No. 23 Pittsburgh (4-1), which faces the Midshipmen (4-2) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md., ran for 227 yards on 48 carries in a 48-45 double-overtime loss at Heinz Field. The down side was that Navy tallied 497 total yards in that game, including 331 rushing, but that's another story.
Ball control will be the key for Pitt, because long drives by the Panthers will keep the Midshipmen off the field. Sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy had 32 carries for 165 yards and three touchdowns last year, and fullback Conredge Collins added 52 yards on nine runs.
"I think we've got to find a way to keep their offense off the field, and I think you can do that by running and throwing,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "What happened last week, we scored two touchdowns by throwing the ball. ... The big pass to Jonathan Baldwin gave us a quick score, and the pass to Oderick Turner at the end got us in position to score.''
Wannstedt believed that McCoy was much more confident at this point than he was going into this season and certainly is much better than he was last year. His progress has been dramatic, Wannstedt noted. McCoy predictably deflected credit to his teammates.
"The offensive line has started to come together, and we're working together,'' McCoy said. "We have the attitude that we're going to run the ball no matter what, and we're very confident right now. ... Our receivers blocking downfield give us a chance to be one-on-one with DBs, and we'll take that matchup. But on most long runs, the receivers probably did a good job blocking downfield.
"Navy runs a 3-4 defense, but they're kind of undersized. So, opponents usually try to pound the ball against them, and we did that last year. But they have good speed, and they're very quick. And they play well together, get to the ball and gang-tackle. ... A 3-4 defense is meant to have some size in the linemen, though, and they don't. So, we'll just try to overpower them.''
That means Collins again could play a larger role than usual.
"We've got a lot of different things in the run game that I think we can do,'' Collins said. "This week, we're going to continue what we've been doing. Shady has been running hard, and we're not going to get away from that. For me, it's all about opportunity, so when they call my number I'm going to be ready.
"I'm not really focus on how many carries I get. ... If I'm needed to catch a pass or get a first down or throw a block, that's what I'll do. It's tough to take when you know you can produce, but winning games are more important. So, that's what I'm all about. I'll do whatever it takes for us to be successful.''
Pitt running backs coach David Walker believed the run game success in recent weeks has been a team effort, from improvement by the offensive line to downfield blocking by the wideouts and just better running by the backs in general. But the one aspect that has remained an issue is McCoy's fumbles.
"It's important every week for LeSean to protect the football,'' Walker said. "We all have to be smart with the football. ... If you win the turnover battle, you have a chance to win the game. If you don't, it's a lot tougher, and we've made it a lot tougher the past couple of weeks.
"We've been fortunate enough to get some wins, but if that trend continues it won't continue. If we constantly turn the ball over, we're not going to win football games. So, it's touched upon every week, and he's trying to keep it high and tight and keep two hands on it if possible.''
McCoy noted that it appears that the opposition is making an increased effort to strip him before attempting to tackle him. And that's not a bad idea, he said, considering he's fumbled three times in five games.
"I think sometimes I get a little too lackadaisical,'' McCoy said. "I'm thinking about a lot of things, and I'm trying to break down a defender. When I do that, the ball gets a little loose. So, I'm working on keeping it tight in practice. That's really important this week, because we can't give up any possessions early.
"So, I've been working hard in practice all week. Repetition is the key, I think. It's starting to become a problem. We're winning, and I'm getting yards. But I think I'm letting my teammates down. The coaches have been very patient with me, but I have to take it upon myself to practice it a little more.''
McCoy had a lot of success running out of the Wildcat formation last year, where he takes a direct snap from center with an option to run or pass. Pitt also used junior quarterback Greg Cross in that formation this year, and he scored a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage.
The two times the Panthers went to the Wildcat at South Florida were somewhat disastrous, a bad snap and busted play that resulted in lost yardage. McCoy believed that better execution was all that was needed.
"Actually, the play would have been longer than everybody thought,'' McCoy said. "If we would have gotten the snap, it would have been at least a 15-yarder. And the one with Greg Cross around the end, if we would have blocked that up a little better, it might have been a touchdown.''
Despite the limited success, McCoy added that the Wildcat is still in Pitt's playbook. And it could get dusted off to be used this week.
"There is some rhyme and reason to what we're trying to do, but we just haven't executed it very well,'' Wannstedt said. "But we're not giving up on it.''
Pitt's attitude is the same about its running game as well.
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