Pittsburgh vs. Iowa Football: Breaking Down the Matchups as Hawks Take on Pitt
The above picture came from the pregame festivities in 2008. Iowa traveled to play the Pittsburgh Panthers, who were coached by Dave Wannstedt.
The consensus among Iowa fans was that regardless of any specific matchups, there was no way the Wannstache would out-coach their man, Ferentz.
After all, Ferentz was (at the time) a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year. He had brought Iowa back from mediocrity and won two Big Ten titles. Yes, the previous two years had been rocky, but Iowa was ready to come back and Ferentz was still one of the best coaches in the game.
One only needed to look at the NFL teams that were still knocking on his door for proof of that.
Meanwhile, Wannstedt was, well, Wannstedt.
However, it was during that game that the bloom came off Ferentz's rose, so to speak. We had forgiven most of his past indiscretions—offensive conservatism and City Boyz Inc. to name two—but his on-the-field and personnel decisions in the Pitt game were baffling.
In the end, the Hawks lost 20-21, due less to any of Wannstedt's strategizing and more to Ferentz beating himself.
Ultimately, the 2008 season turned out fairly well and the 2009 season turned out extremely well. Nevertheless, the 2008 Pitt game will always stand out for me as the game where Ferentz's weaknesses as a coach became manifest.
Now, it is 2011 and Iowa is coming off a loss to Iowa State, a game in which Ferentz made some of the most questionable coaching decisions of his career.
The Wannstache is gone and the maestro of spread, no-huddle offenses—Todd Graham—has taken over at Pittsburgh.
I suspect most of the Iowa Hawkeye fanbase is with me in not feeling especially confident where it concerns their Hawks right now.
The question is will Ferentz be able to turn it around. Maybe Pitt 2011 will be just as much of a touchstone game as 2008, but in a different way.
Pitt vs. Cupcake Rust
Pitt's 2011 opponents to date have been Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference and Maine of the FCS's Colonial Athletic Association.
This season, Buffalo projects to be a middling representative of the Big Ten's junior conference, while Maine might or might not be good, but they are not an FCS powerhouse ala New Hampshire or Northern Iowa.
In short, Pitt might still be licking the sugar off their lips from the cupcakes they've faced thus far.
Meanwhile, Iowa's schedule has hardly been daunting in the truest sense, but the road game against instate rival Iowa State counts for more competition than games against an average MAC school and a less-than-average FCS school.
Pitt Defensive Line vs. Iowa Offensive Line
Depending upon how much Northwestern's, Penn State's, Purdue's and Michigan's lines improve, Pitt could have the third-best D-line Iowa faces all year (after Nebraska and Michigan State). At the very least, they are one of the most complete, and the third-best right now, as they return all three starters.
Last season, Pitt ranked second in the Big East in rushing defense and third in sacks with 34.
This season, they currently have the 23rd-best rush defense in the country, having allowed 2.38 YPC. As previously mentioned, their competition has not been stellar, but their cumulative YPC is better than the Iowa defense allowed against Tennessee Tech.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeye offensive line has shown itself to be good, but if this Iowa crew is going to do anything substantial this year, the offense will have to carry the team—more on that later—and if the offense is to be successful, the line will have to be dominant.
Riley Reiff vs. Brandon Lindsey
Pitt outside linebacker/defensive end Brandon Lindsey was named a preseason All-American by multiple publications.
Last season, he had 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He is off to a strong start this season, having compiled two sacks, two TFL and 10 tackles.
Walterfootball.com ranks Lindsey as the sixth-best rush linebacker and seventh-best 4-3 defensive end if he declares at the end of this season (he is a junior). He is projected to go in the second round.
It is difficult to say at this point in season, but Lindsey is the fastest, and possibly the best, individual player Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff will go head to head with all season. Northwestern's Vince Browne is the only player that comes to mind that is at or near that level (though, again, not as fast). Either way, Lindsey is unarguably the best pure pass-rusher Reiff will face.
The matchup is complicated by the issue that Lindsey is a standup rush linebacker—something Reiff is not used to.
I suspect both Reiff and Lindsey are both aware that scouts will pay particular interest to film from this game.
James Vandenberg vs. Ken O'Keefe and Jarred Holley
The weak link to the Pitt defense seems to be the secondary. While the D has done a strong job of shutting down the run, they rank 64th in the country in pass defense, having let up an opposing quarterback efficiency rating of 124.36 (again, remember the competition).
Though they returned three starters from the secondary, the only top-quality player is free safety Jarred Holley.
Despite how Pitt has done in pass defense, my guess is they will look at the Iowa State tape and use it as a blueprint, as will most teams this season. In effect, they will drop the strong safety into the box, take out the run (which they will do more ably than ISU) and dare James Vandenberg to beat them with his arm.
They will probably leave Holly to play center field. If Vandenberg makes any ill-advised throws, Holley will be waiting for them.
Meanwhile, Vandenberg will not only have to make smart decisions, but Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe will have to give JVB the opportunity to air it out. If the Hawks are to win this game, he has to get the ball into the hands of his two best offensive playmakers—receivers Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis.
In the end, there is no way Iowa will have a realistic shot in this one—barring major gaffes on the part of the Pitt offense—if Marcus Coker runs the ball over 30 times.
Pitt vs. Scheme Change
Under Dave Wannstedt, Pitt ran a run-first, pro-style offense. Under Todd Graham, they run a no-huddle, multiple-look, pass-first offense.
It is a distinctly different type of offense and it looks like Wannstedt's players—who, no matter how good or bad a coach Wannstedt was, seemed to be fond of him—appear to be having trouble making the adjustment.
The Panthers have averaged 35 points per game against Buffalo and Maine. Thirty-five points per game would be impressive if Pitt's opponents had been West Virginia and South Florida.
However, early in the third quarter against Maine, Pitt's was nursing a five-point lead. Midway through the third quarter against Buffalo, Pitt had a four-point lead.
In short, thus far, Graham has had trouble instituting his offense.
Could this be the game the Panthers "get it?" Or will there be more bumps in the road?
Iowa Defensive Line vs. Pitt Offensive Line
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This could be the best O-line Iowa faces until November (depending upon how much Northwestern's O-line has developed).
The line has four seniors, three returning full-time starters and another part-time returning starter.
Lucas Nix is the stalwart on the line as a two-year starter. He has played every position on line other than center, though this season he has started both games at right guard. Walterfootball.com picks him as the 10th-best guard in next season's draft.
Pitt's left guard, Chris Jacobson, is 14th-best. Both will hear their names called though it will probably be on the last day.
Meanwhile, Pitt's right tackle, Jordan Gibbs, could sneak into the draft with a strong season.
The problem is the scheme change, which is hardest on the quarterback and offensive line.
The effect the line will have depends upon how much they have taken to the new system, but the talent and continuity is there.
On the other hand, the Iowa defensive line was probably the second-most disappointing element of the Iowa State game, after the play-calling. In my opinion, while there are things this line can do to improve; there is as low a ceiling for this bunch as there has been for any Iowa defensive line in the Ferentz era.
In short, either Norm Parker tweaks his base defense or Iowa fans are left to hope the Pitt offense just isn't comfortable with Todd Graham's scheme.
Iowa vs. an Iowa State Hangover
Last week, Iowa didn't do so hot against Iowa State.
Moreover, the Iowa fanbase was as upset with their coach as they have been since at least some of the previously mentioned questionable calls in 2008.
Nonetheless, that was only the second game of the year. Was the defensive effort an indication of what can be expected from this crew, or was it an aberration?
Either way, will the team still be hung over from that big loss?
Speaking strictly for me, I have tickets to the game this week and I am not all that excited about going. Might that mentality extend to other fans and to the team?
Iowa vs. Kirk Ferentz's Tendencies
Following the 2005 season, I said to myself that the Hawkeyes could have had a better season, but they were an offense-dominant team with a defensive-minded coach.
This season looks like it might be a similar dynamic.
Iowa has only played two games, so it's hard to say. However, there was almost nothing about the defense that played in the Iowa State game that indicated that they are a squad that could win ballgames. Maybe a healthy Jordan Bernstine will change that. Maybe not.
Meanwhile, the offense didn't set the field on fire, but there were some sparks that indicated with a little growth and continuity (and better play-calling), they could win football games.
The question is will Kirk Ferentz allow it to happen?
If Ferentz had been that type of coach, I think the 2005 Hawks would have had a shot at winning two more games (Northwestern and Michigan). On the other hand, if he hadn't been that type of coach, the 2004 Hawks might have lost two more games.
Either way, from what I've seen and heard, I still think these Hawkeyes could win eight or nine games if Ferentz steps on the gas on offense. On the other hand, if he goes his usual, pathologically risk-averse, defense-heavy direction as he did against Iowa State...well, you know how that ended.
Iowa's Linebackers vs. Ray Graham
Currently, junior running back Ray Graham leads the country in rushing yardage with 322. He is also backed up by a face that is familiar to Iowa fans—Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown, though Brown only has 32 yards on 10 carries.
Last season, Graham arguably outplayed starter Dion Lewis, who declared for the NFL and was taken in the fifth round.
Thus far this season, Graham is averaging 28.5 carries per game, and the Hawkeyes are sure to see a fistful of the junior from Elizabeth, New Jersey.
On the Hawkeye linebacker front, weak-side backer Christian Kirksey had a great outing against Iowa State. He collected 13 tackles, two TFL, one sack, one forced fumble and a pass defended.
Unfortunately, the other two linebackers didn't do as well. True sophomore middle linebacker James Morris, who has shown a huge upside in his nine career starts, had his worst outing to date against ISU. Overall, he looked slow and timid and he made very few plays.
Also, strong-side linebacker Tyler Nielsen tweaked his ankle and the effect it had on his game was palpable. He is slotted to start this week, so hopefully he is back to full health.
He will need to be, because all three of the Hawkeye linebackers will have to show up if Iowa is to stop Graham and the Pitt running game.
Tino Sunseri vs. Todd Graham and Iowa's Pass Rush
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Last season, quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 64.5 percent of his passes.
This season, he's only completed 58.7 percent, probably because he is struggling with the scheme change.
He was eventually benched against Maine after throwing two interceptions to no touchdowns. Nonetheless, Graham insists that Sunseri is his man against Iowa. However, Graham has also indicated that backup quarterback, freshman Trey Anderson—who has completed 71.4 percent of his seven passing attempts—has earned playing time.
Sunseri has proven he can be accurate and an accurate quarterback can be deadly against Iowa's D. Nonetheless, if he doesn't do it on Saturday, he could be starting his last game as the Panther quarterback.
A consistent pass rush could help to put Sunseri on the bench, but if last week is any indication, Iowa is severely lacking in this department.
If Iowa doesn't somehow get pressure on the Pitt quarterback, look for this to be a breakthrough game for the junior Pittsburgh signal-caller.