Iowa offense vs. Pittsburgh defense
Pitt’s defense is led by middle linebacker Scott McKillop, NCAA leader in tackles last season at 12.6 a game. The 6-2, 240-pound senior is in his second year as a starter and has 228 career tackles. He has double-figure tackles in nine games. This season, he’s shown he isn’t just a “box” ‘backer, leading the Panthers with three pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.
Defense was ranked fifth in the country last season, a fact that gets lost in the Panthers’ 1-1 start. Tackles Mick Williams (6-1, 290) and Rashaad Duncan (6-2, 295) are back from that group. Williams had three sacks and eight tackles for loss last season. Duncan had two sacks and seven tackles for loss. Just as Iowa DT Matt Kroul has (41 starts), Duncan has had a long life in FBS lines of scrimmages, making 37 consecutive starts.
Ends Greg Romeus (6-5, 265) and Jabaal Sheard (6-4, 250) are productive. Romeus had four sacks and was a freshman all-American last season. This season, he leads the Panthers with three tackles for loss. Sheard leads Pitt with 1.5 sacks. Weakside linebacker Shane Murray (knee) is iffy for this game. Outside of McKillop, linebacker has been hit with injuries, with outside linebacker Adam Gunn out for the season with a neck injury.
The Panthers finished third in the nation last year in pass defense, allowing just 167.2 yards a game. They had a great pass rush, but they also had solid pass defense. Junior Aaron Berry is back at right corner after defending seven passes last season. Free safety Eric Thatcher returns after making 53 tackles last season. Sophomores Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields split time at strong safety. Junior Jovani Chappel holds the other corner.
Tuesday, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said junior Jake Christensen was the guy at quarterback. But he said it was Tuesday and it was early. Sophomore Ricky Stanzi, who started the previous two weeks before getting pulled against Iowa State, could still end up the starter.
It’ll probably be scripted along the lines of the Kyle McCann-Brad Banks duo in 2001. McCann started, but Banks played a series here and there.
Running back Shonn Greene continues his comeback from academic limbo. Spending last season moving furniture and going to school at Kirkwood, Greene is fourth in the Big Ten with 119.7 yards a game.
Iowa defense vs. Pittsburgh offense
Pittsburgh has one of the best running backs in the east in sophomore LeSean McCoy. In two games, quarterback Bill Stull has passed for 505 yards and has completed 60 percent of his passes (51 of 84). Senior wideout Derek Kinder is poised to jump into Pitt’s top 10 for career receptions.
Inexperience on the offensive line is the variable that could bunch things up for Coach Dave Wannstedt.
Three starters from a line that produced Pitt’s first 1,000-yard rusher in seven seasons are gone , including Jeff Otah, a second-round NFL draft pick. Senior guard C.J. Davis (6-3, 310) is Pitt’s most experienced O-lineman, who’ll make his 33rd straight start today. He missed spring practice because of off-season surgery.
Center Robb Houser (6-2, 285) is fresh out of the junior college ranks and is Pitt’s starter. Right guard John Malecki (6-3, 280) was a letterwinner at noseguard last season.
Left tackle Jason Pinkston (6-4, 300), a sophomore, was limited this spring and missed nine games with a shoulder injury last season. The unsteadiness doesn’t end there. Junior Joe Thomas is making the move from guard to right tackle.
So far, this has shown up in the running game. McCoy, who averaged a healthy 4.8 yards a carry last season, is a yard below that at 3.8. McCoy has been productive, though, with four TDs. The Panthers are at 3.6 yards a carry. LaRod Stephens-Howling is doing his best to crank that up, averaging 6.6 yards on 14 attempts as Pitt’s change-of-pace back.
In Pitt’s 27-14 home loss to Bowling Green in the season opener, Stull attempted a whopping 51 passes while the Panthers tried to overcome four turnovers. But the Panthers are taking advantage of their opportunites inside the opponent’s 20, scoring in all seven chances, tied for No. 1 in FBS red zone efficiency.
The Hawkeyes’ defense is putting up the kind of numbers that, gasp, would hold up with the 2004 defense that claimed a share of the Big Ten title. The highlight is scoring defense, 2.7 points a game, leads the NCAA, no TDs against yet this season. Opponents have made three trips inside Iowa’s 20 this season, all three last week against ISU and all three ended in zero points.
The Hawkeyes are third in the nation in pass efficiency defense (80.6). They’re turnover margin is plus-3. Iowa already has seven interceptions, well on the way to the 14 posted last season.
Senior kicker Conor Lee is the centerpiece of Pitt’s special teams, connecting on a school-record 80 straight PATs and 33 of his 40 career field goal attempts (82.5 percent). He’s 3 of 4 this year with his only miss coming from 42.
The Panthers’ coverage teams have been outstanding. They’re 14th in the nation in punt return defense at 2.0 yards a return; and they’re 17th in the nation in kick coverage, holding opponents to 17 yards a return.
Iowa’s special teams came up big against ISU last week with Andy Brodell’s 81-yard punt return sealing the deal. It was Iowa’s first punt return since 2005, but Brodell has been knocking on the door the last two seasons.
Since nailing their first three attempts, kickers Trent Mossbrucker and Daniel Murray are 1-for-3, with misses from 32 (blocked) and 50 (just left from Murray). Sophomore punter Ryan Donahue, a consistent weapon, plopped a 25-yarder against the Cyclones.
Despite a 17-20 record in now his fourth season, Wannstedt was rewarded in December with a one-year contract extension to 2012. Wannstedt is a native son of Pittsburgh, playing offensive tackle at Pitt and getting his coaching career started there. But fans are fans and college football is college football. Wannstedt is going to have to win soon and you can bet today’s game, a Big Ten-Big East match-up, is under scrutiny.
Ferentz isn’t playing this quarterback thing with convention in mind. He keeps saying he has a quarterback. The fact that two are playing doesn’t mean they don’t have one. You have to wonder about practice reps, mental makeup and the fact that you can count the number of successful QB platoons on one or one and a half fingers in Iowa football history. Through three games, Iowa is 3-0, so the wondering can wait.
There’s this thing out there called Wannstache. It’s even in the Urban Dictionary. The Sporting News has called a Wannstache “death watch.”