Oregon State shores up run defense
EL PASO, Texas — The 75th Brut Sun Bowl was supposed to showcase two of the nation's top young tailbacks: Pitt sophomore LeSean McCoy and Oregon State freshman Jacquizz Rodgers.
With Rodgers out because of a shoulder injury, the spotlight will shine solely on McCoy. Containing the cutback runner has been the focal point for Oregon State, which allowed 385 rushing yards in a 65-38 loss to archrival Oregon in the season finale that cost it the Pac-10 championship.
It would stand to reason that McCoy, who ranks 10th in rushing at 116.9 yards per game, is poised for a big performance when No. 18 Pitt (9-3) plays No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) at 2 p.m. Dec. 31 on CBS.
But the Beavers have been building a dam.
"There's definitely a redemption factor," said Oregon State senior defensive lineman Slade Norris. "We've got to come out and show how we play to the nation because that last game definitely didn't illustrate what we are. We still have a sour taste in our mouths."
Norris has a point, as the evidence isn't as damning as it seems on the surface. Oregon State is allowing only 134.8 rushing yards per game and has held seven opponents to fewer than 100 yards. Another, Washington, had 101. The Beavers have allowed eight 100-yard rushers this season, but only Stanford, Penn State and Oregon have had both a 100-yard rusher and 200 or more team rushing yards.
Oregon State has proven susceptible in allowing big gains. It has given up scoring runs of 46, 28, 58, 65 and 83 yards, as well as a 54-yarder that didn't reach the end zone. That should have McCoy licking his chops, considering he has six 100-yard games and eight runs of 20-plus yards, including touchdowns of 27, 58, 33, 22 and 47 this season.
Yet, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt isn't placing much stock in the Oregon game, noting that the Beavers have had nearly a month to correct their defensive deficiencies.
"The Oregon game is one we're not paying a whole lot of attention to," Wannstedt said. "We've watched it, but we're focusing in on some of their other games that relate closer to what we do."
The Panthers are averaging 143.2 rushing yards, and their 3.8 yards per carry is one-tenth fewer than Oregon State allows. What impresses Oregon State coach Mike Riley is Pitt's commitment to running the ball and its insistence on continually handing it to McCoy late in games.
"I think with a guy like McCoy you're going to have to persevere because, in their formula for winning, they will not stop giving him the ball," Riley said. "Even if they are not having great success early, they will continue to give it to him. They try to break your will running the ball."
Although Rodgers won't play, the Beavers are hoping that practicing against him all season will help prepare for McCoy's quickness and cutback ability and are planning to swarm to the ball and surround him with defenders.
Wannstedt wants to emphasize the run game but knows that failing to do so could prove to be problematic for an offense that has been inconsistent. What makes McCoy more dangerous is his effectiveness in the pass game. He is Pitt's second-leading receiver, with 31 catches for 299 yards.
"If we can't run the ball, we have a tough time winning," Wannstedt said. "That's just how we're built. That's what we're all about."