Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt is looking for some direction after the 34-14 loss to Connecticut in the Big East opener at Heinz Field, trying to keep his head up while the Panthers are plummeting.
On Saturday night, Wannstedt took responsibility for the “disappointing” defeat. On Monday afternoon, he made excuses.
“For me to stand here and try to explain the truth and what the real facts are, most people don’t want to hear that,” Wannstedt said. “You go out and you try to have some success on the field and then people will start believing in you.”
Then Wannstedt tried to use statistics to support his argument. The Panthers, he correctly pointed out, rank in the top 25 in the country in seven of nine defensive categories. They are nine in pass efficiency (88.70 rating), 11th in total defense (250.0 yards), 12th in pass defense (154.5 yards), 13th in fourth-down conversions (14.3 percent), 14th in sacks (3.25/game), 18th in scoring defense (16.0 points) and 25th in rushing defense (95.5 yards).
“I think our defense has done a great job,” Wannstedt said. “The position that those guys have been put in, I think we’re in the top 25 in the country in seven of nine (categories). We’re 11th overall, with what we’ve had to deal with the last couple weeks from a field position (standpoint) and 10 turnovers in two games? You’ve got to be kidding me. When we’re trying to be conservative and run the ball. Understand what we’re doing: We’re not dropping back and throwing it 50 times.”
Actually, that’s precisely what Pitt did – likely not intentionally – by completing 31 of 51 passes for 277 yards: Kevan Smith was 3 of 9 for 29 yards, LeSean McCoy was 1 of 1 for 18 and Pat Bostick 27 of 41 for 230. For a coach that desperately wants to run the ball, Pitt had only 23 rushes for 72 yards to UConn’s 46 for 115.
Moving McCoy into the starting lineup – which finally happened Monday – could solve that problem. Handing him the ball a minimum of 20 times a game should help. He’s only Pitt’s best player.
• This is the only statistic that really matters:
“We’ve given up 44 points in our last two games defensively, and 34 of the 44 points came off of turnovers,” Wannstedt said. “That’s a real shame.”
Wannstedt spent a good portion of his weekly news conference harping on Pitt’s turnover problems. And rightly so, as the Panthers rank 88th in turnovers gained (five), 107th in turnovers lost (12) and 109th in turnover margin (minus-1.75).
“We’ve got to eliminate the turnovers is the No. 1 thing,” Wannstedt said. “You can sugarcoat this all you want and talk about getting the kickoff return back or giving up a 25-yard pass on defense, but it all comes down to when you turn the football over …
“We had only 22 plays on offense in the first half. That’s not enough. We’re trying to get enough carries to our backs. We’ve got to get more opportunities. Every time you turn the football over, you’re losing at least one series, one possession on average. When you turn it over six times, you’re looking at 20 plays that are very, very valuable, particularly when you are trying to gain some confidence. We don’t have confidence for obvious reasons.”
Perhaps that’s because Pitt’s defense gave up a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive for a 10-0 deficit, then allowed an eight-play, 60-yard drive to make it 17-7 and a nine-play, 69-yard drive to fall behind, 24-7 in the first half.
Three drives that had nothing to do with turnovers.
• It would be one thing if all of Pitt’s problems stemmed from the problems at the quarterback position, but that’s not quite the case.
Bill Stull’s thumb injury was devastating, for sure, and it’s looking more and more like he will opt for a redshirt and won’t return this season. Kevan Smith has struggled, but that’s to be expected from a redshirt freshman who was considered something of a project when Pitt signed him and was rushed into duty.
“No fault of anybody’s, but it is what it is,” Wannstedt said. “Rather than having a junior quarterback in Billy Stull in there that’s feeling good and can utilize that talent, we’ve had to pull back a little bit because of the freshmen.
“It’s the circumstances. Our players understand that. They’re out there every day. It’s my job and our coaches’ job to try to do the best we can under the circumstances to win the football game.”
The answer? Pat Bostick, who will become the third player to start at quarterback in five games Saturday against Virginia. But, remember, he’s a true freshman who has had difficulty making the transition to college football.
Bostick is still working through the “personal issues” that led him to return home to Lancaster on the eve of training camp, and they could resurface at any time. Bostick had some success against UConn, but Wannstedt readily admits that circumstances played a role. The Huskies weren’t pressuring Bostick late in the game.
“You’re not going to get, in that situation, a lot of blitz,” Wannstedt said. “For the most part, you’re going to get a three- or four-man rush, trying just not to give up the big play. On the other hand, you still have to make good decisions and throw the ball, and he did that, so it was a little bit of both.”
* Wannstedt went to great lengths to explain how Pitt simplified its offense for Smith, who nevertheless made numerous mistakes in three games as the starter.
Poor execution, not poor play-calling, was the theme.
“Whether it’s blocking, whether it’s running, whether it’s throwing to the right guy, whether it’s running the right route – whatever it is – we need to be able to execute better. We are doing less now,” Wannstedt said, stressing the limited options in certain down-and-distances.
“You’ve got a couple choices on third-and-long. You can hand the ball off and basically say we’re going to punt. You can drop back seven steps and hope that you protect and hope that your quarterback finds the open guy. We’re not doing that. That’s not an option at this point. Or you can throw high-percentage plays.”
Wannstedt was referring to Smith’s interception on third-and-15 on the first series. The pass was intended for tight end Darrell Strong over the middle, but was picked by linebacker Danny Lansanah and set up UConn’s 7-0 lead with 13:11 remaining in the first quarter
“We forced the ball to Darrell. They were bracketing Darrell in the middle and we forced the ball in there to him,” Wannstedt said. “There’s a fine line, and we have pretty much narrowed this thing down. Trust me, we’re not reading first receiver, second receiver, third receiver. We’ve got it pretty simplified, without getting into game plan, where there’s not a whole lot of decision-making going on. But you do have to make decisions, as far as not turning the ball over.”
Pitt has 12 already turnovers this season, eight by interception and four by fumble. The two freshmen quarterbacks threw all of the interceptions. As for the fumbles, two were by Smith on sacks, one by sophomore receiver T.J. Porter on a reverse and one by McCoy while fighting for extra yards after a 13-yard catch.
“The turnovers, that’s what’s so disheartening,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve thrown a couple interceptions, one for a touchdown, off screen plays. Whether it’s receiver screens or halfback screens, those things should give you a chance to convert the first down if you execute them well.
“It should be a high enough percentage play that your quarterback can execute it – a freshman quarterback – and we feel like we’ve got enough playmakers around them that if we execute it we can make the first down.”
“Some of our turnovers, our interceptions primarily, have been off very, very simple plays. As a coaching staff, that’s what we’re looking at. Sometimes, you can’t get much simpler, other than walking in and saying, ‘We’ve got to win this game and score enough points.’”
Here’s a suggestion: Work on the play-calling to avoid third-and-15s. On Pitt’s first series, junior fullback Conredge Collins ran for 2 yards on first down and fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn gave up a 7-yard sack on second down.
On Bostick’s first series, LaRod Stephens-Howling ran for 1 yard on first down and Pitt gave up a sack for a 9-yard loss on second down. On third-and-18, The Panthers handed off to Stephens-Howling for 3 yards, then punted.
All were simple plays, which produced simple results.
• Trying to put a positive spin on the UConn loss – Pitt’s third to the Huskies in four years – Wannstedt noted the Panthers were playing hard even in the final minutes.
“Our kids are good,” Wannstedt said. “We came out the second half, in fact, the tape I showed to our kids had six plays in the fourth quarter, when it was 34-14, and Oderick Turner catches a pass and he’s killing himself to score, breaks two tackles. Nate Byham runs over two guys. Darrell Strong makes a great catch on the sidelines. We cover that opening kickoff and back them up and go three-and-out. Our defense gives us 62 yards the entire second half of the game.
“LaRod Stephens and LeSean McCoy made some great runs in the second half – effort runs. We didn’t get the points that we needed to win the game, but that’s what I showed to our players. With eight minutes to go in the game, you guys were playing as hard as if we were winning by 20. If we give that effort, we’ll get the other things squared away.”
• It all starts up front. When Wannstedt, a former left tackle, calls the line play “inconsistent,” that’s a bad sign.
What’s worse is Jason Pinkston’s shoulder injury appears serious, and Mike McGlynn’s move back to right tackle could be for the long term. McGlynn, after all, missed six months with a torn labrum and has given up a sack in each of his past two starts.
“In fairness to Mike, we stick him at center in camp, then at guard for a week or two, then we stick at tackle last week. He needs to get settled back in, which Mike will,” Wannstedt said. “I’m not concerned about Mike.”
As for the rest of the line?
“Chris Vangas is doing all he can do at center,” Wannstedt said. “Jeff Otah is playing very well. C.J. Davis is playing good. The right guard spot is between McGlynn moving and Joe Thomas needs to pick it up. We’re going to play John Bachman there this week and just keep coaching them to get better.”
As for the backups?
“There’s four freshmen,” Wannstedt said. “Obviously, we all know that the one freshman we were expecting to play is out for the year, Chris Jacobson. The rest of those kids are working hard, getting better.
“Dan Matha was really the next guy. It was Jacobson and Matha, and they’re both out for the year. We have to keep coaching those guys to get better and they will. We’re reaching for some confidence right now. The only way to get confidence is to get some results.”
• Thomas has been a huge disappointment. After starting seven games at right guard last season – earning a spot on The Sporting News All-Big East freshman team – the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder is going through a serious sophomore slump this fall.
“He has struggled since training camp,” Wannstedt said. “The kid is working hard. He’s committed. It’s not because lack of effort. It’s not because of lack of want-to. It’s not because lack of knowledge. When he gets in the game, he has struggled to get the job done on a consistent basis. We’re pushing him along, pushing him along and encouraging him. That’s all we can do.”
• Pitt’s quarterback depth is precarious.
Smith left the UConn game with a hyper-extended right (throwing) elbow, but Wannstedt said he practiced Sunday and will “be fine to play this week” as the backup.
Stull is out indefinitely, and the rest of the quarterbacks are walk-ons. When Bostick came up limping one play, redshirt freshman Steve Malinchak put on his helmet. The scary thing is, at one point during training camp, Malinchak was working out with the receivers.
• When asked about the positives in Bostick’s performance, here was Wannstedt’s take:
“He actually made pretty good decisions. He got rid of the ball quicker than I thought he would. Your biggest concern with young quarterbacks is the speed of the game compared to practice. When you’re out there, everything is happening so fast and they’re changing coverage and there’s a rush coming after you, a guy holding the ball making a wrong decision, looking down the receiver too long and forcing a pass in there for an interception.
“That’s what generally happens with young quarterbacks. Pat actually handled that pretty good. He threw the ball around, he made a couple throws on the sideline that we weren’t sure how he would handle that. He felt the pressure, moved around in the pocket. He didn’t really scramble and run – he’s not there yet – but he did get out of the pocket and found a receiver downfield and made a throw going to his left. He did some positive things, enough to make us say, ‘Let’s see if he can take the next step.’”