December 30, 2008

Former NFL coaches square off in Sun Bowl

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Dave Wannstedt needed about a year and a half on the job at Pittsburgh to feel like a college coach.

He found out what many former NFL head coaches who moved to the college ranks also learned the hard way coaching college players is a lot different than coaching pro players.


Pittsburgh (9-3)
vs. Oregon State (8-4)

WHEN: 2:15 p.m. Dec. 31.
WHERE: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas.
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist on play-by-play, with Gary Danielson as the analyst).
THE LINE: Oregon State by 3.
RECORD VS. BOWL TEAMS: Oregon State 4-3, Pittsburgh 7-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Oregon State 23rd, Pittsburgh 15th.
BCS RANKINGS: Oregon State N/A, Pittsburgh 20th.
COACHES: Oregon State − Mike Riley (4-0 in bowls); Pittsburgh − Dave Wannstedt (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: In September, these teams weren't worth watching. Pittsburgh lost to Bowling Green in the opener. Oregon State lost to Stanford and was demolished by Penn State. But each rebounded and were in their conference races until late November. In some respects, this is the battle for the season's best rebound team.
KEY STAT: Oregon State has registered 34 sacks and averages 2.8 per game, which is 10th nationally. Pitt has allowed 27 sacks and gives up 2.3 per game, which is 87th nationally.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Pitt RB LeSean McCoy (116.9 yards per game, 21 rushing TDs) says he will return for his junior season, but top-flight running backs have changed their minds before. And a big bowl performance could cause him to change his mind.
"It probably took me a year and half to dig into the problems and the issues these kids deal with," said Wannstedt, who spent 16 seasons in the NFL as an assistant and head coach before being hired at his alma mater.

"You have to see them through everything. You're not dealing with 30-year-old men anymore, who may not listen to you or figure it out on their own. These young kids need all the direction they can get. Once I realized that this is what I have to do to get them to be successful, that made a big difference."

The Sun Bowl features the only postseason matchup this season between two former NFL coaches. Oregon State's Mike Riley coached the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001 between stints as head coach in Corvallis. Riley also was a head coach for four seasons in the CFL.

Former NFL coaches now in the college ranks are a mixed bag, from the ultra-successful Pete Carroll to the not-so successful Bill Callahan.

Separated by four time zones, Riley and Wannstedt have had similar success this season. After disappointing starts, both contended for their respective conference championships into November.

Riley is taking Oregon State to its fifth bowl in six seasons, while. Wannstedt will appear in the postseason for the first time as Pitt's coach. The Panthers' last bowl appearance was in the 2004 season, a 35-7 loss to Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.

Both coaches said embracing the role of mentor to their players has been a key to adapting to the college game.

"Your obvious focus in the NFL is you form a team and cut players and add players, and it's all about the business side of football," Riley said. "In college, we are surrounded by the university and academics and habits off the field. It's a unique time in their lives. If you're going to be a college coach, you have to embrace all the parts. The residual effects can be the coaching of the football team."

Wannstedt also learned that Xs and Os wouldn't mean much if he couldn't teach his players effectively.

"We are so limited on the time we can spend with these players," he said. "It doesn't matter what I know about defense. It's what the kids can execute. That part of it was a little frustrating for me."

Pitt went a combined 11-12 in Wannstedt's first two seasons. The Panthers went 5-7 in 2007 in his third season, but lost four games by a touchdown or less and upset second-ranked West Virginia in the regular-season finale. This season, the Panthers went 9-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big East.

Helping both coaches is that Riley and Wannstedt are familiar with their campus history.

Riley's father was an assistant for Oregon State from 1965-72. Riley quarterbacked Corvallis High School to a state championship before he played for Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Wannstedt played for Pittsburgh from 1971-73 and was an assistant on the last Pitt team that won a national championship, in 1976.

"I'm not doing this so I can get a better college job. I'm not doing this to get a better NFL job. I'm not doing this for the money," Wannstedt said. "I'm doing this to make a difference in my alma mater."

Who has the edge?

Oregon State run offense vs. Pittsburgh run defense
The big question is how the Beavers will fare without the Rodgers brothers. Jacquizz Rodgers, the No. 2 rusher in the Pac-10 and the national freshman of the year, is listed as doubtful with a shoulder injury. His older brother, James, is a wide receiver who is the team's second-leading rusher; he is out with a broken collarbone. Redshirt freshman Ryan McCants likely would get the bulk of the carries if Jacquizz can't play. Pitt LB Scott McKillop is a tackle machine and is the key to the Panthers' solid run defense.
Edge: Pittsburgh (assuming Jacquizz Rodgers doesn't play).

Oregon State pass offense vs. Pittsburgh pass defense
Despite all the focus on Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State actually led the Pac-10 in passing. QBs Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield improved quite a bit from last season, combing for 25 touchdowns, but they also combined to throw 13 interceptions. Sammie Stroughter is a big-time wide receiver, and Shane Morales is a good possession guy. Pitt has been solid against the pass for the most part, but the Panthers were shredded by Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Rutgers, which combined to throw for 951 yards and 12 TDs.
Edge: Oregon State.

Pittsburgh run offense vs. Oregon State run defense
Not many players were more valuable to their teams than Pitt's LeSean McCoy, who had six 100-yard games and scored at least one rushing TD in 11 of 12 games; he had six games with at least two rushing touchdowns. Of the top run games in the Pac-10, Oregon State played good run defense for most of the season, but Stanford, Penn State and Oregon ran right at the Beavers and had a ton of success. The Beavers did shut down the Cal and USC rushing attacks, though.
Edge: Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh pass offense vs. Oregon State pass defense
Pitt QB Bill Stull won't remind anyone of Dan Marino or even Tyler Palko, for that matter. The Panthers need him to limit his mistakes. Senior Derek Kinder is a dependable receiver, and freshman Jonathan Baldwin has game-breaker potential. The Beavers are solid in the secondary, with CB Brandon Hughes the standout, and have a fierce pass rush thanks to Slade Norris and Victor Butler. That's bad news for the Panthers, who have had trouble protecting Stull.
Edge: Oregon State.

Oregon State special teams vs. Pittsburgh special teams
Stroughter gives Oregon State a dangerous punt returner, but James Rodgers handled kickoff returns, so that could be an issue. The Beavers' coverage teams are excellent. K Justin Kahut was just 3-of-8 from beyond 40 yards, and P Johnny Hekker is mediocre. Pitt K Conor Lee is 20-of-23, including 6-of-9 from 40 and beyond. P Dave Brytus averaged 40.2 yards per kick. Pitt's return units aren't much, but the coverage teams have been excellent and the Panthers have blocked four punts this season.
Edge: Pittsburgh.

Oregon State coaches vs. Pittsburgh coaches
Mike Riley has never lost a bowl game as a coach, even as an assistant at USC. Don't dismiss Oregon State simply because the Beavers will be without their best player. Dave Wannstedt is coaching in his first bowl game at Pittsburgh.
Edge: Oregon State.

X-factor: Without the Rodgers brothers, Oregon State will need to find its run game somewhere. Before the season, Beavers coaches were singing McCants' praises. That was before Jacquizz Rodgers emerged as the workhorse back. McCants is a big back, while Rodgers is more of a darter.

Pittsburgh will win if: It's simple for Pittsburgh offensively let McCoy do his job. Defensively, the Panthers need to make the Beavers one-dimensional by stopping the rushing attack.

Oregon State will win if: Jacquizz Rodgers was the reason Oregon State went from Pac-10 also-ran to contender. The Beavers must find a way to replace his production. If not, a repeat of the embarrassing loss to Oregon in the regular-season finale is possible.

The picks
David Fox: Pittsburgh 27, Oregon State 14
Mike Huguenin: Oregon State 23, Pittsburgh 20

David Fox is a national writer for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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