Pitt SS Eric Thatcher is the last line of defense.
It's called the triple-option offense, what the U.S. Naval Academy's football team has run to perfection in recent years, and it's comparable to the Wishbone scheme run by Oklahoma and a variation by Nebraska decades ago.
No. 23 Pittsburgh (4-1) gets a chance to contain this offense when it faces Navy (4-2) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md. The Panthers gave up 497 total yards, including 331 rushing, in a 48-45 double-overtime loss to the Midshipmen last year at Heinz Field.
"They've got it all,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It's triple-option. It's load-option. They'll run the lead play with the quarterback following them up in there. We call it the follow play. They'll run the trap-option that gets you going one way (and) coming back the other. The toss is a big play for them.
"They have multiple ways of blocking each play and multiple plays within each offensive formation. It's really unique. ... It's almost like they just turn the page and say 'OK, that's over, so let's go to this,' and there's nothing that you're going to do on defense that they haven't seen before.''
Wannstedt believed there were several things a defense can do to thwart the triple-option. Pitt needs to mix it up on defense, win the field-position battle -- it can't be worse than last year -- force turnovers, limit mistakes and big plays and control the clock on offense.
Navy's drives can last up to 10-12 plays and some eight minutes, so it would benefit Pitt to maximize every possession. This also is something the Panthers did not do last season even though they scored seven times for 45 points.
"If you've been noticing, we've been holding the ball on offense a lot longer than we usually do,'' Pitt senior left offensive guard C.J. Davis said. "But that's what we've got to do even better this week. That's what they do.
"They're known for going on long drives, so if we go three-and-out we might not get on the field again until the next quarter. So, we definitely have to come out and execute and take advantage of the time we put in.''
It wouldn't hurt for Pitt to hold Navy to a few three-and-outs, either. The Panthers had a tough time getting off the field during last year's game and appeared to play more passively on defense. Free safety Eric Thatcher believed Pitt's defense would provide a different look for Navy this year.
"It's a little bit different than what we did last year,'' Thatcher said. "It wasn't the scheme last year, but we never could get an interception or force a fumble. So, the big thing this year will be for us to force a turnover. That's the key. (But) with that offense in general, it's a challenge.
"So, we have to prepare the best that we can and just get ready for this wild offense. ... You've just got to pay attention to your keys and break the field in half. You need to watch your side and trust that the back side will take care of itself. So, I just have to play my game on the front side.''
Thatcher isn't always the last line of defense when matching up against Navy. Sometimes, he'll be close to the line of scrimmage.
"It all depends which way the slot guy goes,'' Thatcher said. "I have to try to get downfield as much as I can to hit that pitch and help out with the linebackers and the D-ends to try to stop the option. So, I have the pitch guy.''
Wannstedt believed that junior fullback Eric Kettani was the key to Navy's offense since he could get 20-25 carries if Pitt doesn't stop him.
"You have to be a lot more disciplined because of the types of players that they have running this offense,'' Wannstedt said. "They understand the option and they are highly disciplined and efficient at executing it. It doesn't take much for a defense to be out of position a little bit and all of a sudden, it's a big play.
"They're really going to put a lot of pressure on us to execute the schemes that we implement this week against them. (And) we're going to be in one-on-one situations where we need to tackle good. We need to get off of blocks and we've got to try to force a couple turnovers. We didn't do that last year.
"(And) it's important that when we get the ball on offense,'' Wannstedt added, "that every possession counts. You have to make first downs and you have to score points. ... To have a lead on them in the fourth quarter where they have to throw the ball to beat you, that's a situation they avoid.''
And letting Navy do whatever it wants in the triple-option is something that Pitt would like to avoid as well.