Game Day Commentary

Mark these next two games down as ones that could change Pitt's season.

Not looking past Navy (4-2), which No. 23 Pittsburgh (4-1) plays today at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md., but I'm lumping the Midshipmen with Rutgers because they are two games that the Panthers can, should and must win.

There's no doubt that every remaining game is winnable, but West Virginia is the only team Pitt has beaten recently among the second-half games. And the Panthers certainly appear to be superior to Navy and Rutgers. Also, two more wins would give Pitt six on the season, and only one more would be needed in the final five to become bowl eligible.

Sure, everyone associated with the Panthers, the administration, coaches, players and fans, want and even expect more this season. However, after three straight years without a post-season trip, becoming bowl-eligible is necessary before upgrading to a BCS matchup.

And the first step toward goal is Navy. The Midshipmen aren't an easy opponent for any team. They are well-coached, disciplined and athletic, and their offense isn't one that teams often see. The Panthers have some experience against it, although some believe last season's game tape should have been burned immediately or only shown to Pitt's defense as a punishment.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett disagreed, however, saying that the Pitt defense did some good things against Navy last fall. Plus, it's good to show what didn't work, and Bennett had some ideas on that as well. The Panthers need to be more aggressive with the fullback, knock him around a bit and don't let him get comfortable.

Kevin Campbell scored three touchdowns, one rushing and two receiving, so he was a huge key to the Navy win. Eric Kettani also is a bruising blocker, and both are back this season. The quarterback who ran Navy's triple-option so deftly last year, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has given way to Jared Bryant due to a hamstring injury. Bryant is equally as dangerous, but not as experienced.

Pitt must be aggressive and pressure Bryant into making mistakes, something the Midshipmen rarely do. They are second in the nation in being penalized, but Pitt is first. So, this should be a pretty clean game. And it's one that the Panthers must take control of immediately.

That's something else that didn't happen last year. Even though the teams traded scores throughout, Navy hit some big passes early to put Pitt on its heels defensively. The Panthers defense played off the ball to begin with, in hindsight an ill-advised tactic, but a long pass completion to open the game loosened it even more.

So, it's a fine line for Pitt. Be aggressive on defense, but play responsibly. Stick with your keys and don't overplay. It seems simple enough.

Offensively, run, run and then run some more. Shady can handle it. Pitt tailback LeSean McCoy has said that he gets better with every carry. He had 32 and three touchdowns last year. One more carry at the end might have resulted in a game-winning touchdown, but ... let's not go there. McCoy needs to be utilized as much as possible in and out of the backfield.

That said, don't be afraid to mix in LaRod Stephens-Howling a few times and pound Navy a bit with fullback Conredge Collins as well. The Midshipmen are susceptible to power runs, and with pulling guards C.J. Davis and John Malecki leading the way the Panthers should be able to take advantage of that.

I'm not advocating a shut-down for quarterback Bill Stull and the passing game, but successfully running the ball and controlling the clock are critical to beating Navy. However, some timely passing with Stull managing the game, as well as a couple shots downfield each quarter, would be beneficial as well.

This is a big game for Stull, time for him to go from being a new starter to being a play-maker. If he was injured as badly as many believe going into the Syracuse game and even against South Florida, Stull deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, he's healthy now and needs to stop playing so tentatively. Make a decision and cut loose. Be decisive.

Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh has been chastised for being too conservative, and rightfully so early in the season. The Panthers' offensive talent can be utilized without taking chances. I'm not talking about double-reverses and flea-flickers here. Just get the ball to the somebody who can make some plays. That's Derek Kinder when a short pass is needed for a first down and freshman Jonathan Baldwin when a downfield toss is necessary.

Lean on McCoy as well. He genuinely appears to be embarrassed by his recent fumbles and determined to make up for them. That's not good news for the opposition. Pitt's offensive line has elevated its play immensely the past few games. Give those guys a chance to get in a rhythm. It's never a bad thing to win the battle in the trenches, and the Panthers have an opportunity to do that with this group.

And finally, special teams could make the difference if there are any big returns or blocks. But if the game comes down to Pitt needing a Conor Lee field goal for a win, the Panthers should be able to put it in the books.

And then move on to Rutgers.

Panther Digest Top Stories