While the Irish would like to start fast, they haven't started fast in the last nine games they've played. Looking at the last nine games (Boston College 2002, Navy 02, Rutgers 02, USC 02, North Carolina State 02, Washington State 03, Michigan 03, Michigan State 03 and Purdue 03), the Irish have been outscored 11-45 in the first quarter. They've also been outscored 68-117 at halftime and trailed in seven of those games and were tied in one at the half. The only lead they had was a 14-0 lead against Rutgers in 2002 in this nine-game stretch. They are also 3-6 in this stretch with their only wins against Navy, Rutgers and their win against Washington State this year.
The numbers suggest the Irish start slow but they haven't finished strong either against the better teams they've faced. In their games against Boston College, USC, North Carolina State, Washington State, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, The Irish have been outscored 46-91 in the second half.
The good news is Pittsburgh hasn't played the best competition in Kent State (3-3), Ball State (3-3), Toledo (3-2) and Texas A&M (2-3). They also haven't started fast against the teams on the schedule having outscored their opponents just 19-7 in the first quarter but came on in the second quarter outscoring their competition 75-44 at halftime. While they did have the lead at halftime against all these teams, they did lose to Toledo 35-31 and some might suggest they should've had a much larger lead on some of these teams.
Coach Tyrone Willingham addressed some of these issues at his Tuesday press conference with the media. Willingham knows his team hasn't gotten off to a fast start in the games they've played recently and he's hoping that changes soon.
"It creates a scenario where we've been chasing our opponent," said Willingham. "We would much prefer to have them chase us. When you are always trying to come from behind, that's always a difficult position. We'd love to get off to a fast start and put a little bit more pressure on our opponents and have to chase us."
In order for the Irish to have success against Pittsburgh, they are going to have to find a way to run the football and keep the potent Panther offense off the field. If the Irish can generate a running game, they should be able to stay in the game or maybe even win.
Willingham agreed with our theory and said it will be very important for his team to be able to run the football. "I would say yes to that, especially in the situation that we're in right now, because we have not generated a lot of points. Anything that we can do to keep their offense off the field would benefit us".
The Irish had success against Purdue throwing the football for 300 yards but Willingham says they need to find a running game for this team to be successful. "Throwing the football is great, it's exciting, fans love it, but if you go by the statistics of it, usually if you're throwing for 300, 350 plus yards with no running game, then you usually don't fair well. We've got to be committed to the run, we've got to be patient with the run and that is very difficult to be patient. The only thing that makes really patient is success at it."
"We've got to do better, that is what allows you to keep coming back to it," Willingham continued. "No one moans or groans when you throw one incompletion. If you have one run of less than three or four yards then the whole world, that's coaches, (we) are the same way; the world is in a down-slide. We've got to understand that and that's where hopefully the experience comes in and you can be patient with it and say ‘O.K., let's keep grinding it and keep grinding it.'"
Willingham said running the football is vital to any football team because it allows the team to dictate the game. "I've always stated that running the football is an important ingredient to being a successful football team, period. It adds an element of toughness, as you get into the ball game, it adds field position usually and, the potential to control the clock. If you can keep the ball away from your opponent, it makes it very difficult for them to score."
Early last week, offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick had said that the Irish would try some different players along the offensive line to try to fix their problems up front. Willingham said they pretty much stuck with the same five that had been receiving the majority of playing time the last few weeks.
"I think for most of the week we were pretty consistent in terms with the guys we're working," said Willingham about those getting the most reps. "It's been (Jamie) Ryan at one of the guards, (Dan) Stevenson at the tackle, (Jim) Molinaro at the tackle, (Mark) LeVoir at the guard and (Bob) Morton at the center."
Probably the most important task at hand for Willingham and his staff has been to keep that positive attitude. Willingham said that has always been his philosophy in coaching and in life. "You can't accomplish anything, I don't believe, in a negative state of mind. You've got to stay positive, you've got to be motivated to be positive and that is one of life's lessons."
The Irish defense will have the very difficult task of trying to contain Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. We've never heard Willingham say so many respectful words towards one player. "It's one of those situations where you try to figure out what positive adjectives you use to describe this guy. He is very consistent and spectacular and that is a very difficult combination for us to defense. As right now, no one has done a good job of doing it."
The Irish will have to try to find a way to slow down the potent Pitt passing attack—something Willingham believes nobody has solved as of yet. "I think people, and that includes us, are still trying to figure out the right way to stop him (Fitzgerald), the quarterback. It's a little different scheme than what we normally see. I think Coach Harris has backgrounds in what has been labeled the west coast offense but I think he kind of went directly to the East Bay for his lessons. He is a more vertical push with this passing game. Fitzgerald does great deep routes and their utilization of the tight end has a vertical stretch to it also."
"It's a little bit different and very difficult to contain because of the max protection that they use," Willingham continued. "They give themselves every opportunity to get that ball to that wide receiver. By trying to apply pressure, you often have to commit a lot of people to it because of that maximum protection which fits into their hands, now they have the ability to isolate him one-on-one and one-on-one, he's extremely dangerous."
Last year the Irish used a lot of zone coverage and kept Fitzgerald and the Panther offense in front of their defense. Willingham isn't convinced that will work again. "I'm not sure if that is the only way, I think that people are still experimenting and trying to find the right way to slow him down and it may just be using a variety of things."
It's rare to find a quarterback and wide receiver that have the chemistry that Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald seem to have. These two make plays and it usually doesn't matter how many people a team has covering Fitzgerald, he's going to make his plays.
The key to stopping Pitt is to keep both off the field. The only way the Irish can do that is to run the football or force turnovers. Willingham certainly gave both a lot of respect on Tuesday and knows his offense is going to have to play this week to help his defense out—that would certainly be a welcomed change.