Sack Exchange

  • By Jed Drenning
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  • November 25, 2011 09:42 AM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

It was 1942.

America was trying to topple Hitler, gasoline was 19 cents a gallon and Humphrey Bogart was stealing the show in theaters across the land with his portrayal of an embittered expatriate in Casablanca.

It was also the last time an autumn passed without West Virginia and Pitt meeting to settle their grievances on the gridiron. With the two schools now heading separate ways for greener conference pastures, we must brace for the realistic possibility that the Backyard Brawl – the 14th oldest rivalry game in all of college football – might go the way of the dinosaur after Friday night - or that it might at least go into temporary hiatus.

Imagine a world with no Brawl: A world with no quips about why the Mon River runs north; a world with no jokes about Pitt’s head coach at the pearly gates; a world with no gratuitous use of the word “Hoopies”; a world with no finger-wagging reminders about the nine national titles the Panthers captured when Moby Dick was a guppy; a world with no annual bragging rights.

As Bogart’s Rick Blaine might say: Here’s lookin’ at you, Pitt.

Enjoy it while you can, folks. The future of this colorful classic is uncertain at best.

As always, this year’s matchup is replete with interesting angles, none of which are more critical than each team’s ability to keep their quarterback upright.

Pitt’s defense ranks sixth in the nation in sacks with a gaudy total of 32, including 18 in their last four games. Overall, the Panthers have recorded at least one sack in 22 consecutive games. West Virginia, meanwhile, has struggled to protect Geno Smith. The Mountaineers are ranked 71st in sack prevention allowing a shade more than two per game and one every 20 pass attempts. That’s not the kind of ratio that sits well with Dana Holgorsen. At Oklahoma State last year, the Cowboys finished No. 7 nationally in avoiding sacks, yielding just one per 53 passes thrown. The year before that Holgorsen’s Houston Cougars offense allowed one sack every 42 attempts.

Several things have contributed to the sack totals allowed by the Mountaineers this year, not the least of which has been Geno’s reluctance to simply hit the 10th row peanut vendor in the ear when the circumstances dictate. It takes the guts of a burglar to stand in the pocket as long as Smith often does after his initial read – waiting on something to develop downfield.

Sometimes, though, discretion truly is the better part of quarterbacking valor. There’s nothing wrong with second and 10. Get rid of the football and live to fight another day. You don’t need to win the game on every down. That’s why the rules makers give you four at a time.

During the offseason, Pitt’s defense underwent the transition from Dave Wannstedt’s 4-3 to Todd Graham’s 3-4. Say what you like about Wannstedt’s shortcomings as a head coach in Pittsburgh - recruiting wasn’t among them – but Wannstedt and Co. left the defensive shelves well stocked for Todd Graham and his staff.

That supply of talent has made the conversion in schemes a relatively seamless one for the Panthers. That’s not always the case, as converting from an even front base defense to an odd front can sometimes be tricky. Most notable is the shift in responsibilities of the defensive line. D-linemen in a 4-3 are typically one-gap players, expected to beat the guy in front of them and get to the football.

In a 3-4 scheme, the role of the D-line changes significantly as they are asked to occupy two gaps and tie-up the offensive line, freeing the linebackers up on the second level to make plays. Take a quick glance at Max Gruder’s numbers and you can see this is exactly how the switch has played out for the Panthers. As the inside linebacker in the 4-3 a year ago, Gruder managed 84 tackles in 13 games. Playing the weak side in the 3-4 this season, he has already racked up a team high 90 stops with two regular season games to spare.

As West Virginia fans familiar with the 3-3-5 know, an odd front defense puts you in position to bring pressure from multiple angles. Operating from the 4-3 in 2010, Pitt had eight different defenders who had a hand in a quarterback sack. Running the 3-4 this year, the number of Panthers with a piece of a sack has rocketed up to 13. They come at you from everywhere.

If the Mountaineers do begin to struggle with the exotic pressure packages Pittsburgh throws at them, don’t be surprised if Holgorsen answers with his “trey” (loaded backfield) look. This formation has the effect of forcing the defense to honor the numbers in the box. It not only provides max protection possibilities but also simplifies things for the quarterback from a coverage standpoint.

Flipping our focus to the other side of the ball, we see a Pitt offense that has struggled mightily to protect Tino Sunseri. In fact, the Panthers are dead last nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering an alarming 4.3 per game. Can a West Virginia defense that ranks 87th with just 15 sacks exploit this weakness?

The short answer - maybe.

Coming into the year, many felt the Mountaineers defense would be spearheaded by a pair of pass rushing playmakers who had combined for 22 sacks in 2010. For several reasons that hasn’t materialized for Bruce Irvin (14 sacks last year) and Julian Miller (eight last year). The most obvious explanation has been the design of opposing offenses in trying to circumvent pressure against West Virginia.

When you return a pair of guys who represent 20-plus sacks, you can expect a lot more three-step drops and quick throws by enemy quarterbacks – and that’s exactly what the Mountaineers have seen. You want to know what happens when teams are desperate enough to resort to a seven-step drop on third down against WVU? The same thing that happened in 2010 – it’s just far less frequent this year.

The rules of engagement haven’t changed – you don’t pitch to Pujols, you don’t punt to Hester and you don’t take a deep drop against Irvin.

Case in point: throw in the Louisville tape and watch Teddy Bridgewater try to set up in the pocket off a deep play action fake on second and eight. Irvin blows by 6-foot-6 UL right tackle Jamon Brown - leaving him in his wake like a befuddled statue in white – and takes Bridgewater to the turf.

On the ensuing third and 19, Louisville went with an empty backfield and got back on script with a quick drop by Bridgewater. The freshman was supposed to take the snap, make one read, and let it go. But he hesitated with a crow hop – and that’s all it took. Irvin again exploded past Brown, swooping in to wrap up Bridgewater for his second sack in as many plays.

All things considered, Jeff Casteel’s defense could be catching the protection-challenged Panthers at the perfect time. After registering just three sacks in the first five games of 2011 (one per 53 opponent pass attempts), the Mountaineers have turned the corner a bit with a dozen sacks in the last five outings (one per 15 attempts).

Like every team WVU has faced this year, we can expect Pitt to incorporate a healthy dose of three-step packages into its game plan Friday night with an eye toward getting the football out quickly.

If Sunseri hesitates or shows indecision as Bridgewater did on the abovementioned third down, the result could be a similar chorus of “Bruuuuuuuuuce!” echoing through Mountaineer Field.

See you at the Fifty.