Pitt Preview: Pitt Offense

When Pittsburgh athletic director Jeff Long named Dave Wannstedt as the Panthers 32nd head football coach, the university was looking to improve or change something. Was it their identity? Were they looking for someone who understood the University of Pittsburgh, Panther football, and hard-nosed Western Pennsylvania football?

"All change is not growth; all movement is not forward." - Ellen Glasgow

So what should we expect from the 2005 Pittsburgh offense? Change. Gone is Walt Harris' west coast offense. Gone likely is throwing the football 35 times a game. Gone probably is opening the game with four wide receivers as the Panthers did last year against the Irish in 2004. Wannstedt is a defensive-minded coach and tends to prefer a more conservative style of offense predicated on a power running game.

Enter Matt Cavanaugh. Like Wannstedt, Cavanaugh was dismissed from his two previous gigs as offensive coordinator. After two seasons as the Bears offensive coordinator, Cavanaugh was shown the door with the rest of the Wannstedt's staff. Then after six relatively unsuccessful years as the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, Cavanaugh politely resigned last season after the Ravens offense finished next to last in the NFL.

Cavanaugh did have some success establishing an effective rushing offense in Baltimore that took advantage of the opportunities given to it by an outstanding defense. His offenses generally finished in the top half of the league in rushing and even lead the NFL in rushing in 2003.

So what will Irish fans see from the Panther offense on September 3? My guess is that we will see something similar to the Ravens offense minus Jamaal Lewis or the Miami Dolphins offense minus Ricky Williams – take your pick.

Cavanaugh will likely attempt to change the identity and retool an offense, whose strength is its quarterback and wide receivers, and place the focus on the running backs and offensive line.

The Panthers offense returns nine starters from a group that was ranked No. 72 in total offense nationally, and averaged 357.83 yards per game. Returning for Pitt under center is Tyler Palko. In his first season as the starting quarterback, Palko helped the Pitt passing offense finish No. 24 in the nation by averaging 260 yards per contest, and he ended the season ranked No. 33 in passing efficiency with a rating of 135.02.

While those numbers look good on the surface, I wasn't all that impressed with Palko throughout the year. Did he torch Notre Dame for five touchdowns? Sure, but when you look deeper into his stats, you don't come away as impressed, or at least I don't.

In three games against Division II Furman, Notre Dame, and South Florida (4-7), Palko padded his stats with 1,125 passing yards and 18 of his 24 touchdowns. In five of Pitt's games in 2004 Palko's completion percentage was under 50 percent The national media seems to love Palko, but I'll have to see another solid season from him before I heap a ton of the praise on the kid.

Pitt will be returning their top nine receivers to help Palko move the Pitt offense. The top guy is 6-2, 200-pound junior Greg Lee. Lee has received several preseason All-American nominations as he finished the 2004 season sixth in the nation in receiving yards, and he led Pitt in receptions with 68 catches for 1,295 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Last year against the Irish he caught five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Joe DelSardo will likely line up at the other wide receiver position--he was second in receiving with 49 receptions for 573 yards and four touchdowns.

Returning at tight end will be the player that the Notre Dame defense made look like Tony Gonzalez at the end of last year's game, Eric Gill. It was Gill's reception in the flat that he turned into a 36-yard gain that set up the game winning field goal against the Irish. On the season, Gill caught 25 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns in '04.

The running game is where Wannstedt and Cavanaugh will be challenged. Pitt does return their starting tailback, Ray Kirkley, starting fullback, Tim Murphy, and third down specialist, Marcus Furman, but this is a team that failed to gain 100 yards rushing in seven games last season, including a game against Furman. The Pitt rushing attack finished ranked No. 105 in the nation last season averaging just 97.75 yards per game.

Kirkley, a senior, is solid running back, but he isn't the type of running back that can carry an offense. He has good size, but with limited speed and little shake.

Murphy might be similar to Notre Dame's Rashon Powers-Neal, and could be used as a big back. Marcus Furman does some nice things, but he is a smaller back, and certainly isn't a workhorse type running back.

The bright spot in the backfield may be newcomer Rashad Jennings. Jennings enrolled in the spring and received rave reviews. He's a bigger back with good speed. The 6-1, 235- pound Jennings rushed for 118 yards on 19 carries in the Panther spring game.

Up front the Pitt offensive line returns three of five starters from last year's unit. Returning are fifth year senior Charles Spencer, junior right tackle Mike McGlynn, and senior right guard John Sinonitis. Spencer (6-5, 330 pounds) will move from left guard to left tackle.

The offensive line is the area I believe will take the longest for the new staff to develop. Much like the Irish, the last several years the Pitt offensive line just hasn't been dominating. They have lacked the mentality to effectively run the ball when the defense knows the offense wants to run the ball. I'm not sure the current Pitt roster has the people to get achieve that now.

Cavanaugh might be the perfect offensive coordinator for a Dave Wannstedt team because he is a guy that has proven he has the patience to establish a power running game. But until Wannstedt gets the players to fit the offensive identity, Cavanaugh will obviously work to the strength of the existing personnel, which is at quarterback and wide receiver. In the end, I think Pitt will struggle on offense in Wannstedt's inaugural season because I don't think either coach can change who they are, and I don't think that Pitt has the personnel to run an effective power running game.

In part III we'll take a look at the Pitt defense. Look for part III coming very soon.


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