Balanced attack thwarts BC
Published: Monday, November 3, 2003
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
CHESTNUT HILL - Larry Fitzgerald leads the nation in receiving yards. He leads the country in receiving touchdowns and is third in total scoring. He has the rare combination of size, speed, and hands that has NFL scouts tripping over themselves to get a glimpse of the best receiver in college football. Fitzgerald could be one of the best players in the entire country.
So one might think the only way to beat Pitt would be to contain him. Wrong. On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Chestnut Hill, the Panthers proved the entire nation wrong. The Pittsburgh offense used a potent balance of run, pass, and timely execution to defeat a gritty Boston College team.
On paper, Fitzgerald might seem as if he destroyed the BC secondary. Seven catches for 156 yards, and an NCAA record for 14 consecutive games with a touchdown catch, appear to be pretty daunting numbers. But those numbers do not tell the complete story. By contrast, Pitt's running game would appear anemic based solely on its stats: Jawan walker carried nine times for 36 yards and a touchdown, Tim Murphy had 10 for 35 yards, and the quarterback Rod Rutherford scrambled for 34 yards on 16 carries. All were hardly impressive numbers for a team that needed more than Fitzgerald to win the game. But it was Pitt's commitment to the running game, its ability to convert on third and short, and hold on to the football for long drives in the second half that caused BC's downfall.
Pitt held the ball for nearly 13 more minutes than BC in the second half alone. In the first half, during which BC led by a field goal, the teams' time of possession were nearly equal. The Panthers converted 29 first downs throughout the game and 7-16 on third downs, whereas BC converted only 18 and was 2-12 on third down.
Eagles' head coach Tom O'Brien commented on his team's downfalls: "To stay on the field offensively and to stay off defensively in the second half." The versatility of Pittsburgh's offense gave the BC defense fits. Rutherford completed at least one pass to seven different receivers while its commitment to the toss sweep set up the fatal play: a toss to the running back Walker, who ran right as if running a sweep and then threw a deep pass to a wide-open Fitzgerald for a touchdown.
In an effort to combat Fitzgerald's explosive presence, BC sacrificed its best tackling defensive back and cover corner, Will Blackmon, to cover Fitzgerald. Blackmon played extremely well, breaking up two passes, including one in the end zone, and allowed only three receptions while covering him.
"I felt I was able to stay with him so I went to coach at the end of the first quarter and said I can stay with him," said Blackmon. The Eagles also occasionally double-covered Fitzgerald with a safety helping over the top. With two players responsible for him, the defense was susceptible to the flats, an area that the Panthers' offense exploited. The BC linebackers and secondary were in charge of coming up and tackling Pitt's running backs in the flats immediately upon their reception. They were often late, and a three or four-yard gain became nine or 10.
Perhaps most importantly, Pitt faithfully ran sweeps attacking the vulnerable perimeter of the BC defense and goading the defensive backs to come up and help stop the run. The residual effects of this play were displayed in Walker's 47-yard toss pass to a wide-open Fitzgerald where the entire BC secondary bit on the sweep.
Fitzgerald was so wide-open that it didn't matter which player the ball was thrown to, because there was not a BC defender within 15 yards of him. "It seemed like they were setting us up all day. They kept running the sweep to Murphy the whole game," said Blackmon. "It was the exact same thing [Fitzgerald] did all game, and then he just took off."
The sweep became a reliable pattern until BC least expected it, and when it hit, the play broke BC's back and shattered any hope for an upset.
In the third quarter, Pitt converted six first downs while keeping the BC defense on the field for over 11 minutes. Conversely, BC had just one first down and two possessions of three-and-out. "We couldn't sustain anything on offense," said O'Brien. "We threw it, we ran it, and then we're third and long." With a lead in the fourth quarter, Pitt consistently gained yards on first and second down, setting themselves up for convertible third-and-short situations. "They made runs at crucial spots and got themselves into convertible position," said O'Brien.
In the end, it wasn't the play of the nation's best player, but rather his presence and the Panthers' offensive versatility that carried Pitt to victory. On a day, when the Eagles needed to execute in all aspects of the game, they watched as their opponents did just that.
While senior back Derrick Knight crossed the 1,000 yard plateau for the second straight year, the Eagles were unable to provide Knight with a victory to go with his major accomplishment. "Last week we're on top of the world, this week we're on the bottom," said O'Brien.