Everyone on Pitt's defense is under close watch, after the 27-24 overtime loss last week to Utah. The defensive line didn't get to put the pressure on the quarterback they like to. The secondary wasn‘t lights out, but they did get big plays from players such as Antwuan Reed and Jared Holley. The linebackers, though, got caught out of position several times, which led to big Utah plays.
"The only time we gave a couple plays underneath is when we missed tackles," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Max Gruder, one time, went to knock the ball down and missed, and the guy got across the field. Dan Mason let the guy get down underneath him one time, even though he made two or three really good plays."
It may have been a couple times, according to the head coach, but in a game that was decided by three points, even being caught out of position for one play makes a difference. The Panthers had no help from their three starting linebackers, and no one is quicker to point the blame, than the linebackers themselves.
"You could say experience, but really, we just need to be more disciplined," linebacker Max Gruder said. "We had a lot of new starters step in there. It's a tough first game. It's very loud in there. I really don't attribute that. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses. Just be more mentally tough out there, and be on the same page."
New Hampshire runs a different type of spread, from what Utah does. Utah's spread was similar to that of Cincinnati's--a dual-threat type quarterback is running the show, but is elusive, and is primarily a thrower with very little running involved. New Hampshire's offense is also built around the quarterback, R.J. Toman, who also is a dual-threat type quarterback. As opposed to Jordan Wynn, Pitt will need to be ready for Toman to take off and run, more than what Wynn did.
While the underneath routes might not be the threat of flavor this week, defending New Hampshire's spread might be based more off of the key reads. Either way, instead of defending the pass, the linebackers are going to have to come up in run support--and not the traditional two-back run support they see in practice every day.
"They're very similar in the personnel, and the formations they have," Gruder added. "The key this week, will obviously be executing our assignments, unlike what we did last week. We're not close to where we want to be. We watched the game, we didn't do what we wanted to do. We knew what we were doing, we just didn't execute it. If we communicate better, in all facets, to be, that was the biggest problem in that game. We'll be on the same page, play (after) play."
In recent years, Pitt has fared better against teams that emphasize running out of the spread formation. Wannstedt compared New Hampshire's style of spread to a variation of the triple option that Navy runs. The last time the Panthers saw something like that, they limited Navy's rushing total (129 yards) to its lowest output in four years.
"I thought overall, the linebackers were solid for seeing that type of offense," Wannstedt said, referring back to the Utah game. "We'll be better this week with more reps. That's the type of offense we'll see most of this year, but that's the whole theory behind that, spread you out, get those guys matched up one-on-one against skill guys that have quickness and see if they're athletic enough to make plays in space."
Are these mental mistakes correctable?
"They're all correctable," Wannstedt said. "One guy thought it was one coverage, then it was something else. For the most part, we were lined up where we should have been."
"I've wanted to get back onto the field, since the second we stepped off the field," Gruder adds. "Every single one of us--players and coaches included--know that's not how we should play, and how we can play. We're going to live up to expectations. I guarantee that, come Saturday."