Bowl Game Preview; Pittsburgh

Your Houston Cougars look to conclude the 2014 campaign on a winning note as they face the Pittsburgh Panthers on January the 2nd in the Armed Forces Bowl. Game time from TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium is set for 11AM (CST) and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

The Coogs would also like to use the final game of the regular season as a spring board into next year, as high expectations hit Cullen Boulevard with the hiring of Tom Herman two Fridays ago (December the 19th). The first time head coach will remain as the offensive coordinator of Ohio State through their National Championship game (or games). Tony Levine was let go a few days after the conclusion of the regular season after losing at Cincinnati. After the hype of a potential ‘Access Bowl’ bid entering the 2014 season, a 7-5 regular season really soured the fan base on the Levine regime, as did his 21-17 three year run including losses to the likes of Texas State, UTSA and Tulane (all at home no less). Defensive coordinator David Gibbs will be the Coogs interim head coach for the Bowl game, and as well as the “3rd Ward Defense” has played over the past two seasons, hopefully Gibbs and his defensive staff will be retained by Herman.

The Panthers meanwhile are also in the midst of their own upheaval as Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was just hired this past Friday as the new head coach as Paul Chryst recently left to take the same position at his alma mater, Wisconsin, two Wednesdays ago (December the 17th). Chryst had been the first Pitt coach since Jackie Sherrill (1977-1981) to lead his team to bowls in each of his first three seasons, though his record by definition was mediocre (19-19). Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will be the interim coach for their bowl game, the school also announced as their athletics director was also let go. Counting bowl game interim coaches, Rudolph will be Pitt’s seventh football coach in the last five years. For Pitt’s fifth year seniors this will be the third interim head coach they’ll be playing for.

Offensively, Pitt runs an old-school pro style scheme under Rudolph (42, is in his 3rd year with the Panthers), who himself was a former two-time Big 10 offensive lineman at Wisconsin. His offensive line is big and the type that gives the Gibbs defense problems, as in they’ll use their man blocking schemes to maul opposing defensive linemen, pushing them off of the point of attack in which they’ll pound defenses between the tackles with a physical running back. That big back being James Conner (6’2, 250, So.), who was the ACC offensive player of the year after finishing as the nation’s fourth-leading rusher with 1,675 yards. His 24 touchdowns broke the school record set by the legendary Tony Dorsett during his 1976 Heisman Trophy season.

That mauling line, which averages 318 pounds across the board, is led by right tackle T.J. Clemmings (6’6, 315, Sr.), who was a first-team All-ACC selection along with right guard Matt Rotheram (6’6, 335, Sr.), whom was a third-team pick after helping the Panthers rank 14th nationally in rushing offense (251.3 yards per game) while allowing only 20 sacks, ranking them 20th nationally. Rotheram is a four-year letterman with 39 career starts. The remaining three starters are filled with youth but girth in center Alex Officer (6’4, 334, Fr.) and Dorian Johnson (6’5, 300, So.) and Adam Bisnowatty (6’6, 305, So.) at left guard and tackle respectively. Despite their size this unit is athletic enough to get to the second level on pulls and traps. The Panthers also use an “H-back” which they use as a traditional full back, often lining up in an ‘I-formation.’ Jaymar Parrish (6’2, 270, So.) and Scott Orndoff (6’5, 260, So.) love hunting for linebackers on kick-out blocks and will catch an occasional pass out of the back field, usually off of a play-action fake as the physical duo has caught a combined 7 passes for 40 yards with a TD reception (by Orndoff).

The Coogs defensive line will face their toughest matchup of the season as the “Third Ward D” allows only 136.3 yards rushing per game (32nd) but are smaller along the interior of the line as the unit usually uses their quickness in order to shoot gaps and blow up running plays at the line of scrimmage as well as keeping decent containment off the edge with said speed. The defensive line of Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.), Joey Mbu (6’3, 310, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) and Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.), from strong to rush end, will need to be stout at the point of attack. Reserves Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) will need to read and identify inside runs quickly in order to use their speed to crash down the interior line from their backup strong and rush end spots. Reserve interior linemen Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.)  will also need to step up their respective games against the relentlessness of Pitt’s pounding running game as the Panthers 47.2 attempts per game rushing is 12th nationally and as with their time of possession of 33 minutes, 50 seconds (5th) attests. Stansbury has made the most impact this season as his 53 total sacks has him as the only down lineman to place in the top-10 in tackles, with Mbu and Harris being second and third with 31 and 28 respectively. Harris meanwhile leads the crew with 6 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks with Mbu adding 4.5 and 2.5 along with Farley’s 4.5 and 1.5 from the inside.

Also important in defending the Panthers run game will be the Coogs linebacking core of Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) at the Sam or strong side, Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) in the middle and Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, Fr.) at the will or weakside spot. When Mike linebacker and defensive co-captain Derrick Mathews was lost for the season 6 games ago, Oliphant and Taylor stepped their games up and helped ease the transition of Adams into the starting lineup as a true freshman. For the season Oliphant leads the team in total tackles with 130 (63 being solo) with Taylor a distant second with 75 and 34. This ‘downhill’ type of rushing attack Pitt challenges defenses with is tailored to Oliphant and Taylor’s game (no pun intended) as both are physical linebackers who love to hit and are quick at diagnosing plays, shedding offensive linemen’s attempted blocks and making tackles, especially for loss as Oliphant’s 8.5 trails only Taylor’s 9. Adams play has progressed with experience as he’s added 4.5 TFL along with 2 sacks. Key reserves at linebacker include Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Jr.) in the middle with 3.5 TFL and Steven Aikens (6’2, 196, So.) as a hybrid linebacker/safety in certain nickel packages.

When dropping back to pass, the Panthers are led by quarterback Chad Voytik (6’1, 205, So.), whom has completed 62.7 percent for 2,011 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first year starting after playing behind current Texans QB Tom Savage last season. The Panthers only pass for 182.9 yards per game which ranks them 105th. Voytik is accurate with the ball as his completion percentage attests and he’s more like a Russell Wilson type as he can pull the ball down and run when in trouble. In fact his 102 carries are second only to Conner as Rudolph has many designed runs called whether they be off of bootlegs or keepers. In all the Panthers are ranked 44th nationally with 434.2 total yards off offense and score 31.7 points per game, ranking them 49th. The main receiver catching Voytik’s passes will be Tyler Boyd (6’2, 190, So.), who posted a second straight 1,000-yard season, and had 61 receptions for 1,149 yards and 8 TDs this season. He became the first ACC player to reach 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman and sophomore. Manasseh Garner (6’2, 220, Sr.) is the only other Pitt receiver worth mentioning as the physical specimen ranks second in receptions among the receiving core but only has 17 (for 201 yards with 2 scores through the air) as they just aren’t targeted as much. Pitt will use a lot of double tight end sets and J.P. Holtz (6’4, 245, Jr.) will be targeted, especially in the red zone, as he has 3 TDs amongst his 18 catches for 166 yards on the season.

They’ll be matched up against a Houston secondary that allows only 198.2 yards per game passing (31st) with the defense allowing only 334.6 total yards(21st) and 19.5 points per game (10th). William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) will probably tussle with Boyd most of the game as his 12 passes defended has him as the units ‘shut down corner.’  Remarkably however, Jackson isn’t the cornerbacks unit’s leading tackler. That distinction goes to true freshman Howard Wilson (6’1, 176) with 46, to Jackson’s 36. Wilson also has one more interception than Jackson, 3 to 2, while adding 6 passes defended (all in only 3 starts to Jackson’s 11). Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.) and Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.), along with H. Wilson have all helped to pick up the slack after Lee Hightower went down in the same Memphis game as D. Mathews did. B. Wilson has contributed 31 total tackles in his 7 starts with Walker adding 20. The heart and soul of the Coogs secondary is of course Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) and Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) at strong and free safety. Both have high football IQ’s as it’s no coincidence that both are usually in the right spot at the right time though from different spots on the field, though both are interchangeable. McDonald is usually playing center field in Gibbs ‘single high’ safety looks with Stewart usually playing somewhere in or on the fringes of ‘the box.’ McDonald leads the D with 5 interceptions (with 145 return yards) and 3 fumble recoveries while being third with 66 total tackles. Stewart meanwhile, adds 50 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 7 passes defended. Look for ‘WorldWide’ to play around the line of scrimmage as Gibbs will probably load the box extensively against what appears to be a physical mismatch on paper (Pitt’s O-line versus the Coogs front-7).

It should definitely be interesting to see how the Coogs offense looks come game time with the Dan Hammerschmidt being named the offensive coordinator in place of Travis Bush. With only a few weeks of practice time between the promotion and the game, don’t look for much to change as there just isn’t enough time to implement a vastly different scheme. Hammerschmidt is a 28 year coaching veteran who’s coached on both the college and pro levels before being hired prior to the 2014 season as running backs coach. He most recently coached for the Texans as an offensive assistant for the past two seasons. Among his six previous stops, Hammerschmidt (I just love saying that name) was the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach at Colorado State from 2001 through 07. He graduated from CSU in 1986 after playing four seasons at safety so he brings both an offensive and defensive mindset to the game as a play caller. Having said that, we really have no idea what type of game he’ll call and how it’ll differ than what Bush had been calling all season. If he’s smart, he’ll “hammer” (pun intended) Pitt’s defensive line with running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.). Farrow has hammered the past three opponents, and while Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa aren’t as good at Pitt, anytime you can average 123 yards rushing on 19 carries with 7 TDs on the ground, you keep pounding the rock. In fact, with 66 yards versus the Panthers, Farrow will hit 1,000 for the season as he currently sits with 934 on 164 attempts while crossing the goal line 12 times total on the season. And while Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) may not be used between the tackles as much with Hammerschmidt calling the shots, the newly minted OC would be wise in trying to matchup the speedy quick Jackson on one of the Panthers slower footed linebackers, particularly on wheel routes as Jackson only has 162 yards receiving one year after amassing 296 yards through the air.

While Ward has been sacked 17 times in his 7 starts, many of those can be blamed squarely on him as his offensive line can generally only hold a block for so long before the opposing defensive lineman or linebacker is able to peel off for the sack or tackle-for-loss. The offensive line of Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.); from left to right tackle, have allowed 29 sacks total this season, ranking them 91st nationally. The flip side of that is Ward’s ability to turn a play that looks like it could lose huge yardage into a big gain as he’s rushed for 424 yards on 87 carries, good for a 4.9 yards per carry average, along with 5 TDs. This type of scrambling QB has given the Panthers defense problems this season. Overall the Coogs average only 29.3 points per game (63rd), and while they rush for 181.6 yards on the ground (49th) they only pass for 226.6 (68th). The total points and passing yards are a huge reason for Levine’s ouster, Bush’s demotion and Herman’s hiring no doubt.

The Panthers are led defensively by 36 year old coordinator Matt House. In his second year at coordinator, after stints in the NFL with Carolina and St. Louis, has the Panthers ranked 28th in overall defense allowing only 349.2 yards per game in his multiple 4-3 scheme. Though they allow 156.6 yards rushing (52nd), they allow only 192.7 yards through the air (21st). The Panthers rank 55th however, allowing 25.6 points per game this season. Pitt’s defensive front four is a two-gap scheme that basically maintains opposing offensive line blocking in order for their linebacking core to make the tackle, thus the starting line of Shakir Soto (6’3, 270, So.) and David Durham (6’2, 240, Sr.) at defensive end with Darryl Render (6’2, 275, Jr.) and Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6’0, 310, Jr.) manning the middle don’t have flashy stats. Render’s 5 TFL leads the unit as does Durham’s 3 sacks. In fact the 16 total sacks by the Pitt D places them 112th nationally as they just haven’t been able to pressure the QB much this season, which makes their 192 passing yards allowed pretty remarkable. The Pitt linebacking core of Anthony Gonzalez (6’3, 230, Sr.), Todd Thomas (6’2, 230, Sr.) at the Sam and Will spots with Matt Galambos (6’2, 245, So.) are physical and athletic with the three leading the defense in tackles behind Gonzalez’s 74, Thomas’s 71 and Galambos with 64. Thomas also leads the team with 5.5 TFL and adds both a fumble recovery and an interception while Gonzalez has 4 TFL including a sack. Nicolas Grigsby (6’1, 220, Jr.) plays at the ‘freeze’ linebacker spot, or a pass rush specialist as the physical specimen has 3 TFL, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles this season. Look for Galambos and Farrow to have plenty ‘meeting of the minds’ in more than a few helmet-to-helmet hookups throughout the game.

It would behoove Hammerschmidt to open up the Coogs offense, especially early in the game passing downfield, behind QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.). In his seventh start of the season against Cincinnati, Ward completed 27 of his 45 passes for 360 yards with 2 TDs and an interception. And while the circumstances of the game dictated the calls, being down by double digits most of the second half and in need of quick scores, Ward proved once and for all that he has the arm strength to get the ball downfield accurately as well as being able to complete the short swing and screen passes that have allowed him to complete nearly 69-percent of his passes on the season (149-for-217 for 1,521 yards). He averages 10.2 yards per completion behind quick physical receivers Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.), Markeith Ambles (6’2, 200, Sr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Fr.). Ambles caught a deep post for an 89-yard score last week while Greenberry and inside receiver Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) turned shorter receptions for big gains via YAC (yards after the catch) yardage as Beadle turned an inside screen into a 35 yarder and Greenberry caught an inside quick slant in stride for 31 yards. Greenberry’s 756 yards is a disappointment a season after amassing over 1,200 yards in receiving. Ambles has the speed and natural ability to ‘high point’ a ball from his outside receiver spot as his 16.2 yards per reception demonstrates as he’ second on the team with 471 yards and is tied with Greenberry with 4 TD receptions on the season. Outside receiver Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) displayed his skill set in their last game as he caught 10 passes for 95 yards, many over the middle on crossing patterns. The Panther secondary responsible for covering these receivers will be cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts (5’11, 195, Jr.) and Avonte Maddox (5’9, 165, Fr.). Pitts has 6 passes broken up with 2 interceptions while Maddox adds 3 PBU’s and 27 total tackles. Free safety Ray Vinopal (5’10, 200, Sr.) plays all over the field and is fourth in tackles with 61 while adding 5 PBU’s and 2 interceptions. Strong safety Reggie Mitchell (6’0, 185, So.) might not be big physically, but he sure plays like it with 56 tackles, 6 PBU, 3 TFL and a sack.

Special teams wise, Pitt has a huge advantage in the both returns games as Boyd leads the ACC in punt returns with a 10.8 yard average, with a long of 45, and is also averaging 28.7 yards on kickoffs with a long of 64. Ayers has only averaged 4.4 yards per return on 5 total punt returns. As long as he fair catches without fumbling, the offense will be ok. Ayers has also only averaged 18 yards per kickoff return, though Ambles added one for 26 yards against the Bearcats in their last game. Coverage wise both teams rank nearly the same in kickoff yards allowed (the Panthers at 21.1 ranking them 67th with the Coogs at 21.5 for 77th), and both teams allow only 4.7 yards per punt return, good for 28th nationally.   Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) continues to improve as a punter for the Coogs as he has placed 11 of his 38 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line on top of his 39.1 yard average. Pitt’s Ryan Winslow (6’5, 210, Fr.) has placed 20 of his 48 inside the 20 while also averaging nearly 40 yards per punt a game. If the game comes down to a field goal, both teams have kickers they can depend on overall, though both Chris Blewitt (5’9, 185, So.) for Pitt and Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) for Houston have struggled at times this season. While Blewitt is has connected on 14 of his 19 attempts, he missed a 23-yard chip shot against Duke that they ended up losing in double-overtime in a game that could have possibly cost them a bowl opportunity. Bullard meanwhile has connected on only 4 of his last 8 attempts but is still 16 for 22 overall.

Keys to the game

With weeks to game plan, each coaching staff could try to start the game with a  ‘tendency breaker,’ game calling wise. An example being each team starting offensively passing the ball as opposed to establishing a run game early. Both staffs must be careful though, as you don’t want to go away from your strength or basically outsmart yourself as each coach on the field could be showing his skills for a new team next season.

In all this game will boil down to what it always does, who controls the line of scrimmage. If the Panthers offensive line is allowed to move the Coogs defensive line off of the point of attack, grounding out 5 and 6 yard rushing plays while eating the clock wearing down the defense, it’ll be a long game for Houston, especially considering the Panthers are 22nd nationally in converting third downs at 46-percent. The other two factors will be scoring in the redzone and turnovers. Pitt is fourth nationally in scoring TDs in the redzone as they’ve crossed the goal line on 40 of 54 such attempts, good for 74-percent while the Coogs defense allows a TD conversion rate of 64-percent, good for 86th nationally. The Coogs offense meanwhile converts only 52-percent of their 54 redzone opportunities into TDs (98th) against an equally woeful Pitt D, which allows a 69-percent rate themselves (113th). Even though the Coogs turnover streak on defense ended at 34 consecutive games after not forcing one at Cinci, they still rank 21st nationally in turnover margin at a plus-8 and are 6th nationally in fumble recoveries with 11 and 7th in interceptions with 19. Pitt meanwhile is an inept 101st at a minus-5.

Coordinators love game planning trick plays with all the extra practice time, and Friday’s game may not be any different. One play I’d personally love to see is a lateral from Farrow (out of the ‘Wild Coog’ formation) to Ward, who would then throw across the field back to Farrow behind an envoy of offensive linemen. I saw TCU run this play against Iowa State and thought it would be perfect with the Cougars personnel, especially with Ward lining up at an outside receiver spot.

X’s and O’s aside, motivation will be key come Friday morning in Ft. Worth as both teams will be looking to impress their head coaches as they look to put out good ‘film’ in determining who gets playing time next season and years beyond. Rudolph via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “this group will be motivated, the two things that I think they truly have is they do not compromise when it comes to their performance and they do not compromise when it comes to their decision-making outside of football. Character, effort, those things, they own those things right now. We'll keep reminding them that they own them, but they do own them. And they'll show that."

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