Pitt had 10 days to prepare for Navy, 10 days to decipher an offense that's so darned unpredictable that it runs the ball 84 percent of the time, 10 days to ponder the implications of two Navy slotbacks whose combined weight does not equal that of starting Pitt tackle Jeff Otah.
Swear to God.
So it took only two hours after the opening kickoff last night for the Panthers' "defense" to accomplish what could definitely be called a stop of the Midshipmen, aided though it was by an offensive holding penalty. For the record, it was Joe Clermond, the senior defensive end, who sacked Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, the Hurryin' Hawaiian, on a third-and-10 from the Navy 27 on the first series of the second half. Save for the mild disappointment of missing a last second field-goal attempt after moving another near-effortless 45 yards in 27 seconds, Navy was not stopped again until late in the third quarter, by which time the undersized visitors led, 31-28, and had piled up some 350 yards of offense.
Had it ended there, it would merely have been a disgraceful performance by Pitt's defenders and, more pointedly, its defensive coaching staff. As it was, Navy put up another 17 points in a 48-45 double-overtime victory that was, from Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt's tortured perspective, well, indefensible.
"I was very confident," Wannstedt said of Paul Rhoads' defensive game plan. "We spent more than 10 actually, although it probably didn't look like it. We spent time in the summer, talking to different people about [Navy's] offense."
The Middies' crisp execution of the allegedly antiquated triple option makes for a nice nostalgic theme for press box antiquarians who might believe the game has long since become hopelessly over-coached, but this isn't necessarily what the Panthers bargained for on a night soaked with nostalgia. Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Mark May, Bill Fralic all turned up at Heinz Field in one function or another, as did Navy icon Roger Staubach, an honorary co-captain along with former Dallas Cowboys teammate Dorsett.
Pitt hadn't played Navy since 1989, partly because it had outscored the Midshipmen 149-40 in the past four episodes, and partly to provide some similar competitive imbalance upon the series renewal.
The coming days will bring some inevitable number of micro-managed conclusions about what Wannstedt should have done in the first or second overtime or near the end of regulation to avert the kind of embarrassment a home loss to Navy delivers. But none of the minutia at the butt end of a four-game Pitt losing streak is as relevant as the Panthers forced Navy to punt only once on a night when they stood around watching Navy run a staggering 84 plays, about 80 of which were pretty successful.
For Pitt to play desperately against a team that scored only 30 points at Temple and allowed 43 to Duke is an ominous indicator for Wannstedt and his staff. Pitt's fortunes figured to dip somewhat this year with the graduation of some accomplished seniors, figured to dip dramatically with season-ending injuries to four starters in the first weeks of this season.
But last night was well beyond the worst of expectations, especially considering the time Pitt had to ready itself for this quaint Navy attack.
It has to be pointed out, for example, that when Wannstedt and his staff have more than a week to prepare for an opponent, Pitt's record is 2-8. In the same situation, by damning contrast, Navy coach Paul Johnson is 17-7 given the same advantage.
"We went for it on fourth down a lot more than I was comfortable with out there," Wannstedt said, effectively illustrating the desperation Pitt brought to the field last night. "That was not normal football."
No, not at all.
Normally, football teams with the size, speed and recruiting advantages Pitt holds over the Naval Academy cannot be outfoxed by an offense that hasn't been operating at the elite levels of the sport in 20 years. They can sometimes be fooled by a play or an inspired series, but not for 45 minute and 32 seconds, which was Navy's time of possession last night. The Panthers spent so much time chasing Kaheaku-Enhada, trying to pull down Navy's bullish fullbacks, trying to spot its whippet slotbacks, that when slot back Reggi Campbell swept out of the backfield on a pass pattern toward the left flank of Pitt's defense, veteran safety Mike Phillips just let go.
"Guy just ran right by him," Wannstedt said. "He thought he was gonna block him."
Kaheaku-Enhada instead whipped him a 25-yard pass at the pylon for the touchdown that overturned Pitt's last lead.
"It's sad because we have great coaches and great players," Phillips said. "The results just don't show it."
You might start to wonder about that.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.