Pitt vs. Stanford: Five Takeaways From Coordinators Press Conference
The 85th annual Hyundai Sun Bowl is now just days away and coordinators from each respective teams are gearing their squads up for the final tweaks and practices before the game.
Stanford (8-4) and Pitt (7-6) will square off on Monday, Dec. 31 at high noon.
Here are five takeaways from the coordinator's press conferences today:
1. Sun Bowl Shines in Hospitality
Stanford and Pitt have combined for nine Sun Bowl appearances with the 2018 matchup set. Stanford is the more recent of the two, having recently played in 2016 (vs. North Carolina) and 2009 (vs. Oklahoma). Pitt's last appearance in the Sun Bowl featured a low-scoring 3-0 loss to Oregon State in 2008.
The Sun Bowl experience is something that offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard remembers as both a coach in 2016 and a player in 2009.
“I’d like to just say it’s great to be back," Pritchard said. "I had the great fortune of being my third time here. Played in this game in 2009 and was back as a coach the first time and now. This third time is fun because I have a 20-month old but seeing it through his eyes now. We got of the plane and saw Amigo Man and dancing it was a lot of fun. It’s been just what I remember, the hospitality has been off the charts amazing and our guys are having a phenomenal time so far.”
And for Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, returning to the Sun City is equally as exciting and special.
“This is my third Sun Bowl as well," Anderson said. "One of the things I like most about the Sun Bowl is, I’m a huge college football fan. I love a game of college football and this is the second oldest bowl game. So just the history, tradition—you look at some of the players that have played in this game, the teams that have been a part of this, it’s fun to be a part of this history and tradition. Also what I like about this is the whole community—this is the whole El Paso area is so invested and involved in this bowl game. You get here and you feel how important this bowl game is to the entire community and it’s fun to be a part of that as well."
2. Pitt is over ACC Championship loss and ready to avenge it
Despite Pitt's blowout loss to Clemson (42-10) left a sour taste in the Panthers' mouths, but taking on Stanford is their last chance to wipe the slate clean and get off on a high note.
Three of Pitt's six losses came from undefeated opponents (Clemson, Notre Dame and UCF), while their other losses come from No. 12 Penn State and an upset loss to North Carolina (38-35).
“We did not play our best that day," said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "The thing we’ve got to do… I’ve got a great group of guys, they are really prideful people and they want to get that taste out of their mouth and get back to business.”
The Panthers were successful overall in the ACC Coastal, winning the division with a 6-2 overall record. For the squad, these practices leading up to the Sun Bowl will help the Panthers truly gear up for the game.
“We met today this morning for the first time with the kids since they had five or six days off," said Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates. "And they’re wide-eyed and ready to go. I’m excited with the attention that we had and the excitement I felt a level of energy at our meetings. We’re headed to practice right now and I expect nothing else at practice.”
3. Stanford is ready to adjust without Bryce Love
After the news of standout Stanford running back Bryce Love choosing not to play in the Sun Bowl in order to prepare for the NFL Draft, the Cardinal will now have to adjust their offense in life without Love. In fact, Love was a star in Stanford's 25-23 victory over North Carolina in 2016, where he rushed for 119 yards and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass in place of Christian McCaffrey, who forewent the bowl game for the same reasons.
“Bryce Love is we believe the best back in college football, unfortunate that he won’t be with us," Pritchard said regarding adjusting the offense. "You know it’s cliche, but football is a man up sport. We’ve felt that in a few different ways this year up front and at different positions and we’ll treat this no differently. We have to come out, we have to find guys that do what he gives us, or what he gave us. Kind of as a committee, but we have a couple of guys that we feel like will fill in.”
When Love wasn't playing with the Cardinal this season, Stanford saw its struggles almost immediately. With Love on the field, Stanford's offense averages 4.5 yards per attempt, compared to 4.1 without him.
Even without him though, Pitt believes that Stanford's approach will be almost similar offensively to how they've been all season long.
“I don’t think they (change). If you look at the season, all of their running backs have played quite a bit so I don’t think they’ll change their offense," Bates said about Stanford's offensive approach. "Coach (David) Shaw does what he does and does it very well. He’s one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. They do what they and I’m sure they’ll have some wrinkles but they do what they do very well and that’s why they’ve been a success, so I don’t expect a big change in their offense."
4. Panthers need to establish the run game with a balanced attack
Pitt enters Monday's game with a bolstering running back core that is ranked 14th in the nation overall. They will use both tailbacks in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, who each have over 1,000 rushing yards and have a combined 2,000 rushing yards.
“I think they’ve run the ball really well all year long—2,000 yard rushers that are both big physical running backs, a couple tight ends that are almost like offensive linemen, so I would expect that they would come out and try to run the football,” Anderson said in reference to defending Pitt's rushing attack.
For Ollison, he averages 3.9 yards after contact per rush, which is tied for the fourth-best in the ACC with Hall. Over 53 percent of Hall's rushing yards have come on 15-plus yard rushes, which is also fourth-best in the ACC.
Per Watson, Pitt's offensive approach on the ground will not come without getting the passing game started.
“In today’s game, you’ve got to really balance yourself," Watson said. "You’ve got to be able to throw the ball efficiently as well as run the football. To run the football, you’ve got to throw it is what I’m saying. Our plan, without giving away too much, we’ve got to take advantage of the pass game to open up the run game. We’ve got to help that run game out with the passing game.”
5. The Cardinal have shiny toys to play with on offense
No Love, no matter for the Cardinal, who have shown up in the passing game this entire season. As an offense, Stanford ranks as the eighth-best receiving core and the 13th best passing offense in the nation.
Receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside holds the best passer rating when targetted in the nation (134.9), first in percent of targets resulting in a first down or touchdown (68.2 percent). He is rated as the fifth-best receiver in the 2019 NFL Draft class.
Quarterback K.J. Costello is among the nation's best quarterbacks with FBS's second-best quarterback passer rating (132.4). He is also a master at the deep ball—20 touchdowns from 25 yards deep (first in FBS), 1,227 deep ball yards (second in FBS) and a 129.7 passer rating with the deep ball (fourth in FBS).
“We haven’t run the ball as well as we would like this year," Pritchard said. "I don’t think that’s any big mystery. We’ve talked about it at different times and points in the season. We want to be a team that can run or throw the football. By necessity, we’ve had to throw it a little bit more this year, but in varying degrees, we’ve had success doing that.”