I want to take a look at Pittsburgh, the team that I think is going to win 2012 Nationals*. I’ve seen footage of Pitt from Classic City Classic, Warm Up, and the Stanford Open, and I saw them in person at Easterns. This team hucks, breaks, and cuts well, they defend both physically and intelligently, and they’ve got oodles of college and club experience. Also, Alex Thorne is a man on a mission. Yes, Pitt has failed to break through to the final despite being well-hyped over the past few seasons, but everyone crawls before they walk. I think this is their year.
*Granted, Oregon is getting a lot of press and with good reason, but I haven’t seen Ego play outside of the NexGen Network coverage of the Stanford Invite. I give Pitt the edge because their best players are upperclassmen (most of them, anyway. More on this later…) and because they’ve got that “this is our year” vibe going on. Careful, though: while it can take years of building, losing, and rebuilding to sharpen it, the edge can go dull pretty quickly.
This is a video Pittsburgh’s 14-13 win over Carleton, last year’s national champion, in the Stanford semifinal. Since 2004, Pitt has amassed an albatross 1 and 8 record against CUT, their only win coming in pool play at Stanford in 2010. In Pitt’s case, playing well against the monkey on your back is always a good thing; I wouldn’t say that winning here means it’s off because that won’t happen until Pitt finishes better than CUT at Nationals, but this is certainly a step in the right direction. Also, watching the defending champs to see what they do well and how they’ve changed since 2011 is always a gain. On to the tape…
First half: Carleton 1-Pittsburgh 0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3, 4-3, 4-4, 5-4, 5-5, 5-6 (Pitt break), 6-6, 6-7, 7-7, 7-8. Second half: 7-9, 8-9, 9-9 (CUT break), 10-9 (CUT break), 10-10, 11-10, 11-11, 12-11, 12-12, 13-12, 13-13, 13-14 (Pitt break)
Pitt odds and ends First, some random thoughts from throughout the game.
- Pitt’s vertical stack initiates from the front rather than the back. Their primary cutter, typically Alex Thorne, has space to cut either in or out, and the back cutters can hold or adjust accordingly. I like this because once guys do cut off of the back of the stack, it’s in flow; the fact that the disc has moved means that their out cuts are believable. It’s a nice way to combat the stagnation that plagues a lot of teams that wait for cuts to develop off of the back of the stack.
- On the whole, Pitt is very well-rounded. Joaq has pointed out that much of their success this year comes from an assortment of looks instead of relying on Alex Thorne getting the disc under, and I think he’s right. Sometimes he cuts first, others he’s the continuation cutter, and others he is the first handler with the disc. Good examples of sharing roles and spacing the field are at points 4-3 and at 7-7. When everyone can throw, catch, and run, offense is a beautiful thing. Given all of their options, I’d really like to know more about the rhyme and reason to Pitt’s offensive playcalling.
- Pitt’s freshman talent is really, really good. Max Thorne might be their leading goal scorer this year, and his ability to survey the field and cut accordingly is really fun to watch; an example of how he looks around to take stock of everything is at 23:58. Also, his throws are money. I’m very impressed with Trent Dillon’s ability and composure, and I liked how vocal he was on the field at Easterns. Also, Pat Earles is a strong D-line thrower for them (he’s left-handed with solid pulls, hucks, and breaks) and gets brought in on universe point in this game. Adding in Joe Bender and Christian Pitts, Pitt has five freshmen that see regular minutes.
- Down the stretch, Pitt is the team making plays. More specifically, Alex Thorne goes to work. His flick huck to Max at 10-9 is astonishing. At 12-11, he pulls down a huge sky on Simon Montague. 13-12, another great huck. And at 13-13, it’s Alex that starts Pitt’s offense and eventually gets wide open in the endzone for the win. His skill is for real, and he’s one of the most entertaining college players that I’ve ever watched.
Set Plays Pitt’s set plays have stood out to me all year. Whenever their offense has a clean start, you can count on a well-orchestrated combination of an in cut, a continuation or break look, and a deep option.
- At 2-1, you see the play that Pitt has been running all year: a horizontal stack where cutters 2-4 break deep and Tyler Degirolamo sweeps across the field. It works not only because it creates a ton of space for a one-on-one matchup, but also because Degirolamo is Pitt’s best deep threat so he is usually backed. He doesn’t use them in this game, but Degirolamo has taken huge strides as a thrower this season so giving him the disc is no longer a defensive let-off. Also, Isaac Saul has good break throws so he can typically get Tyler the disc regardless of which side he is cutting to. From there, Alex Thorne comes under and the offense is halfway down the field.
- At 3-2, Pitt looks to run a play where Alex sets up at the front of the stack, takes a step to the force side, and then cuts break. This play actually fails in that Saul has to dump the disc rather than throw upfield, but it is a precursor to what is now another go-to for Pitt. At more recent tournaments, Pitt has implemented the look where the dump cuts behind the handler from the force side to the break side to receive a dump that leads to an easy break throw out wide. This play was a staple of Jam’s vert stack, and it reminds me of “scoring without breaking the mark“. Alex typically catches the break throw throw, giving Pitt’s best thrower the disc and leaving all the downfield defenders out of position.
- Carleton, on the other hand, doesn’t look to isolate guys off of dead discs, even when an out-of-bounds pull lets them start at the brick. There’s a botched set play at 8-9 (not sure what happens here. Was Clay Dewey-Valentine supposed to get open for a throw here, or is it a mistimed clear?) and one that gets Simon open at 13-12; both are out of time out calls. Carleton clearly prefers trying to find flow immediately which is fine, but I think it’s a wasted opportunity.
Endzone offense This is where Pitt is really lacking. They could stand to learn from CUT in the red zone department.
- Carleton’s endzone offense is very focused. When they get close, the cutters organize themselves in a vertical stack and the handlers, particularly Justin Norden and Jonah Herscu, get the disc moving from side to side. They swing people open, meaning that cutters have an easy time getting free because the moving disc keeps their defenders from locking in.
- Pitt, on the other hand, doesn’t have too much shape to its endzone offense. At 5-5, 6-6, and 7-9, they miss scoring opportunities despite having the disc a mere 10-15 yards outside of the endzone. Even Alex Thorne’s streaking upline cut to win the game comes out of a haphazard situation where Tyler Degirolamo isn’t given many clean options (and doesn’t appear to be looking for any). There aren’t many “ok, we’re in endzone offense mode now” moments from Pitt; they either score on a huck or a quick break throw. I don’t think this is terrible during the regular season, (I saw the same stuff at Easterns) as they’ve obviously got a lot of other stuff on the field figured out. But if Pitt uses practice time between now and Nationals to make their endzone chances a bit more automatic, they’ll be even better.
Fronting downfield cutters is Pitt’s default defense in this game, and it was the same thing at Easterns.
- If you can pull it off by still staying tight on deep cuts, this is a great strategy. Nobody is as good at hucking as they are at throwing to 20-yard underneath cuts, and if an offense’s only option is to throw long, it will get uncomfortable. Another way to think about it: while teams may practice hucking, most try to hold themselves to a standard at practice where they are conservative with the disc. By pushing cutters out, Pitt makes teams work against their own practiced habits.
- If you’re going to front, it has to be a team-wide system so that marks and defenders who are in positions to help deep can play accordingly. In Pitt’s case, fronting allows Julian Hausman to be big and active while marking the other team’s main handler. A friend of mine played for the mid-2000s Colorado teams that were renowned for their defense and he told me that Catt Wilson used to have them do tons of drills that focused on not giving up ground underneath and pushing guys out.
- Carleton combats Pitt’s fronting with swooping cuts that aren’t quite horizontal but definitely run across the field. This gets guys open, but it’s problematic because it winds up with them closer to the sideline on the force side than they’d like.
- On that note, CUT’s offense doesn’t look as good as in years past. There is less open space on the force side and more cutting that looks like it lacks purpose. If I were them, I’d run more side stack plays to isolate Julian Childs-Walker and get him the disc somewhere other than 10 yards off the sideline.
- The first turn was at 5-5. From there, they came in bunches, with 5-6, 6-6, and 7-7 all having multiple turns. Funny how that works.
- At 6-7, Pitt stacks its D-line with Alex and Tyler. Any chance for a break, however, is quickly blown when Colin Connor poaches to gamble for a block and his man gets wide open for the score. Risk calculation and discipline are important, and I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts about stacking D-lines. Does it mean that Connor shouldn’t have taken that risk? Are they playing more risky D because they think they’ll score easy if they succeed? Given that he’s one of Pitt’s best defenders (27:29!), does Connor have license to take risks like these?
- Going back to what I said about set plays, there were five total out-of-bounds pulls: two by CUT (3-2 and 12-11) and three by Pitt (2-2, 11-11, and 12-12). The opposing offense scored without turning the disc over on all five. Pulling in bounds is so incredibly important, and thinking about it now reminds me of this discussion about Eugene Summer Solstice experimenting with the brick mark being at midfield.
- Pittsburgh loves the outside in/flat throw into the inside break lane. Check out the OI IOs at 34:20 and 39:41.
- To end with a bit of humor, Colin Conner’s attempt at the Alex Thorne jump/hop move on the final possession of 13-13 is hilarious.
Feature photo by Kyle Mcbard (UltiPhotos.com)