Pitt assistant knows triple-option well

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008

When Dave Wannstedt was looking for a defensive coordinator to replace Paul Rhoads, the Pitt coach had a number of interested NFL assistants.

But he but wanted to hire someone familiar with the complexities of college offenses.

Hiring Phil Bennett not only addressed concerns, such as easing the transition in terminology. It also helped the Panthers prepare to face South Florida's spread offense and will help them this week against Navy's triple-option.

"It definitely helps, without a doubt," Wannstedt said. "Communication has been the biggest challenge, really. The knowledge part is more than I would have hoped for."

After devising a gameplan that held South Florida to 219 yards below its Big East Conference-best average in a 26-21 victory Oct. 2, Bennett turned his attention to a Navy system that piled up 497 yards against Pitt last season.

It's a system that's near and dear to Bennett's heart.

Bennett played outside linebacker in the mid-1970s at Texas A&M for Emory Bellard, the man credited with inventing the Wishbone offense. Bennett has vivid memories of avoiding its low blocks and stopping its fullback dives as a player, as well as scheming to simulate the intricacies of the offense as a defensive coordinator.

"It's a challenge as a coach, a challenge for all of us," Bennett said. "You've almost got to become part of the triple-option cult, to think like they do."

Bennett has experience doing just that, whether it was facing Oklahoma's Wishbone or Nebraska's I-option as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Kansas State.

That made him an ideal candidate for the Panthers, who face everything from Iowa's I-formation to Cincinnati's spread to West Virginia's read-option this season.

"I've always admired his ability to take away what the opposing offense likes to do. Phil tries to make you play left-handed, and he's good at that," CBS College Sports Network analyst Trev Alberts said. "That's the conundrum with Navy. I will tell you, I don't care who the defensive coordinator is. If the option is executed well, it's really hard to stop.

"What Phil is great at, is he knows exactly what Navy wants to do. What he's trying to do is make them uncomfortable, force them to do what they can do but not the No. 1 option. What Navy wants to do is establish the fullback and get to the outside on the pitch."

Navy's Flexbone offense, Bennett said, relies on seven basic formations and one personnel grouping that includes three running backs, two receivers and a quarterback at the skill positions. It's a variation of the Wishbone, adding wrinkles such as four unbalanced formations that force defenses to determine the eligible receivers at the line of scrimmage and distribute the coverage.

"It's the same-type plays, what they call triple-option -- fullback, quarterback, pitch -- but they do it from multiple formations," said Bennett, who credited former Navy coach Paul Johnson, now at Georgia Tech, with adding pass-game twists while at Georgia Southern. "They came up with the idea of spreading the field, so that if you don't spread with them, they'll throw the ball. It's a running version of the run-and-shoot."

After watching Navy rush for 331 yards and score twice on pass plays in the 48-45, double-overtime loss last season, the No. 23 Panthers (4-1) are hoping Bennett has the answers to stopping the Midshipmen (4-2) on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Bennett, in turn, wants Pitt to become a defense that can stop multiple offenses.

"That takes two things: it takes intelligence, and it takes an aptitude for not letting things slow you down," Bennett said. "It's still about being aggressive. It's still about tackling. It's still about getting lined up. And I think that's what separates the good defenses and the great defenses.

"Let's face it. This is a challenge for us. If you don't get some stops in this game, then you could be in for a long afternoon."

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