Pitt waits for right time with Cross
With its starting quarterback out and its backups struggling against Notre Dame, Pitt pulled a page from its playbook designed for tailbacks LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling to take direct snaps from center.
The Wildcat formation was unveiled for an extended period for the first time this season, and the results were promising. The Panthers averaged nearly 5 yards per carry and accounted for 59 of their 178 rushing yards as Stephens-Howling converted a fourth-and-2, and McCoy broke a 21-yarder to set up a game-tying touchdown.
"It's hit or miss," Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "We just felt it was a good time to pull it out because we hadn't used it all year. You've just got to be cautious. You try it, and if it looks good, and you don't know if they can adjust to it, you keep doing it. But you better have something else ready."
That something else was expected to be the emergence of quarterback Greg Cross. The junior-college transfer was supposed to add a dynamic running element to the position, yet he has played a limited role this season.
The running game will be the focus when No. 25 Pitt (6-2, 2-1) plays host to Louisville (5-3, 1-2) at noon Saturday at Heinz Field. The Cardinals rank second in the Big East in rushing defense at 91.6 yards a game, but gave up 207 in a 28-21 loss at Syracuse last week. The Panthers are averaging 189.4 yards over the past five games.
One thing that has become abundantly clear is that the Panthers have no immediate plans to give Cross a greater role in the offense. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Cross is not part of the Wildcat but was recruited as an insurance policy. If starting quarterback Bill Stull hadn't recovered from a thumb injury that ended his 2007 season, Cross would have run a read-option package as an alternative to backups Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith in the West Coast offense.
"It's a little bit more complicated than what people probably would think, but I do understand what people are saying," Wannstedt said. "It bothers me because Greg's such a great kid. Unfortunately, there's only one football."
And Pitt has every intention of giving it to McCoy, who ranks sixth nationally in rushing at 125.5 yards per game.
Cavanaugh said the close scores in every game except Navy have made it difficult to find ways to use Cross.
"The one good thing about the way we run our Wildcat package is that Shady's getting the snap," Cavanaugh said. "I'd hate to take 10-to-12 touches away from him and not win the game.
"You'd all fire me - and I should be fired - if we came out of a game, and McCoy doesn't get as many touches as he can."
After running 17 yards for a touchdown against Iowa on his first carry, Cross has had only three more touches. He was sacked for a 10-yard loss against Iowa, then had two carries for 8 yards at South Florida before injuring his hand.
Cross, who was not made available for this story, hasn't appeared in Pitt's past three games. But the surprise element is likely lost against Louisville because Cross chose the Panthers over scholarship offers from the Cardinals and Kansas State.
"I think they're aware of him," Wannstedt said. "We have a package for Greg - we've had it all year - and it's just a matter of finding the right opportunity."