Saturday will be the Iowa defense's first run-in with a legitimate running attack and the offensive line's first opportunity to face a 3-man front and the wide variety of blitzes that come with it. Pitt is a formidable opponent, and Iowa is at serious risk Saturday morning.
Pitt's defensive alignment will put even more pressure than usual on the Hawkeyes' interior linemen, the very linemen who have looked generally lost through the first two weeks of the season. It won't have much effect on the passing game -- the pass rush will come from the edges and the linebackers -- but it will break the running game if left unchecked. Iowa has two options in response: Adjust the game plan to emphasize the passing game, a legitimate option against a Pitt defense that couldn't stop the Buffalo Buffaloes of Buffalo from piling up yardage through the air, or stick with their formula of "identical game plan, improved execution" (copyright 2005 Kirk Ferentz). Our money, obviously, is on the latter, so expect Coker to run into an unblocked defensive tackle while an offensive guard flails wildly at a distant windmill, only for Coker to come back to the huddle and find he's being sent back into the breach.
Pitt's offense initially looks like a less talented Iowa State. Quarterback Tino Sunseri isn't particularly mobile, and certainly won't run circles around the Iowa linemen like Steele Jantz did last week. With that said, he's also not completely incompetent, and if given time in the pocket will pick Iowa's secondary apart. Of greater concern, though, is Pitt halfback Ray Graham, who leads the nation in rushing through two weeks. Graham isn't particularly big (5'9", 195 lbs.) but is shifty and runs hard. As Chas Rich said on the podcast this week, despite its outward spread appearance, Pitt usually runs the ball about 45% of the time. If it's how Pitt plays Saturday, this is a good thing for the Iowa linebackers (particularly James Morris, who struggled against the Iowa State bizarro 2004 Iowa offense last week). But Pitt coach Todd Graham is also an offensive-minded coach, and has shown the ability to adjust his plan to exploit his opponent's weaknesses.
But you know all that, so here's the thing: This game has almost nothing to do with what Pitt does. And this game -- and, quite frankly, the rest of this season -- hinges on what Iowa does.
Much like last week, Iowa wins this game on paper. They should be able to run effectively against the Pitt front seven if the blocking holds up as it should, and they have a decided advantage on the outside in the passing game, and the defense has enough talent in the front seven to slow down Graham and sufficient coverage skills in the linebackers and secondary (with Bernstine back, mind you) to hang with Pitt's receivers. They had it last week, they have it again. The problem is that a team playing assignment football and missing assignments isn't a very good football team, and Iowa has done that in bunches. Much has been made of the lack of "contain" from the defensive front in last week's game. Ferentz addressed it at his Tuesday news conference:
Well, I mean, once - most every defense, no matter what your scheme is, somebody is responsible, just like coverage and kickoffs or punts. Somebody has got to set an edge and hold an edge so the rest of the guys can help do their jobs and play their positions. But once a quarterback gets outside of that, or anybody, any anybody with the football, but the quarterback in this case gets outside, it puts everybody in a real precarious position, plus the guys coming across the field can't be of any help or assistance.
It's stuff you learn like when you're in junior high school typically. Well, used to in the old days. I'm not sure anybody is learning it anymore. But anyway, it's just - I will say, good high school teams, good junior high school teams understand guys got to contain. I think most of us learn that growing up, and we're not doing a very good job of it, so we're going to have to coach it better and just get it accomplished somehow.
Iowa runs a 4-3 with little blitzing and heavy emphasis on the zone coverage responsibilities of outside linebackers, so on 95% of pass plays, the quarterback containment responsibilities that Ferentz says his guys should have learned in junior high school fall to the defensive ends. And he's right about this; defensive ends are taught from the moment they put on a helmet that they are to stay home, especially on plays which go to the opposite side of the field. The only problem is, both of the defensive ends are seniors; if they didn't learn contain strategy in high school, they also haven't learned it in more than four years at Iowa. If last week's debacle is the "teachable moment" that Ferentz so greatly desires, we need to see that the players are learning, and quickly. The same goes for the interior offensive line. Adam Gettis has been competent, Matt Tobin less so, but they are both upperclassmen and shouldn't need the simple lessons we're told they are being taught; when you are four or five years into your time as an Iowa offensive linemen, you shouldn't be blowing basic zone blocking assignments. The things that we're being told led to the loss in Ames are football basics so simple that even the coach admits a junior high player should know them. This isn't the time when we should be worried about basics, not with a team that is light on talent but clearly heavy on in-program experience.
Iowa needs marked, visible, obvious improvement in both strategy and technique this week if they are to have any chance of competing in the Big Ten, and we will see it in the trenches if it happens at all. If last Saturday was the wake-up call for the team, we should see it there, when the Iowa running game finally gets into gear and the Pitt running attack slows to a grind. But if last Saturday's loss wasn't that, if it was instead a wake-up call for us, we're going to find out just how long the snooze button delay will go tomorrow morning.