Here are some observations the day after Pitt’s 27-14 victory over Navy at Heinz Field, leading off with the fact that Pitt dropped two spots in the Associated Press poll voting despite the win (maybe this has something to do with the fact that my fellow Trib scribe and former Pitt football beat writer, Kevin Gorman, doesn’t vote for the AP poll anymore. I can safely say Kevin would have rightfully put the Panthers in the top 25). And, no, I don’t vote either (although I do have a vote for the MLB National League manager of the year).
** Despite its impressive win, the Panthers dropped from No. 27 to No. 29 in the AP
Top 25 other receiving votes, released on Sunday night. Florida State, which routed BYU; Washington, which stunned No. 3 USC; and Auburn, which topped West Virginia, leapfrogged the Panthers, while Utah dropped behind them. In the USA Today coaches’ poll, Pitt moved up two spots to No. 27.
** We knew freshman Dan Mason had a bright future, but who realized the intense Penn Hills product would be crushing opponents in the third week of the season? Mason recorded a team-high 11 tackles, two sacks and, by all accounts of the Panther upperclassmen on defense, Mason showed no hesitation or nervousness making the defensive calls.
Wannstedt said Gunn, who sprained an ankle in the Buffalo game and was declared out of the Navy game, should be ready to return for N.C. State.
But where does that leave Mason?
Wannstedt has noted all year that it’s more difficult to get playing time for a backup at middle linebacker than, say, a tailback or a left guard because the linebacker makes the defensive calls and it’s not easy to just lift the starter for a series or two. But don’t be surprised if, very soon, Mason and Gunn are both on the field, along with Greg Williams, and Max Gruder, a versatile outside backer, becomes the No. 4 linebacker.
** Redshirt junior Elijah Fields, making his third career start and first at free safety, had four tackles and played well. He was flagged for late hit in the end zone and let a receiver get behind him for a likely touchdown had the ball not been overthrown, although he did show remarkable closing speed trying to get back into the play. His post-game quotes were also encouraging.
“I’m happy with my first start,” Fields said. “My biggest thing is trying to be consistent. I feel like I made some big steps, but there is always a lot of work to do.”
** If Jonathan Baldwin, Cedric McGee and, to a lesser extent, Dorin Dickerson hadn’t dropped passes in the third quarter, Stull could easily have been 20 for 24 for more than 300 yards instead of his real numbers (17 for 24 for 245 yards). Of the other four non-dropped incompletions, two were thrown high out of the back of the end zone. That means Stull had two poorly-thrown passes (I remember one of them, directed at Baldwin on 3rd and 4 from the Pitt 11 in the first quarter).
** Given that Stull was on the way to arguably his best game at Pitt, why did coach Dave Wannstedt pull him with nearly 2 minutes to play in the third quarter of a game Pitt led by 17 points (24-7) against a dangerous team that can score quickly? Of course, redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri failed to get a first down, Navy scored quickly to make it a 10-point game with 11 minutes left and Stull had to return. Great. Two quarterbacks had their confidence taken down a notch in one move.
What’s more disturbing is Stull said Wannstedt made a point of saying at halftime that Sunseri was going to get playing time in the second half if Pitt stayed comfortably in control. With all that’s going on in a 21-7 game against Navy at halftime, why is Wannstedt even thinking about getting Sunseri in the game? Shouldn’t he be focused on a million other things? So with all the grief Stull endured at Heinz Field in the opener, he had a chance to have a career game in front of 55,000 fans. It could have been Stull’s night. But for some reason, Wannstedt felt Sunseri needed to play in the third quarter.
** Pitt held Navy to its lowest rushing output (129 yards) in nearly three years, marking the second year in a row the triple-option attack fizzled against the Panthers. The success against such a refined, deception-based offense reflects well on defensive coordinator Phil Bennett — who admitted he wasn’t getting much sleep preparing for the scheme — and position coaches Greg Gattuso with the defensive line and Joe Tumpkin with the linebackers. We all know what an outstanding coach Gattuso is, but I don’t think Tumpkin gets the credit for what he’s done. Scott McKillop, Adam Gunn and Greg Williams all have improved markedly under his tutelage. Heck, he turned Austin Ransom, a former walk-on, into a serviceable linebacker. Pitt is very fortunate Bennett brought Tumpkin along from SMU last year.
** How about the play of redshirt sophomore fullback Henry Hynoski, who rushed for more than 7,000 yards in high school — and three yards on one carry as a redshirt freshman at Pitt? He was Pitt’s second-leading rusher with 23 yards on three carries, and could have scored his first touchdown at Pitt if the coaches had decided to go for a fourth-and-goal from the 1 instead of a short field goal with 5:00 to play and a 24-14 lead. Hynoski also caught two passes for 17 yards. In an offense that seems to find a new weapon every week, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound battering ram might be another.
** Senior tight end Nate Byham, with no catches in the opening two games, caught two for 39 yards. His first catch of the season, a 24-yarder in the second quarter that set up Pitt’s second touchdown, came in heavy traffic and showed the all-Big East tight end is back.
** Another top target who hadn’t been heavily involved in the offense this season, Baldwin, caught six passes for a career-high 111 yards. He has two 100-yard games in his career, both against Navy. The sophomore made a pair of leaping receptions and said after the game that he doesn’t believe anyone in the country can cover him one-on-one. He may not get a chance to prove it. Pitt doesn’t face many good cornerbacks this year (USF’s Jerome Murphy is clearly the best).
“All night long I was saying this was going to be my breakout game,” Baldwin said after the game. “Coach (offensive coordinator Frank) Cignetti was telling me we’re going to get the ball to you early and get me some good looks. I just knew I had to go make some plays.”
** Wide receiver Oderick Turner got back in the end zone with a 6-yard scoring pass, snapping a prolonged drought. It was only the second touchdown in the past 19 games for the redshirt senior, dating back to his sophomore year. In Turner’s first 21 games at Pitt, he scored 13 touchdowns. Turner needs eight receptions and 152 receiving yards to move into the top 10 in Pitt history in both categories.
** Bill Stull was foggy on the exact scenario, but he said Saturday’s remarkable 23-yard completion to himself wasn’t the first time he has done that. He seemed to remember a similar play — when a defensive lineman blocked a pass right back to him — while at Seton-La Salle High School. He was stripped at the end of the play on Saturday, but it still brought some light moments during the post-game locker room.
“Obviously, it wasn’t really planned,” he said. “Last year they (Navy) batted a bunch of balls down. I was just making sure it wasn’t tipped up for an interception like last year. I tried to bat it down and the ball came right into my hands and of course I go fumble.”
** Lastly, maybe it was the late-night garlic wings, but for some unknown reason I had forgotten about Ray Graham’s short touchdown run in the final minutes of the Buffalo game and wrote in my game story today that his 15-yard touchdown to give Pitt the lead for good against Navy was the first score of his Panther career. Sorry about that Ray. Graham’s second career touchdown — an impressive outside burst to the left pylon — came behind a bruising block by pulling right guard John Malecki, who obliterated a Navy defender. Malecki and left tackle Jason Pinkston have graded out well in all three games this year and are anchoring an offensive line that has allowed one sack all season.