Stopping The Spread

Five years ago, in his first game coaching in ‘The Backyard Brawl,' Dave Wannstedt made the infamous halftime quote, about simply having to run faster. Over the course of the last five years, Pitt's defense has improved. Looking back on Wannstedt's quote that day, and seeing the state of Pitt's defense today, it's easy to see now that Wannstedt really was speaking the truth.

"When Coach (Wannstedt) made the comment a few years ago, after the halftime of West Virginia game, when they said, 'what do you have to do', and Coach Wannstedt said, 'We have to fun faster,' I kind of laughed because he was just kind of saying, 'we don't run fast enough,'" assistant head coach Greg Gattuso said. "We went out and recruited players that do. I feel good about our kids. I like our matchups. We're confident in our game."

That night, Pitt allowed West Virginia quarterback Pat White to average nearly 10 yards on 23 carries, as he established a new rushing record for yards in a game by a quarterback. It wasn't the kind of stamp that Wannstedt and company planned to put in that first year in 2005. On the eve of Wannstedt's debut as head coach, Pitt suffered arguably its worst bowl-loss ever--a 35-7 loss to Utah, behind a flawless performance from quarterback Alex Smith, who completed 29-of-37 passes for 328 yards.

Having a dual-threat quarterback, makes the offense all the more lethal. This year, the Utes have Jordan Wynn, who like Smith, is just as dangerous at throwing the ball, as he is passing. Safety Dom DeCicco compared the Utes' tendencies to a couple of Big East foes.

"They do a combination (of running and passing), like South Florida and Cincinnati," DeCicco said. "They run the ball pretty well out of the spread. They actually pass the ball pretty well. They throw screens at you, draws, they have a running quarterback. It makes it very difficult to stop. We got to be clicking on all cylinders of the game, and make sure we're good at stopping the run."

Though West Virginia has done its damage with the spread, over the years, on the ground, Smith did it through the air that day. It was clear after those abysmal losses, which ended the 2004 and 2005 seasons, that Pitt had to go out and recruit players that could stop the spread, like Gattuso addressed. Fast linebackers and a secondary that can come up in run support is fine, but as evidenced by Pitt's improvement through the years, stopping the spread starts with the players up front, specifically the defensive tackles.

Even though Pitt has to replace Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, the defensive tackle position--aside from the contributions that are expected from Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Brandon Lindsey and others--still looks strong.

"I have incredible faith in Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein," Gattuso said. "We're in great hands with Myles, and Chas is a great football player too. (Chas) is a little bigger than we're used to having out there. I've been really happy with the three other guys inside. Ty Tkach has had an incredible good camp. I think that Ty Ezell, as a redshirt freshman, is going to be a great player. This Aaron Donald kid has an interesting future for us. I'm excited."

One thing that Pitt has figured out over the years, is to avoid having just one guy make all the tackles. Though Pitt expects to have Greg Romeus back for this game, he's not the only one on Pitt's defense capable of making plays, nor will he have the pressure to make plays.

"The spread offense, they're going to make one guy make a tackle," Gattuso added. "That's the whole deal. If someone's going to make a play, it's going to be one guy, not two or three. (Utah) is good at that--finding gaps, finding holes, putting you in tough situations. We're used to it. We know how to prepare for it."

With the depth chart built up in recent years, Pitt's hopes against Utah rest in its preparations.

"We're the strange offense in the country, now," Gattuso added. "The two-back power, playaction. I think people have trouble simulating us. Whereas five, six years ago, we were trying to figure out everything, how to simulate a spread offense, and the speed of the offense."

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