strong.
As has seemingly been the case throughout Wanny's tenure in the Steel City, Pitt has some very strong indicators for improvement in 2008. The relative youth on both sides of the ball coupled with some luck in the turnover department and some marginal improvement on special teams could have Pitt bowling for the first time in the Wannstedt era.