There are a number of intriguing subplots surrounding this game: Iowa goes on the road for the first time all season to play Pitt for the first time in 56 years. Kirk Ferentz returns home to Pittsburgh only to find it looking like Los Angeles after the aliens attacked President Bill Pullman and his merry band of Fresh Prince aviators. LeSean McCoy could murder Dave Wannstedt and commit ritualistic suicide on the sideline at any moment. The storylines are endless. We will discuss none of them.
Fun With Depth Charts
Offensively, everyone is still wondering about that big "or" in the middle of the chart. Yes, Rafael Eubanks and Julian Vandervelde are still neck and neck for...wait, what? Oh, yeah, quarterback. We don't know anything, but we're guessing Christensen gets the start. Other than that, it's business as usual; Moeaki and Stross still aren't listed but should be available if an offensive play requires someone to enter the game and immediately get injured again.
On defense, Pat Angerer gets the start at middle linebacker this week over Jacody Coleman (as he did last week) and singlehandedly puts the Iowa linebacking corps back on a Klinkenborg/Humpal level of last name awesomeness. A week after recording 12 tackles, a sack, and an interception, redshirt freshman Tyler Sash officially usurps Harold Dalton at strong safety. True freshman Shaun Prater, obviously inspired by Barack Obama's rhetoric, brings together the right co-second-string cornerback and left co-second-string cornerback spots. As we all know, bipartisanship is essential for a functioning defensive secondary. No injuries of significance on defense, though Jeff Tarpinian's fight with canine AIDS a pulled hamstring continues unabated.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
So, Pitt has lost to Bowling Green (who, in turn, lost to Minnesota, who in turn should lose every game) and beaten Buffalo, both at home. They haven't been particularly impressive in either game:
BGSU & Buffalo
Holy hell that's a lot of turnovers for two games. You really don't expect such numbers from a team coached by Dave Wannstedt, a well-respected game coach who has always been considered a brilliant tactician and motivator. For more on the well-respected Dave Wannstedt, let's consult the University of Iowa Athletic Department's game notes*, the set of facts and figures distributed throughout the department and to local media:
PITTSBURGH HEAD COACH DAVE WANSTEDT
Dave Wanstedt has compiled a 17-20 (.459) record in four seasons as Pitt's head coach. Wanstedt returned to his alma mater in 2005 after serving 16 seasons in the National Football League. From 1989-92, he was the defensive coordinator for Dallas, earning a Super Bowl ring (1990). Wanstedt was named the Chicago Bears head coach in 1993. He led the Bears for seven seasons (1993-98). He was named the 1994 NFC Coach of the Year. In 1999, he moved to Miami, where he was an assistant coach for one season (1999) and then was promoted to head coach (2000-04). Wanstedt was on Pitt's coaching staff for four seasons (1975-78) after graduating from Pitt in 1974. He served as a graduate assistant (1975-76) and coached the receivers and special teams (1977-78).
THEY SPELLED HIS FUCKING NAME WRONG FOUR TIMES AND NOBODY CARES. I'll bet not even Wannstedt himself cares. Such is the life of the Wannstache.
OK, back to the turnovers. Four of the five came in Pitt's opening week implosion at the hands of the aforementioned mighty Bowlers Irishmen Falcons of Bowling Green State. In that game, Pitt blew a two-touchdown lead on four turnovers (which was actually five, if you include a dropped punt return) and had no response when BGSU took a 10-point lead with 12:00 to go. In their three series after BGSU's final score, Pitt had a missed field goal, an interception, and a turnover on downs after four consecutive incompletions. It was comical, made even moreso by the relatively lofty preseason expectations on this team. The Wannstache Strikes Back.
When Iowa Has the Ball
On offense, this game will be won on the line of scrimmage. It doesn't matter who the quarterback is; Iowa is likely running between the tackles for most of this game. Don't believe me? Just ask Ferentz**:
Q. Saturday was a bit of a throwback win in that it was strong defense, lean on the running game. Is that a formula you can see this team using the rest of the way?
COACH FERENTZ: You know, I've never been averse to that formula. Seems to work pretty well through the ages. You know, I mean a lot of things come and go in football. But if you can do those things well, you've got a chance. So if it settles into that, you know, that would be great. The bottom line is we're trying to win. So we'll do whatever gives us the best chance.
You know, conditions the other day were a little tough. The opponent was tough. And we weren't throwing the ball especially well. So that's what worked for us that day. We'll do whatever we have to do to try to win the game, though. Good formula.
That's the closest you'll get to a tip from a Ferentz press conference. Shonn Greene is going to get a lot of action against this team, and rightfully so; Pitt's been positively mediocre against the run so far this year. BGSU runs a Northwestern-style spread (in fact, their offensive coordinator left during the offseason to take over NU's offense) and had 64 yards on a mere 28 attempts. Buffalo, running a far more conventional offense, ran for 125 against Pitt. And they're Buffalo. There are rushing yards to be had.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to be for Pitt. Their front seven was to be a strength, with reigning NCAA tackles per game leader Scott McKillop and promising defensive tackle Mick Williams returning. The bleh results are difficult to explain, though a couple of injuries certainly haven't helped.
When Pitt Has the Ball
Pitt lost quarterback/television detective Tyler Palko two seasons ago. His replacement was Bill Stull, who sounds like a Merit-smoking factory worker from the 50's. Fortunately for Iowa, he runs like a Merit-smoking factory worker from the 50's. He missed virtually all of last season with an injury, but he has taken every snap for Pitt in 2008. He has an experienced set of receivers to throw to. So far, Stull has been effective when the offense is balanced, but struggled once Pitt fell behind Bowling Green and had to throw on every down.
That being said, the 2008 Pitt offense, like the 2007 Pitt offense before it, relies heavily on sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy. The only problem? McCoy finally found out he's playing for Wannstedt. When asked about the 'Stache's decision to kick a field goal at the end of the first half of the BGSU game, McCoy said, "Whatever the coach calls, we have to try to execute it,'' McCoy said. "It would have been nice for us to go for a touchdown there, but the coaches wanted to kick a field goal. So, that's what we did.''
That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of your coach. Throw in what have been called "sluggish" performances in his first two games while running behind a rebuilt offensive line (McCoy's YPC is down by a full yard), and the once-lauded Pitt running game looks positively mortal.
Again, the play of both lines will dictate who wins this game, and here is where Iowa has a distinct advantage. Pitt gave up four sacks to Bowling Green and two more to Buffalo. In particular, sophomore tackle Jason Pinkston has the duty of stopping Adrian Clayborn. Yeah, good luck with that.
A month ago, I was chalking this up as a loss. After all, Pitt was borderline top 25 with a talented running back and seven returning defensive starters. Then Bowling Green happened, and a win seemed feasible. The loss itself isn't why I'm confident; the Pitt boards have repeatedly cited Bowling Green as a typical Wannstedt loss. But there are cracks in the foundation.
Yeah, it's technically a road game, but a half-empty Heinz Field isn't the most intimidating site imaginable. In actuality, with the Big Ten season looming, there might not be a better road test for this team. The early October game in East Lansing worries me. The later game in Champaign worries me. This game doesn't really worry me.
Iowa wins the coaching battle. Iowa wins the running battle. Iowa runs the clock down to nothing, and Pitt's offense never gets off the ground against the best front seven they'll see all year (yeah, you read that right). Total it up, and Iowa cruises to a 24-9 win.
* -- Seriously, read the game notes every week. It's the most excruciating thing you'll see all week. Most of them make less sense than Jake Christensen fighting a bear. As an example, from this week's notes on the defense:
Iowa's defense didn't yield a touchdown for the third-straight contest.
The Hawkeye defense did not allow a touchdown until the fourth game
last season (at Wisconsin). Iowa has held Iowa State without a
touchdown the last 10 quarters, dating back to the second quarter of
Iowa's win in 2006. Iowa has not allowed a touchdown in the first three
Prose aside, the notes editor has incredibly poor short-term memory.
** -- I read virtually every press conference transcript, and this week's Tuesday presser was by far - BY FAR - the worst in recent memory. A sampling of questions:
- It will kind of be a homecoming for you.
- Obviously another game, you want to win it. Will you be thinking about family and friends in the stands?
- If I remember right, when you were at Cleveland, two of the biggest people on the face of the earth got in a fight during practice, Orlando Brown and Alonzo Spellman.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Seriously, read it. It's staggering how bad our local press really is. We should get the guy who writes the game notes column together with the press, have them ask him questions, and see if my head will explode.