Dave Wannstedt started his post-game news conference by announcing that the Pitt Panthers were “happy to be 2-0,” although the look on his face betrayed that emotion.
Wannstedt dwelled on Pitt’s mistakes in a 34-10 victory over Grambling Saturday at Heinz Field, primarily costly penalties and three turnovers. That’s a coach for you. They don’t enjoy victories, they survive them. Based on what Wannstedt saw against Grambling, he’s already worrying about Saturday’s game at Michigan State.
Meantime, Pitt fans have cause for celebration.
Heralded freshman tailback LeSean “Shady” McCoy flashed signs of greatness, dashing to three first-quarter touchdowns and rushing for 107 yards on 19 carries. McCoy also had three receptions for 16 yards, giving him a game-high 123 all-purpose yards.
It was the first time a Pitt freshman has rushed for three touchdowns since Demetrius Harris against Eastern Michigan in 1995, and McCoy became Pitt’s first freshman to record a 100-yard game since LaRod Stephens-Howling had 101 yards against Syracuse in 2005. (Elliot Walker has the record, with four against Temple in 1974).
“LeSean is going to be a real good back,” said fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn, who started at right guard. “He’s got a bright future.”
Wannstedt hardly enjoyed the moment, as it took some goading to get him to talk about McCoy’s performance and not the two interceptions and fumble by the quarterbacks.
“He just needs to play some,” Wannstedt said. “The way he started off, I really expected him to break a couple big ones. They were ganging up at the line of scrimmage and just egging for us to throw the ball. We were trying to do everything we could to win the game. We felt like the game was in hand. You don’t want to just give it away. The only way you lose a game like this is by turnovers, and we’ve been down that road since I’ve been here.”
McCoy came on in the Panthers’ second offensive series, which started at the Pitt 29, and immediately made an impact that brought excitement to Heinz Field.
On first down, he caught a lateral from Kevan Smith in the left flat, followed a Marcel Pestano block and zipped 25 yards up the sideline. On a third-and-6, McCoy caught a slant pass over the middle, put a hesitation move on linebacker Zaire Wilborn to freeze him for a LaRod Stephens-Howling block and a 17-yard gain. McCoy finished the 10-play, 71-yard drive with a 5-yard scoring run. It was McCoy’s first touchdown of his college career.
It didn’t take long for more.
After Brian Kaiser blocked a punt, McCoy scored on a 7-yard run for a 14-0 lead. Safety Eric Thatcher’s interception gave Pitt the ball at Grambling’s 31. An 18-yard pass to tight end Darrell Strong set up McCoy’s third touchdown, a 13-yard run for a 21-0 lead with 3:59 left in the first quarter. McCoy scored three TDs in a span of4:19.
But, as Wannstedt mentioned, McCoy didn’t break one. His longest run thereafter was 14 yards, as Grambling found ways to stop him. If McCoy avoids a couple of diving tackles, he might have rushed for 200 yards.
“That close,” McCoy said. “A couple of times, they were shoestring tackles. I made a good read off a good block and thought I could go. The next thing you know, a guy shoestring-tackled me. In another week, maybe I’ll break one. I’ll just keep working at it in practice.”
Stephens-Howling started the game, but left with bruised ribs. Wannstedt said X-rays were negative and Stephens-Howling could have returned, but it wasn’t necessary considering the opponent and the play of his backup, who might just be the workhorse Pitt has needed.
“I thought overall LeSean did a nice job,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll need him next week, for sure. I think LeSean is ready for that. He had 19 carries today. He’s ready to expand his role, as we would say.”
• McCoy’s start overshadowed a stellar performance by redshirt freshman quarterback Kevan Smith, who completed 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown, an interception and a lost fumble on a sack.
Although Wannstedt tried to add suspense to who would start at quarterback with junior Bill Stull out indefinitely with torn ligaments in his right thumb, Panthers players expressed confidence that they believed in Smith all along, even though it was his first collegiate start.
“Sometimes, you just forget about that,” McCoy said. “I forgot Kevan was a freshman. When you’re out there playing, you don’t think about that. I have confidence in Kevan. He comes out there with a swagger. He plays like he’s not a freshman.”
McCoy’s first-quarter play took pressure off Smith, who settled in and made some nice throws. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder from Seneca Valley showed off his arm strength on several throws, most notably a 61-yarder to Turner on a post pattern.
“He was ready,” receiver Oderick Turner said. “I wasn’t worried about him. I knew what he was capable of. He took control. He acted like a leader, the leader of the huddle.”
Never mind that Smith’s passing yardage was the most by a freshman making his first start since Pitt started keeping such statistics with Dan Marino in 1979. Of the “quarterback situation,” Wannstedt said “it is what it is,” and dwelled on the mistakes Smith made, especially fumbling on a sack for the second consecutive game.
Again, Wannstedt was thinking ahead to Michigan State, knowing what Smith needs to do for the Panthers to have a realistic chance of winning in East Lansing.
“Kevan’s numbers, I thought, were decent,” Wannstedt said. “The interception was a great play on their part. The fumble, there was no excuse for that.”
When asked to concentrate on the positives, Wannstedt was a bit more effusive in his praise.
“I thought he did a good job of managing the game, for what we asked him to do,” Wannstedt said. “He hit the one deep ball. He slipped once or twice, but overall for his first start, if we can get the running game going – which we have to – he can improve.”
• McGlynn returned to the starting lineup – making his first career start at right guard – after playing only one snap against Eastern Michigan. His return might have been just what Pitt’s offensive line needed.
After missing six months with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, the Panthers didn’t put too much of a workload on McGlynn. They paced him, as he played the first three drives, then got a break before returning.
“That helped me out a little bit,” McGlynn said. “I was getting in game shape. Getting out there on the field in live action, I was happy I came back this week.”
So were the guys lining up behind him. They noticed a remarkable difference between true sophomore Joe Thomas and McGlynn, a fifthy-year senior who is tied for the team-high with 37 consecutive games played.
“Even in the huddle, vocally and physically he just brings that presence,” McCoy said. “I wouldn’t say we came out flat, but if the line was blocking on a play he got aggressive with us: ‘Let’s go. Let’s move the ball. Let’s put it on them.’ I think he’s more of a vocal and physical leader out there.”
Plus, McGlynn solidifies the right side of the line.
“We can go right or left now,” McCoy said. “To have a guy of his caliber playing is good. It helps a lot.”
Not to say McGlynn solves all of Pitt’s problems. After rushing for 130 yards against Eastern Michigan last week, Pitt ran for 119 against Grambling. Late in the first half, the Panthers had a first-and-goal at Grambling 4 and had to settle for a 20-yard Conor Lee field goal. In the third quarter, they settled for a 27-yard field goal.
And McGlynn was beaten soundly by Grambling defensive end Christian Anthony, who sacked Smith and forced a fumble that was recovered by John Scroggins to set up Tim Manuel’s 35-yard field goal and make it 21-10.
Even so, Wannstedt was happy to see McGlynn return.
“It was good to get Mike McGlynn back in action,” Wannstedt said. “Without any training camp, that’s not easy to do what he did today. That’s his first live action.”
• If there was one thing Wannstedt was pleased with, it was the play of Pitt’s defense. The Panthers allowed 239 yards (up from 145 against Eastern Michigan), but continually came through in tough situations.
They stopped Grambling three times inside the 10-yard line and held the Tigers’ high-powered offense, which had 479 yards against Alcorn State, scoreless in the second half.
“We really overcame some adversity there, particularly where we stood from a field-position standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “We found a way to play good defense the whole game.”
Pitt has held Eastern Michigan and Grambling to a combined 13 points, the lowest opponent total in the first two games since the Panthers allowed nine points to Ohio (three) and Boston College (six) in 1990.
If there is one thing different about this defense, it’s that the players tend to fly to the football. All three interceptions – by safeties Thatcher and Mike Phillips and cornerback Lowell Robinson – came off tipped passes.
• Wannstedt said Stephens-Howling, who left the game after rushing for 7 yards on three carries, “will be OK.”
“He got hit on the ribs on that one play,” Wannstedt said. “It was bruised ribs. He wanted to go back in, but we just decided to hold him. They took him for an X-ray, which was negative.”
• Wannstedt didn’t sound as enthusiastic about the return of defensive tackle Gus Mustakas, who had six tackles but left the game with a knee injury and returned to the sidelines on crutches.
“Gus got banged up, his leg and his knee,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll get that checked in the morning.”
After losing receiver Derek Kinder (ACL), offensive guard Chris Jacobson (knee), tailback Kevin Collier (wrist) and Stull (thumb) to possible season-ending injuries, losing Mustaksas would be a major setback for the Panthers.
But Pitt also has some depth behind Mustakas, and Mick Williams and Tommie Duhart did a nice job against Grambling. Williams had two tackles, including 1 ½ for losses of 6 yards, and Duhart had one stop. And John Malecki, who moved to nose tackle, could switch back.
• Smith wasn’t the only freshman making his first start. Receiver Maurice Williams also started the game, taking a reverse handoff on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage. Wannstedt was hoping the defensive end would chase the wrong player, but defensive end Christian Anthony dropped Williams for a 15-yard loss.
“That was my play,” Wannstedt said.
Will the Panthers scrap that one?
“I won’t scrap that one. We’ll probably call it on the first play next week, too,” Wannstedt joked. “We’ll call it until it works. One thing, when the head coach calls a play, you figure out a way for the assistant coaches to make it work.”
• Another dubious debut was that of freshman quarterback Pat Bostick, who entered the game with 10:48 remaining in the fourth quarter. He stumbled on his drop-back, handing off to McCoy for no gain. On the next play, Bostick’s first pass was behind Strong and intercepted by linebacker John Carter.
What did Wannstedt tell Bostick?
“Forget about it,” Wannstedt said. “The next play, that was really the focus. It wasn’t even close. It was just a bad decision. I told him to forget about it and get ready for the next play. That’s what is most important. You don’t want him going in and fumbling the exchange.”
The Pitt quarterback debate made great talk-show fodder last week, but it’s pretty obvious that Smith will be the starter against Michigan State next week.