College football coaches are keen on saying that adversity reveals a team’s true character. If so, Pitt’s first loss of the 2007 season certainly exposed its weaknesses but also showed that the Panthers have some resolve.
The 17-13 loss at Michigan State told us what we already knew about Pitt: LeSean McCoy was ready for major-college football. Kevan Smith wasn’t. The defensive line is solid. The offensive line is shaky. The Panthers can come up with big stops on defense, but can’t overcome mistakes on offense (like Oderick Turner’s drop in the end zone and the five costly penalties by seniors on the offensive line). Did we mention McCoy?
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt likes how the Panthers have responded in the aftermath of defeat.
“I think when you’re coming off a loss, sometimes those close, tough losses are harder to deal with than when you get beat by 30 points,” Wannstedt said. “This was a tough one for us. I think everybody realizes we had a chance to win this game.
“But the point was made Sunday that one game is not going to effect the rest of the season. We’re going to turn the page, learn from it and correct those mistakes this week and play better against Connecticut. The whole focus, because it’s a conference game this week and at home, I think we’ve got a lot of things to look at and get excited about in preparing for this game.”
• There is no quick, easy solution to the quarterback problems, but say this about Smith: For a redshirt freshman, he has shown a lot of character.
Smith took blame for his mistakes in interviews after the game and again this week. He spent his day off Monday throwing to receivers. All in response to blistering criticism by ESPN announcer Andre Ware, as well as Wannstedt’s challenge that his starting job wasn’t “locked in stone.”
Smith’s struggles have been well-chronicled: He has difficulty putting touch on his short passes. He tends to lock in on his primary target, which allows defensive players to read his eyes and intercept his passes. And his footwork occasionally neutralizes his arm strength.
A freshman quarterback, however, is only as good as the players around him. The top returning receiver (Turner) dropped a sure touchdown pass at the goal line. Pitt’s offensive line committed five costly penalties, and the Panthers left in an injured player, right tackle Jason Pinkston, who gave up two sacks on the final drive.
There’s enough blame to spread around.
• Wannstedt recognized that the offense has “struggled,” but believes the Panthers have gotten better every week – even if the statistics don’t support him.
Pitt gained 325 yards (195 passing, 135 rushing) against Eastern Michigan, 321 yards (202 passing, 119 rushing) against Grambling State and 292 yards (85 passing, 207 rushing) against Michigan State.
But the play-calling had a lot to do with those numbers, as the Panthers turned to their ground game in the second half of all three contests. The first game, it was because of Bill Stull’s thumb injury. The second game, it was because a comfortable lead and Pat Bostick’s turnover. The third game, it was because Pitt unveiled its Wildcat formation.
“I really haven’t been happy all year, to be honest with you,” Wannstedt said. “The Grambling game, we basically shut it down, turned the motor off and handed the ball off. We got ultraconservative. It was that way at Michigan State, too. We went in there and had some turnovers and I think the way the game has played out, we’ve been playing good enough on defense we haven’t played well on offense, we’ve turned the ball over, so you’re trying to find other ways to score. It hasn’t been done intentionally, but I don’t think we’ve had much of a choice.”
• The offense should get a boost by the return of junior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, Pitt’s leading rusher the past two seasons. It will be interesting to see how Pitt uses Stephens-Howling and McCoy.
“LaRod practiced the last two days and he will definitely play this week,” Wannstedt said. “Unless something happens today, I would expect LaRod to play.”
• Connecticut quarterback-turned-receiver D.J. Hernandez reminds Wannstedt of another versatile former Big East quarterback: Ray Lucas, who played at Rutgers and evolved into an NFL multi-purpose threat with the N.Y. Jets and then with the Miami Dolphins. “When I look at Hernandez, he covers kicks, he’s on punt returns, he does reverses, he does reverse passes. I give the guy a heck of a lot of credit,” Wannstedt said. “I remember Ray was our backup quarterback and we were watching Jets’ tape from two or three years previous, and our special teams coach commented, ‘You see that guy covering kickoffs. That’s our backup quarterback.'”
• One interesting tidbit revealed this week is that freshman Greg Williams was elevated to second-string tailback against Michigan State.
With Kevin Collier out with a broken wrist and Stephens-Howling missing the game with a rib injury, Williams quickly became the third option at tailback. It’s not much different than last season, as Collier was forced into action when Stephens-Howling also missed Pitt’s first road game, at Cincinnati.
“Before the season, you feel real solid with Kevin Collier, LeSean McCoy and LaRod,” Pitt running backs coach David Walker said. “The young guys, you’re really not worrying about because you’ve got Shane Brooks and Conredge Collins, former tailbacks at one time in the program. Going into last week’s game, Greg Williams had to grow up a lot. He didn’t have to play, but he sure got ready to play. He would’ve been playing if something would have happened.”
Williams received a crash course in Pitt’s offense, getting to know a good deal of the game plan just in case something happened to McCoy.
“He got ready, let’s say that,” Walker said. “We spent a little time together last week, making sure he was all set on the things we would have asked him to do. We wouldn’t have asked him to do everything, but there was about two-thirds of the game plan and he knew it. If we would have gotten ourselves into a pinch, we would have been seeing another true freshman running back running around.”
What’s surprising is that Williams has passed fellow freshman Sharif Harris on the depth chart, despite missing much of training camp with a hamstring injury. Both are big, bruising backs, but Williams had a clear edge.
“Greg was here all summer and Sharif wasn’t,” Walker said. “As far as having a better grasp of our offense, he’s further ahead from that standpoint. That’s the only thing that matters if you’re going to put one of those kids in the game. Greg is a little further along in knowing what to do in more situations right now than Sharif. That’s just where they are.”
Although Wannstedt said he expected one of the freshman running backs to eventually move to linebacker, that hasn’t been necessary at this point.
“(Harris is) still at running back,” Walker said. “That hasn’t changed one bit.”
But if you’re trying to predict the next freshman to lose his redshirt, your money should be on Greg Williams.