For openers, Pitt’s 27-3 victory over Eastern Michigan was just what the Panthers needed and everything the they couldn’t afford. They beat a Mid-American Conference team, but lost starting quarterback Bill Stull to another thumb injury to his right (throwing) hand.
Eastern Michigan running back Pierre Walker said he had tried to instill a mentality in his teammates “that there wasn’t anything special about Pitt just because they played in the Big East” and that he “wanted everyone to think the only difference between Pitt and Ball State is that Pitt doesn’t play in our conference.”
This wasn’t a road game against the MAC. Eastern Michigan wasn’t Toledo or Ohio (or, for that matter, Appalachian State). And Pitt isn’t Ball State (or Michigan). The Panthers showed, against an inferior opponent, that they can stop the run but still has to prove that their offensive line can open running lanes for the backs.
“It’s going to be one of those years where each week is going to take on a life of its own,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do in any phase to win that game. That’s going to be the type of year it’s going to be.”
• Stull’s injury apparently occurred the play before he fumbled a pitch intended for LaRod Stephens-Howling midway through the third quarter.
On first-and-10 at the 50, Stull ran for a 1-yard loss on what was either a quarterback draw or a broken play. EMU strong-side linebacker Darran Matthews tried to strip Stull, instead bending his right thumb backwards.
Stull left the sideline briefly to have an X-ray, but Wannstedt said Stull would have more tests today. He’s expected to get an MRI to check for ligament damage.
It’s unknown how serious Stull’s injury is – and he does have a redshirt at his disposal – but if it causes him to miss any games, Kevan Smith becomes the starter and Pat Bostick the backup. The rest of the QBs are walk-ons.
After losing senior receiver Derek Kinder to a torn ACL, Pitt can’t afford to lose Stull for an extended amount of time. Missing the Grambling game Saturday is one thing; missing Michigan State Sept. 15 is another.
• Pitt’s defense performed well in limiting Eastern Michigan to 145 yards total offense, including only 39 rushing yards on 23 attempts. Eagles quarterback Andy Schmitt was 16 of 27 for 106 yards, but threw an interception and was sacked twice.
Eastern Michigan had only eight first downs, with all but one coming in the first half (and one of those came by penalty). The Eagles didn’t get a first down in the third quarter, when Pitt was outscored, 41-26, in the final five games of last season.
“I like our defense,” Wannstedt said. “I’ve said that all along. These guys weren’t dropping back and throwing the ball. They were getting rid of it quick, a lot of hitch passes and quick screens. We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to rush the passer, but I like our defensive line.”
As he should, considering defensive tackle Gus Mustakas had a career-high five tackles, including 1.5 for losses; nose tackle Rashaad Duncan had four stops; and defensive end Joe Clermond had a sack.
• As promised in taking over for All-American and Big East Defensive Player of the Year, middle linebacker Scott McKillop had a strong effort. He finished with a team-high eight tackles and a sack, and set the tone by body-slamming an EMU player on the first play from scrimmage.
“I think Scott was everything that we had hoped for,” Wannstedt said. “He played extremely well.”
• Pitt rotated eight defensive linemen and seven linebackers, giving the Panthers a strong effort that kept Eastern Michigan scoreless after the first quarter. And that field goal came after a dead-ball personal foul by cornerback Kennard Cox on a 2-and-11 at Pitt’s 41.
“We wore down as the game went on, particularly at the start of the fourth quarter when our offense had three straight three-and-outs at a point when we really wanted to give our defense a breather,” Eastern Michigan coach Jeff Genyk said. “We couldn’t contain Gus Mustakas by the end. He’s a heck of a player and we didn’t have an answer for him.”
• Pitt rushed for 130 yards on 42 carries, a meager 3.1-yard average. This one, however, wasn’t on the running backs. LeSean McCoy averaged 6.8 yards per carry and had runs of 29 and 17 yards in an impressive debut.
“This was everything I expected and a little more, to be honest,” McCoy said. “You practice and watch tape, but when the game actually starts, you get a little nervous. But that’s to be expected.”
McCoy was inserted at tailback in Pitt’s third offensive series, after the Panthers had twice gone three-and-out. His first carry, a toss left, went for 6 yards. Pitt scored on the drive, although it came largely because of pass plays to Marcel Pestano for 41 yards and Darrell Strong for 19.
Wannstedt, for one, was impressed.
“I thought LeSean McCoy, for his first time in really almost two years, did a nice job,” Wannstedt said, referring to McCoy missing much of the past two seasons after suffering a compound fracture in his right ankle in September 2005. “He’s a playmaker. I think everybody saw that. That was real good to get him some playing time and get him back in full-speed action, as we say.”
• Although the play-calling was very vanilla, LaRod Stephens-Howling averaged 4.2 ypc and had a 30-yard run, and Shane Brooks twice scored on 1-yard runs and finished with 14 yards on four carries.
That puts the onus on the offensive line, which had new starters in center Chris Vangas and right tackle Jason Pinkston but struggled against a stout defense that didn’t put up much of a pass rush against the new quarterback.
“The run game was too inconsistent,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “We’ve got backs who can make plays. We will get that solved. We’ve got a new center in there, Jason Pinkston (at right tackle) for the first time. We weren’t as in sync as I would have liked.”
It’s only a matter of time before calls come for McCoy to start ahead of Stephens-Howling. For now, it looks like a nice one-two punch, although both were better in the second half.
“We need to keep running the ball in order to be consistent,” McCoy said. “LaRod is a great running back and the offensive line is good, too, so there is no reason for us not to perform well. And I think we will. It’s the first game and we’ll make some changes, but overall I thought we did a good job and we’ll continue to get better as the season goes on.”
* Mike McGlynn’s team-best consecutive starts streak ended at 31 games. The fifth-year senior offensive lineman did, however, play one snap at right tackle. He now has 36 consecutive games played. It’s only a matter of time before, health permitting, McGlynn finds a spot in the starting lineup. My guess is that he’ll play center.
* Of the undecided spots on the depth chart, Adam Gunn got start over Dorin Dickerson at strong-side linebacker and Duncan over John Malecki at nose tackle. One surprising move was redshirt freshman Ricky Gary starting at field corner instead of Aaron Berry.
Wannstedt said Berry “twisted an ankle.” Berry still came out as the deep man on punt returns, taking one for 8 yards but waving for a fair catch on others. Gary intercepted a pass late in the first quarter, which set up Pitt’s second scoring drive.
“Ricky Gary is one of those kids who had a real good camp,” Wannstedt said. “Nobody really talked about him. I think he led us in camp in interceptions, and the one he made tonight was one-handed and it was great. That gives us some insurance when Aaron Berry gets back.”
• Wannstedt was pleased with the special teams play, although there is plenty of room for improvement. Conor Lee made field goals of 28 and 35 yards, but missed a 42-yarder. Dave Brytus averaged 45.4 yards per punt and 58.8 yards on kickoffs, with the longest return going for 16.
Pitt also failed to down a punt inside the 5-yard line, as Cox missed it, but got nice coverage on punts and kickoffs, especially by Jovani Chappel (four tackles).
“Usually, special teams has as much to do with winning or losing the first couple games as any phase in football,” Wannstedt said. “I thought our special teams played well tonight.”
• As expected, Pitt played three true freshmen in McCoy, safety Dom DeCicco and defensive end Jabaal Sheard. The only other frosh Wannstedt had intended to play was receiver Maurice Williams.
Stull’s injury apparently changed the game plan.
“We did not get Mo Williams in the game, just because of the way it unfolded,” Wannstedt said. “But we will.”
• Pitt had 50-plus high school prospects at the game, including committed seniors in Wilmington tailback Chris Burns, Greensburg Central Catholic defensive back Chris Hayden-Martin and Thomas Jefferson tackle Lucas Nix, Hopewell tackle Ryan Turnley.
Also attending were Dublin (Ohio) Coffman quarterback Zack Stoudt (son of ex-Steelers QB Cliff) and linebacker Steve Gardiner, who has Pitt on his short list.
With Sept. 1 being the first day Pitt can extend a written scholarship offer to high school juniors under NCAA rules, the Panthers gave one to Thomas Jefferson’s Brock DeCicco, a 6-5, 210-pound tight end-defensive end.