Monday, July 30, 2012

Counting down the top Pitt football players of the last 40 years- No.10 Matt Cavanaugh

I will be counting down my own list of the top 50 Pitt football players since 1972.  I have spent time doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people when formulating this list, but ultimately it is MY opinion.  The great thing about lists like this is that people will disagree, and feel free to, but just remember that there is no right answer so there's no need to go crazy if you do disagree.  I will post this same intro with all 50 bios because I know the one time I don't, people will complain about not knowing what criteria I used.  I will add at least one a day, maybe two.  

My criteria for selecting the order is as follows:

1.  Productivity.
2.  Talent.
3.  Place in program history.
4.  Only the player's careers while at Pitt are considered, not their NFL careers. 
5.  No current players.

10. Matt Cavanaugh (1974-77)-  As far as pure talent, the Youngstown, OH native was highly underrated, but the truth is, Cavanaugh was an excellent all around quarterback who could run, pass, came up big in big games, and was a great leader.

However, a lot of Cavanaugh's career revolved around injuries, both his and others. He did not start a game until the eight game of his sophomore season, and that was only because regular starter Robert Haygood was injured.  In that game, Cavanaugh completed 6 of 9 passes, but three went for touchdowns, including an 80-yarder to Gordon Jones, in a 38-0 win against Syracuse.

Haygood regained his starting spot and started the 1976 season, too, before a knee injury in the second game cost him the rest of the season.  The job of being at the helm of a National Championship caliber team fell to Cavanaugh, who had his moments of excellence.  In game four, against Duke, he completed 14 of 17 passes, for 359 yards and 5 touchdowns, plus ran for 39 yards more.  

The next week, after running for two touchdowns, Cavanaugh suffered a hairline fracture of his left fibula, which made him miss three weeks.  But he came back in time for a 24-7 win over Penn State and the 27-3 National Championship win over Georgia.  Despite Tony Dorsett running for 202 yards rushing and a touchdown in the game, Cavanaugh won the MVP Award by a vote 77.5 to 76.  In the game, Cavanaugh staked the Panthers to a 14-0 lead with a 6-yard touchdown run and a 59-yard touchdown pass to Gordon Jones.  

Cavanaugh was considered a Heisman candidate when entering his senior season but a broken forearm in the season opener cost him the next four games.  He still ended up having a great season, ending it by leading the Panthers to a 34-3 Gator Bowl romp over then No. 11 Clemson.  Cavanaugh was again the bowl MVP thanks to his record setting performance of 387 yards and 4 touchdowns.  One Clemson defender said of Cavanaugh after the game, "He's a pro and we're still playing college football."

One can only wonder how great Cavanaugh could have been had injuries not cut into much of his playing time.  Said then head coach Jackie Sherrill at the time, "I shudder to think what he would have done had he stayed healthy.  Matt Cavanaugh is the finest quarterback to have played this game of college football in quite some time."  Even with the injuries, Cavanaugh finished 7th in the Heisman voting in 1977.

Cavanaugh became a 2nd round draft choice of the New England Patriots and played 14 seasons in the NFL, picking up two Super Bowl rings.  He followed his long playing career with a long coaching career, and is currently with the New York Jets.


  1. Chris,
    I can still see Cavanaugh clutching his wrist after getting nailed by Notre Dame's Willie Fry on that opening game in 1977. I think that Pitt might have been able to win a consecutive national championship had Cav not broken his hand. That team was probably more talented than the national championship team that preceded it. I think Pitt tied Florida that season and Cav had a problem extending his arm which was wrapped in a soft cast, fumbling a pitchout in scoring territory.

    Why don;t you have a list of the top 10 teams of the past 40 years, and a list of Pitt's worst - that is a list you could probably have 20 teams on that one!

  2. Hey Doke -
    Any news on the recruiting front? I was curious if Chryst is working it any harder or if there is any more buzz around him than there was a couple months ago. Can we expect any help on the o-line?

  3. I mean, I'm not going to pick apart this entire list because for the most part I'm sure it's reasonable, but man is it brutal in some places.

    First of all, unless I'm missing something, there are nine spots left and we're missing Mark May, Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green, Larry Fitzgerald, Craig Heyward, and Sean Gilbert from this list, so somebody is getting pinched. Not good.

    Also, Darrelle Revis is woefully low on this list. Anybody who thinks that he wasn't a megastar at Pitt, must have been drunk. Nobody threw on him. When they did, he picked it off and, usually, took it to the house (I think he had something like 3 or 4 straight games with a pick six to start the 2006 season). Also, he was an electric return man (see the 2006 Backyard Brawl). So, just no excuse to have him that low. He's easily top 20 or top 15.

    1. Are the same guy who complains about Revis every week? Are you his cousin, or something? I'm not going to go through again why, God forbid, he's only in the 98 percentile, a pretty good rating for somebody who left a year early and was never named All-American. I think your good memories of the guy as a player are clouding your judgement. Go back and read the articles about Revis while he was at Pitt. Not once did they consider Revis a superstar at that time.

      As for Sean Gilbert, he's another guy that you're not seeing clearly. The guy played in only 18 games and only two, both against Penn State, were great games. If he stayed for another year, and stayed healthy, I can definitely see him high on the list, but the fact is, that didn't happen. He was considered a bit of a disappointment at Pitt.

    2. I'm sorry sir, if Keith Hamilton makes your list, then Sean Gilbert needs to be there. I mean how many games do you want college kids to play? Especially back then when their weren't 9 million bowl games and 12 game schedules. 18 games probably wasn't too far below the norm for a college career. And you have other guys, i.e. Zeke Gadson, on there who didn't exactly play 40 games in the blue and gold.

      And, no, I'm not the guy who's been opining for Revis every week, that was my first post, but you struck out on him, plain and simple. He started from Day 1 and was a shut down guy here. It isn't his fault that he played on poor teams and nobody threw his way, which caused him to not receive the proper national attention. You know what though, he ended up going 15th overall and being the first corner selected in the 2007 NFL Draft. You're right though, my judgement is clouded.

  4. Dokish is right. Gilbert was often injured and never reached his potential. His pro career was the same with the entire Redskin coaching staff waiting for him to produce.Bad work ethic too. Hamilton was always the better player at Pitt. Guys like Puzzoli and Pelosi were better defensive linemen than Gilbert and they won't make this list either.