Sept. 15, 2012
By Skip Myslenski
It is not a pretty place, and the work done there is hardly a thing of beauty. It is instead tough duty, grunt labor, a task that demands strength of both body and will. It is an anonymous place, and the work done there is rarely acknowledged or appreciated. But on Saturday at Ryan Field, in their game with Boston College, the 'Cats were catalyzed to their win by the efforts put in by the behemoths who performed in that netherworld familiarly known as The Pit.
They, simply put, controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, a fact testified to by some very stark numbers. Just consider: BC, on the afternoon, rushed 21 times for a net of only 25 yards, an average of a paltry 1.2 yards per carry. The 'Cats, in contrast, rushed 60 times for a net of 293 yards, an average of a healthy 4.9 yards per carry. "Obviously, the way we performed against the rush today against a very physical football team, I thought was a very positive step forward," Pat Fitzgerald would later say of his defensive front.
"We made the decision, especially with the way the flow of the game was going, that we could control the line of scrimmage. So we made a full commitment to run the football," he said of his other front. "It's a credit to the offensive line. We felt the front, it was coming together a little bit, and especially as we went in at halftime, we really felt we were controlling the line of scrimmage pretty well on the offensive line."
That line, on Saturday, had Pat Ward at left tackle and Brian Mulroe at left guard and Brandon Vitabile at center and Neil Deiters at right guard and Jack Konopka at right tackle, and at halftime that quintet learned the affair now belonged to them. "It's awesome (to hear that)," Vitabile would later say. "It means they have enough confidence in you to put the game on your back. They wanted us to take over. To get the coach's confidence like that is pretty awesome in a game that was as close as it was."
The 'Cats, in the first half of that game, had collected yards before stalling in the red zone, and so here -- early in the third quarter -- they led only 12-10 on the strength of four Jeff Budzien field goals. Now, with BC looking at a first-and-goal on the five, even that lead was in danger, but then 'Cat tackle Brian Arnfelt leveled Eagle running back Rolandan Finch and caused a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo on the four.
In came the offense and now its line took over as Venric Mark picked up two over the left side and superback Dan Vitale picked up eight more on a little swing pass. Then it was Mark up the middle for five, Mark for six more on a dump pass; the 'Cats were driving now, driving until they faced a third-and-four at the BC 33. Here the Eagles blitzed as Colter rolled on an option right, and Colter flipped to Mark and Mark was smacked by BC safety Jim Noel and up popped the ball and there to grab it was Vitabile, who carried it forward for five more yards. "A lineman's dream. Fumblin', stumblin', rumblin'," Fitzgerald would later say with a smile.
"It was just a right place at the right time kind of thing," the center would add with a smile of his own. "I was trying to get my block down and it just popped up and I grabbed it. It's every lineman's dream. If you see the ball, you've got to get it. I was lucky enough, I played on the hands' team in high school. I'm going to thank my high school coach for that. But it was awesome. We got the first down, which was important to keep the drive going. That's what really mattered."
Mark, on that play, was dinged up, and would not appear again this afternoon. Nor could the 'Cats finish this drive, which ended with Budzien's record-tying fifth field goal of the game. Still, not unimportantly, they had put together a 19-play, 94-yard drive that had both taken 6:23 off the clock and showed just who owned The Pit.
Mike Trumpy's 2011 season ended on week four in Champaign, where he blew out his ACL in the second half of the 'Cats game with Illinois. But here, with 2:29 remaining and his team still only up two, he was its featured back in place of the dynamic Mark. "I don't want to speak for Mike," Fitzgerald would say. "But I'll go back to every major injury that I've been part of as a position coach or a head coach, and then I'll go back to my personal experience. This is where I try to lean on guys, and I keep a keen eye on them. The roller coaster of the injury, the devastation, then coming back, being a little rusty early in camp -- he needed that thing to get twisted back up again to kind of give the old exhale. 'I'm fine. Everything's back. I may feel a little differently. But I'm back.' I thought that happened the end of the first week, maybe the second week of training camp. Since then, I think he's just gained more and more confidence."
Now, with the 'Cats facing a second-and-7 at the BC 41, that confidence was displayed as Trumpy went up the middle for 11, up the middle again for three, up the middle a third time for 27 and the touchdown that iced this game for his team. "It's been a long road back for Mike. I'm really proud of him stepping up," Fitzgerald finally said of Trumpy, who ended up netting 106 yards on 16 carries (6.6 ypc). "V got a little banged up in the game. Now it's Mike's turn to pick up the flag and go and he did that. He did a great job of doing what Mike does. He's a physical back. I think, unfortunately through the injury, he really embraced, as he was getting healthy, spending time in the weight room. Big, physical guy. The pile's going the way we want it to go every time he touches it."
Fitzgerald often says stats are for losers, but here are a few worth noting. The 'Cats, in this game, got off an outlandish 100 offensive plays (to BC's 65) and controlled the ball for 35 minutes and 56 seconds (to BC's 24:04). Asked later if the Eagles' defense was gassed at game's end, Vitabile would diplomatically say, "Everyone was tired out there, but maybe they were a little more tired. We're used to it."