By my count, at least 27 of Pitt's 42 running plays were up the middle – mostly traps and counters, and most of those out of double tight-end sets.
The play-calling of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh came under heavy scrutiny last year, most notably in a 48-46 loss to Navy in double overtime. The Panthers got a little too fancy in that game. Most pointedly, they were much too fancy in trying two pass plays in goal-to-go situations in overtime. Both fell incomplete.
And again on Saturday, the Panthers paid for being a little too cute, a little too fancy. Navy senior Rashawn King intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it 91 yards to set up a touchdown in the second quarter. Pitt also threw the ball – and it fell incomplete – on a 3rd and 2 in the second half.
More plays like that would have left the door open, just a little, for Navy to go through.
But give Pitt Coach Dave Wannstedt credit. Wannstedt is not the last word in coaching, but he knew enough to hire offensive line coach Tony Wise in the off-season. Wise had spent 18 years with the New York Jets (but had been on the Pitt staff in the mid-1970s).
And his work with the linemen took the teeth out of any missteps in play-calling from Cavanaugh. Essentially, his presence and prowess, plus LeSean McCoy's unique skill set, gave Pitt confidence to run the ball no matter what on Saturday.
Pitt's game plan, to run right at undersized Navy, reminded me very much of what Notre Dame used to do to Navy. In the 43-year winning streak, ND had 35 running backs gain at least 90 yards against the Midshipmen. ND was always bigger and stronger than Navy; no need to get too fancy. Get the win and move on.
So it's one thing that Pitt's coaches have shown a way for teams to beat Navy. Run right at the d-line, force the linebackers to make decisions, control the clock and keep the option offense off the field.
But do any of Navy's remaining opponents have the ability and/or talent to match Pitt's game plan?
I tend to doubt it. McCoy is an uncommonly good running back. Wise is a nonpareil line coach.
Certainly I'd be surprised if Southern Methodist Coach June Jones goes to a power running attack on Saturday. He is very well known as a pass-first coach.
Also, it uses a lot of three-wide receiver sets, which makes it very difficult to run a power scheme.
Notre Dame's offensive line doesn't look very good on run blocking. Or at least not good on drive blocking for straight-ahead stuff. Moreover, the best blocking tight end, junior Will Yeatman, is out for the year following an off-field issue. Note what happened in a fourth down-and-short against Stanford on Oct. 4. Yeatman's replacement got destroyed by a linebacker, who blew the play up.
No sense in talking about a bowl game just yet. Coaches aren't only copy cats, they're also superstitious. So I don't want to kick up that hornet's nest.
Hope to talk again before Saturday's game.