Bennett's Experience A Bonus

From his peewee and scholastic football teams in Texas to college playing days at Texas A&M and coaching stints there, as well as Kansas State, Louisiana State and SMU -- that's some five decades of experience -- Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has seen every offense imaginable.

That's why University of Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt tabbed Bennett to succeed Paul Rhoads as the Panthers' defensive leader in February and why No. 23 Pitt (4-1) should be successful against the triple-option offense when it faces Navy (4-2) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md.

Anything, actually, would be an improvement to what Pitt's defense did last year after allowing 497 total yards, including 331 rushing, in a 48-45 double-overtime loss at Heinz Field.

"I've coached against it a bunch, because I grew up in that era,'' Bennett said. "I coached against the Wishbone at Oklahoma, the I-option at Nebraska, every year at SMU and A&M we played Rice with Kenny Hatfield. ... He kind of started it and brought it to the Service Academies.

"He's the guy, after Bill Parcells left the Air Force Academy, Kenny got the job and then went to Arkansas. So, I played against it a lot and, quite honestly, have had some success against it and have not had some success. So, it's still about players. And you can't get too complicated.''

Bennett and some Pitt players intimated that there was too much involved in the defensive scheme last season. This year, the Panthers are concentrating on three things, according to Bennett. Like the movie Groundhog Day, where each day was the same for actor Bill Murray, Pitt's defense talks about the fullback dive play, the quarterback run and the pitch.

Pitt redshirt junior defensive tackle Mick Williams had a simpler thought.

"They dumbed it down for us,'' Williams said. "It's a lot easier. We're just going to do how we've been doing, and we're going to play how we play. I just want to play these guys again, because last year was a tough loss for us, so we just want to get after these guys, mainly.

"My job this week is just to make as many tackles as I can and free up things for the linebackers. We've gone over a lot of cut blocks during practice, ball drills and getting our hands on (people), moving our feet out of the way. So, it's been a tremendous help having Coach Bennett around.''

Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada ran the Navy offense last season, but the senior quarterback has a hamstring injury that forced him to miss three games this season and could make him inactive this week as well. Senior Jarod Bryant played in all six games and should get the start against Pitt.

Bryant is 15-for-25 for 247 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, while Kaipo is 10-for-14 for 192 with two scores and no picks. Kaipo was 9-for-12 for 166 yards and two TDs with no interceptions last year at Pitt.

Senior slotback Shun White leads Navy with 698 yards rushing (9.1 average) and four touchdowns. Senior fullback Eric Kettani has 510 yards rushing and one score. Bryant has run for 311 yards and five scores, while Kaipo added 105 yards and two TDs. Senior wideout Tyree Barnes is the top receiver, by far, with 11 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

"It was a new offense that we faced last year, a high-scoring one that led the nation in rushing offense,'' Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They're going to take what we give them, and they did that with their running game. But they also hit a couple big passes, and that really made the difference.

"So, we have to read our keys and execute at 100 percent. Their fullback got 6-7 yards every carry, but we picked things up in the second half. They have a lot of good athletes, so you can't key on any one player on Navy. They're going to run the ball and hit big passes, and we have to be ready for it.''

It's a good bet that Pitt should be ready for anything and everything the triple-option presents, since Bennett's former head coach at Texas A&M -- Emory Bellard -- basically invented the Wishbone offense and used it with the Aggies from 1972-78 and at Mississippi State from 1979-85.

"I remember the low ducks and the fullback dives with George Woodard, the first 300-pound fullback, who was at A&M,'' Bennett said. "He was a teammate of mine, who was a little bit younger, but it's very disciplined and is an offense that takes advantage of the defense's weaknesses by number count.

"It is a slashing, cutting type of offense that you just don't see. When they do it every day ... the hardest thing about defending it is the simulation of it, getting the looks in practice. Our guys are about worn out from getting cut (blocked) or attempting to get cut. So, getting started early will be crucial for us.''

Former Gateway High School quarterback Aaron Smith, now a redshirt freshman wideout at Pitt, and freshman quarterback Tino Sunseri are quarterbacks for Navy's offense in simulations for the Panthers' defense. Both are mobile, but can pass as well, since Navy spread out its offense when Paul Johnson coached there until this season. Even with Ken Niumatalolo as the head coach this year, the Midshipmen are effective on offense with 313.5 rushing yards per game and 5.7 per carry.

"It's a true triple-option -- fullback, quarterback, pitch -- but they do it from multiple formations,'' Bennett said. "They get the pitch man into different formations and can spread the field.(And) if you don't spread with them they can throw the ball. So, it's a running version of the run-and-shoot.

"It's a challenge for a coach, and ... you've almost got to become part of the triple-option cult to think like they do and count numbers. Along with that, you've got to be physical. If you're not physical with the fullback, he'll have 5-6 yards (per carry) or maybe more.

"And if you have everybody keyed on the run, they'll hit you with a big pass like on the first play last year for 58 yards,'' Bennett added. "And that puts you on your heels right off the bat. Their yards per snap in passing, I think they're right up there in leading the country, even though they don't throw a lot.''

That means Pitt likely will stay in its base defense more often than not, but the Bandit -- used primarily against the spread -- might get used as well at Navy.

"I told the kids, and I mean this,'' Bennett said. "We want to be the type of defense that can defend multiple offenses. And that takes two things, intelligence and not letting things slow you down.

"It's all about being aggressive. It's still about tackling and getting lined up, and that's what separates the good defenses and the great defenses. This is a challenge for us, but if you don't get some stops you could be in for a long afternoon. ... You've got to give your offense opportunities to score.''

And with someone as experienced as Bennett guiding Pitt's defense, the Panthers should benefit immensely.

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