With a look of disappointment and resignation – but, to the disappointment of some Pitt fans, not a letter of resignation – an apologetic Dave Wannstedt took accountability for one of the Panthers’ most embarrassing losses in years.
It wasn’t that Pitt lost to Connecticut, or that this was the second consecutive loss to the Huskies and third in four years, but the manner in which the Panthers performed in the 34-14 defeat.
Or, should we say, didn’t.
“Speaking from my heart, I take responsibility for that disappointing day,” Wannstedt started. “We had fans come out, and it was disappointing we could not muster up a more effective attack. We have to be accountable and it starts with me. We’ve got to find a way to win as a team and not go into games trying not to lose it on offense and try to muster up a way to score enough points to win.”
Say this about Wannstedt: He said everything Walt Harris wouldn’t. Then again, Pitt’s problems under Wannstedt were never issues under Harris. It’s almost as if they are polar opposites: Harris’ weaknesses are Wannstedt’s strengths, and vice versa.
Then again, some things never change.
“We started off with a couple foolish penalties,” Wannstedt said. “We were late calling stuff in the huddle. Some formations were not what they should have been, and we turned the ball over at critical times. With six turnovers, we’re lucky this thing wasn’t 60, really.”
Which is unacceptable. Under Wannstedt, Pitt was supposed to challenge West Virginia for Big East supremacy. Instead, it loses to UConn by 20 at home on a day when struggling Syracuse wins at Louisville. Now, guess who is in last place?
* Before this season, I said that the Panthers could go 8-4 or 4-8, depending on whether they stayed healthy and if they were able to beat an opponent they weren’t supposed to beat.
The injuries, especially those to receiver Derek Kinder (torn ACL), quarterback Bill Stull (thumb) and defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (torn ACL), have been devastating. After four games, Pitt hasn’t shown it can beat teams it’s supposed to beat (UConn), let alone one it wasn’t.
Now, Pitt is 2-2 and looking like it will be lucky to get to 4-8. Syracuse (1-3) is the only team with a sub-.500 record on the schedule. Louisville and Navy are both 2-2. Virginia is 3-1, and Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia are undefeated.
* What Wannstedt has to worry about isn’t losing two games; it’s losing this team so early in the season.
Pitt is 13-14 in 27 games under Wannstedt, with three of those victories coming against Division I-AA opponents (Youngstown State, The Citadel and Grambling).
In his third season, Wannstedt is still looking for his first signature victory. Pitt players bit their lips Saturday night when asked if they were getting frustrated.
“It’s not really getting frustrating,” middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. “That’s one of the three key words Coach Wannstedt is stressing: Trust. We’ve got to trust that our offense is going to go out there and play well and do their job. They’re not performing as well as they should, but we have faith in them that they’re going to turn around. We’ve got to keep having faith and trust them.”
Sophomore tight end Nate Byham went so far as to defend the coaching staff without anyone asking him about Wannstedt or offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.
“I think we’re pretty productive when we get the ball in our hands, but I also believe coach Cav calls the plays and he knows what he’s doing. He’s not the coach for no reason. He knows what he’s calling,” Byham said. “Coach Wannstedt knows what he’s doing, for all the people who are doubting my coaches, I don’t know what to say to you guys. I have a lot of faith in my coaches. My coaches are great guys. The game is over. We’re going to start game-planning for Virginia, start practicing for Virginia.”
Byham did admit to being frustrated, though, that Pitt can’t seem to get its offense, defense and special teams to perform on the same page – which is a direct reflection on the coaching staff.
“It’s very frustrating, actually,” Byham said. “It’s frustrating for all three phases. Last week, our defense played great. This week, there were plays where we were driving and our defense was stopping them. In the second half, they were stopping them and we couldn’t do anything.”
Pitt’s seniors are frustrated that their careers, which started with a share of the Big East Conference title and BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl, appear headed for a third consecutive postseason at home.
“It’s very frustrating, especially for me. I’m a senior. This is my last year,” tight end Darrell Strong said. “I felt bad for the seniors, the way they went out last year. We’ve got to pick it up. If we play together – if the defense is on and the offense is on – we’re a pretty tough team to stop.”
For now, Pitt players are showing another reflection of their coach. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, they have been pointing them at the man in the mirror.
“We have to pick it up, starting with me,” said fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn, who started at right tackle in place of Jason Pinkston. “I need to get a lot better. We have to put this team on our shoulders. This week, in preparation, our seniors have to step up.”
McGlynn went so far as to say he agrees with Wannstedt “100 percent” that the offensive line has to establish the run to take pressure off the quarterback.
“With three seniors and C.J. (Davis) starting a long time,” McGlynn said, “we need to get it going and have a good week of practice this week and get it better.”
* Pitt appears to have finally found a quarterback in Pat Bostick. He’s still has slow feet and an unorthodox release, but Bostick showed some resolve in bouncing back from three interceptions to lead the Panthers on a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
It will be interesting to see Wannstedt’s answer for the awful play on offense after professing to start over.
“We’ve got to go back and figure out what we can do. As we stand here, I’m not sure,” Wannstedt said. “I know we’ve got some guys that have a lot of talent and we’re trying to utilize that talent to the best of our ability. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. I hate to say this, but over on offense we’re kind of back to the drawing board.”
The Panthers had one of the most exciting offenses in college football under Harris, but have employed the West Coast offense and experimented with Arkansas’ Wildcat formation under coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.
“We’ve got to find a way to run the ball better. It’s as simple as that,” Wannstedt said. “When you’re playing with a freshman quarterback, we’ve got to be very efficient at the quarterback position. We can’t turn it over. We have to play on some strengths. We have to play better defense, special teams and we have to run the ball to have a chance to win games.”
It’s pretty obvious that LeSean “Shady” McCoy is the answer. He electrifies the stadium every time he touches the ball. Yet LaRod Stephens-Howling started, and McCoy wasn’t much more than a decoy in the second series. It wasn’t until the fourth offensive series, by which Pitt was trailing, 10-0, before it went to McCoy at tailback.
With 11:00 left in the half, the Panthers finally turned to the Wildcat formation as something other than a gadget play. McCoy threw an 18-yard pass to Byham, had a sizzling 24-yard run followed by a 1-yarder and then a 19-yard touchdown run to make it 10-7.
“That was a big boost,” Byham said. “He was making some plays, some runs. I don’t feel it was just Shady, though. I feel the whole offense was getting confident. We were very confident.”
Pitt responded with a squib kick that gave UConn possession at its own 40. The Panthers’ defense gave up an eight-play, 60-yard scoring drive that included completions from quarterback Tyler Lorenzen to D.J. Hernadez of 29 yards on a second-and-24 and 13 yards on a third-and-4.
“We’re in Cover 2 and we don’t jam the receiver in the slot,” Wannstedt said. “They’ve got 60 yards to go for a touchdown. We’ve got ‘em stopped, (but) somebody doesn’t hit the receiver and he goes down the seam for 20 yards. Now they need 30 yards to score a touchdown.”
It didn’t seem to matter that Hernandez rushed for 130 yards on 17 carries at quarterback last season, as Pitt played in soft coverage all night. Lorenzen ran for 50 yards on 13 carries (3.8 ypc) but finished with 19 net yards after being sacked three times for 31 yards.
UConn ran for 115 yards on 46 attempts (2.5 ypc) but had plenty of time in pass protection despite left guard Mike Hicks moving to right tackle for the injured Dan Ryan and backup Alex LaMagdelaine starting at left guard.
“The guys are playing hard,” Wannstedt said. “We’re banging around on the run. Their quarterback scrambling, he probably accounted for a large portion of it. We’re going to face that every week and we’re going to face a lot more athletic quarterbacks than their guy. He did a good job, but we’re going to face more athletic guys than him.”
USF’s Matt Grothe and West Virginia’s Pat White, let alone Virginia’s Jameel Sewell and Navy’s Kaipo-Noa Kaheahu-Enhada, must be licking their chops.
If you don’t think that scoring drive adversely affected the mindset of Pitt’s offense, just read this:
“That just took the wind out of our sails when they went down on the very next drive and took it to the house and did it again,” Byham said. “I don’t feel we gave up, though. That’s the most important thing. I don’t know what to say. We’ve lost two games in a row, but both games we were working our butts off.”
How did Pitt answer? Not with McCoy in the Wildcat, but by Kevan Smith throwing a deep pass to Marcel Pestano in double coverage on a post pattern, which fell incomplete, then by handing off to McCoy for 2 yards and throwing another incomplete pass on third-and-8.
UConn scored again for a 24-7 lead, driving 69 yards in nine plays, with a 22-yard pass on second-and-11 and a 24-yard pass on third-and-2. By then, using the Wildcat was no longer a consideration – even though it was proven the most effective formation for the Panthers.
“We fell behind a little bit more than what you’d like to,” Wannstedt said. “That’s not a catch-up offense. That’s a grind-out, 3-4 yards a carry offense. We added a little pass off it, the double reverse. We did a few more plays, inside running plays, so we did expand it a little bit. But when we fell behind, we were just not in the position as much as we would have liked to use it.”
* A week after having three turnovers against Michigan State, Pitt had six against UConn. Instead of correcting the problem, the Panthers compounded it.
And, for the second consecutive game, Pitt didn’t cause any turnovers. Some say it’s a just a matter of luck. Others say luck is preparation meeting opportunity.
“It hurts because in a game like this, turnovers would be really important for us,” Scott McKillop said. “That’s one of the things that coaches were stressing, that we’ve got to create more turnovers. Last week, I don’t think we had any. Whenever we need turnovers, they were stressing, ‘Don’t try too hard to make turnovers and miss tackles. They’ll be able to capitalize on that and score.'”
Michigan State converted all of its turnovers into points in a 17-13 victory. UConn scored 17 of its 34 points off turnovers, with one interception setting up a touchdown, another being returned for one and a fumble recovery setting up a field goal as the first half expired.
“We’ve taken a couple of steps backwards,” Wannstedt said. “We haven’t made the progress that we need to make. We’ve got to be better than that, and I believe we are. When you turn it over and don’t come up with any turnovers, you can’t win.”
If Wannstedt’s logic is correct, it serves to reason that you can’t come up with turnovers if you’re always playing from behind because opponents will get more conservative.
“They had a few opportunities. They usually come from sacks and stripping them and pressuring the quarterback into some bad throws,” Wannstedt said. “That’s kind of what happened to us today. I thought we had decent pressure but, for whatever reason, we’re not coming up. We’ve got to get a lead. People have got to feel threatened, and forced to make a play that creates some turnovers. When you’re playing from behind, people are not going to take chances. That’s a problem, also.”
* Another problem, while we’re at it, is Pitt’s ability to both convert and stop opponents on third down. Dating back to the third quarter of the Grambling State game, the Panthers were 0-for-22 on third downs before McCoy ran 5 yards on a third-and-1 with 4:50 remaining in the third quarter. They finished 4 of 17.
Wannstedt’s response: “Horrible, horrible, horrible.”
Especially when you consider that UConn converted twice on its second offensive series. Lorenzen threw a 9-yarder to Terence Jeffers on third-and-8 and ran 11 yards on a keeper on third-and-10.
“That’s one of the things you’ve got to do to be a successful defense,” McKillop said. “You’ve got to get off the field on third down. We had them on a couple of third-and-longs, and we weren’t able to capitalize and make plays. They made more plays than us and we paid for it.”
Even when Pitt stopped Lorenzen 1 yard short on a third-and-8, the Panthers were flagged for jumping offsides on fourth-and-1. Their only salvation came when Lorenzen fumbled a shotgun snap on third-and-5 at Pitt’s 10, forcing the Huskies to settle for a 26-yard field goal and 10-0 lead.
“Our defense got on their heels a little bit and gave up the one score,” Wannstedt said. “We can talk about field position and turnovers, but as a team – and I use that word very, very strongly because that’s what this comes down to – what do we have to do to win a game as a team?”