Not to contribute to a contrived quarterback controversy, but Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt spent much of his news conference downplaying the significance of the Wildcat formation in the Panthers’ offense.
“I don’t want to open up a can of worms with this thing,” Wannstedt said. “That can be the problem with this. It can become a monster of its own, and I’m not going to let that happen.”
Too late for that, as it already has happened.
Wannstedt didn’t help matters by declining to name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Connecticut at Heinz Field, saying redshirt freshman Kevan Smith and true freshman Pat Bostick would split practice repetitions to determine the starter.
Although Wannstedt is “expecting” Smith to start, Bostick could see significant playing time. Actually, Wannstedt admitted he considered using Bostick in relief of Smith against Michigan State.
“I thought about it at halftime, to be honest with you,” Wannstedt said, “and we put Shady at quarterback.”
Shady, of course, is LeSean McCoy, the fabulous freshman tailback who took direct snaps from center in the second half and finished with 172 rushing yards. Wannstedt warned that Shady’s success out of Wildcat sets doesn’t necessarily mean Pitt is going to make it the base offense, let alone use it every game.
“The No. 1 offensive set? No,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t even know if we’ll use it, to be quite honest with you. It will be a week-to-week decision, if we think there might be something we can take advantage of.”
Wannstedt was candid about his reasons for sending offensive assistants to Arkansas this past spring to learn how the Razorbacks employ tailback Darren McFadden: Wannstedt was looking for ways to generate offense and take pressure off the quarterback.
“It was really pretty simple,” Wannstedt said. “When you sat back and looked at our team, if it was Billy Stull or Pat Bostick or Kevan Smith, we were going to have a first-time starting quarterback.
“This thing was not on the table after Billy Stull got hurt (with a thumb injury against Eastern Michigan). It was something that started in April. We’ll continue to have it. It’ll be a part of our offense, but I think it’s a game-plan thing, week to week, when we’ll use it, how we’ll use it.”
Turns out, it has worked opposite the way Wannstedt expected. Now, there is more pressure on the quarterback to perform, knowing that the Wildcat is a fallback plan and how well McCoy ran out of it.
Not that all the fault lies with Smith.
Receiver Oderick Turner dropped a potential touchdown pass at the goal line. The offensive line had costly penalties and protection problems, giving up five sacks for minus-33 yards. Run or pass, Pitt was 0-for-12 on third-down conversions.
“It’s an offensive thing – not a quarterback thing – that we’ve got to clean up and be more efficient,” Wannstedt said.
Here are Wannstedt’s qualifications for finding a starting quarterback: “One, making proper decisions in getting the ball to the right guy. Two, when you do have guys open you’ve got to hit ‘em, to give ‘em a chance.”
Smith struggled to make touch passes on short throws and deliver on timing patterns. Bostick has a softer touch, but has to prove he can put some zip on his passes. As much as Smith struggled against Michigan State, he appeared miles ahead of Bostick, who first pass was for an interception in a brief appearance against Grambling State.
If nothing else, unveiling the Wildcat package forces Big East opponents to prepare for it even if the Panthers don’t plan to use the formation. Wannstedt recalled his days as defensive coordinator at the University of Miami in 1988, when the Hurricanes had to prep for the Wishbone set Notre Dame used on occasion.
“You had to have a game plan for it,” Wannstedt said, “and there’s only so much practice time you get in college, so it cuts out a chunk of time they’re going to work on that as compared working on our passing game or our two-back run or our one-back run.”
Time they won’t have to spend on the quarterback.
* Wannstedt said LaRod Stephens-Howling “is a lot better than what he was. I expect him to practice tomorrow, and hope to get him in the fold this week, which would give us a nice little shot at that position.”
Wannstedt never clarified if he was talking about tailback or taking direct snaps at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Either way, his return would be a boost.
* Wannstedt acknowledged that Pitt’s defense is going to have to carry a few games until the Panthers solve their offensive problems. Funny how a year ago, Pitt’s problems were on the defensive side of the ball and quarterback, with Tyler Palko, was the one position that was solid as oak.
“Until we get caught up a little bit with our quarterback situation, we’ve got to play at a high level on defense,” Wannstedt said. “We have to.”
• Wannstedt said he thinks sophomore right tackle Jason Pinkston has been “fighting through” a shoulder injury but predicted he “will be fine this week.”
Even so, Wannstedt discussed a couple scenarios in the event that Pinkston can’t play. One is to start redshirt sophomore John Bachman at right tackle. The other is to move fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn to right tackle and insert sophomore Joe Thomas at right guard.
Thomas started the final seven games last season, so it’s likely he would get the nod over Bachman.
“That’s something we’ll look at here,” Wannstedt said. “We could go either way and be fine.”
If that’s the case, Wannstedt should consider moving McGlynn to center, with Thomas at guard and Bachman at tackle. Chris Vangas, who has started the first three games, would become the top backup at center or guard.
• Wannstedt lamented the way Pitt played in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, especially after Tommie Duhart blocked a field-goal attempt to give the Panthers possession at their own 35, trailing, 14-10, with 10:13 left.
“The sad thing is, in most football games, if a team blocks a punt or blocks a field goal, the percentage of that team winning is about 80 percent,” Wannstedt said. “If you don’t hand them the ball, the blocked field goal probably makes a difference in us winning the game.”
If that’s the case, the percentages don’t favor Wannstedt. Pitt’s last blocked field goal came against Louisville last year, and the Cardinals won, 48-24.
• Pitt radio play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove, in his 37th season as the Voice of the Panthers, will be honored by the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame at Saturday’s game against Connecticut with the prestigious Chris Schenkel Award, presented annually to a sports broadcaster who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career broadcasting college football at a single institution.
• The Pitt-Virginia game Sept. 29 in Charlottesville will have a 7 p.m. kickoff and be televised on ESPNU.