Dave Wannstedt opened training camp by revealing that “finish” was Pitt’s theme this season. It seemed appropriate for a team that lost five consecutive games to end the 2006 campaign, and even more appropriate now.
The Panthers were finished before they started against Virginia, when Wannstedt gave up before the opening kickoff by attempting an ill-fated onside kick in Saturday night’s 44-14 loss at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
After the game, Wannstedt explained his rationale.
“That’s a play you’ve all seen us use. We’re four out of five on that. We work on that 10 times a week. It’s one of the best things we do,” Wannstedt said. “I haven’t seen a team in a long time that sets up their return people 15 yards off the ball. If there was ever a time to make that play, it was tonight. We discussed it all week. We worked on it all week. The players were excited about doing it.”
The onside kick is Cody Sawhill’s specialty. He has perfected the art form, and the Panthers had recovered his previous attempts last week against Connecticut and last season against Michigan State.
But this one was a disaster. The ball didn’t get its usual high bounce, and special teams ace Michael Toerper drew a flag when he touched it before it crossed the 40-yard line.
“We missed the kick. We were trying to get the ball and we touch it before it goes 10 yards. That’s what happened,” Wannstedt said. “I really thought it would be a way for us to steal a possession. With Pat (Bostick making his first start at quarterback) and being a little bit young there, we’re going to struggle to score a lot of points but I felt like this was a way because of the opportunity and because of how well we do it. That’s something we don’t miss much. Tonight we missed the ball.”
Pitt dropped the ball, literally and figuratively. Wannstedt exuded no confidence in his offense and put his defense in a short field to start the game even after it failed to stop UConn under such circumstances last week.
What’s worse, it appears Wannstedt followed not a carefully laid-out plan but a gut feeling. Pitt players said they learned of the decision only minutes before kickoff.
“It just, I guess, happened,” redshirt junior safety Eric Thatcher said. “Coach’s call.”
Added redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop: “We were told about it a couple minutes before it was about to happen, so we were prepared, worst-case scenario, to be thrust into a position like that.”
Virginia began a systematic destruction of Pitt with a four-play, 39-yard drive that consisted of an 11-yard run, a 15-yard pass, an 11-yard run and a 2-yard scoring pass.
“I think it was just a gamble the coaches thought about and went with it,” said McKillop, who had a game-high 15 tackles. “In film study, we noticed a couple things that we might be able capitalize on. It was a risk we took. When you gamble, you win some, you lose some.”
With Pitt, the former trumps the latter.
The defense looked helpless, which has become a common theme under Wannstedt and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads the past two-plus seasons. Remember, this was a Virginia team that averaged only 19.2 points per game. The 44 points were the most the Cavaliers have scored since putting 51 on Temple in 2005.
“We’ve got to react to adversity well,” McKillop said. “There’s no reason why we can’t stop the ball, go three-and-out and (make them) punt the ball. That’s a risk we were willing to take. It didn’t pan out for us, but our defense just has to step up.”
Only 1:23 into the game, Pitt was down, 6-0.
Already, the Panthers were finished.
• If Wannstedt and his coaching staff really believed that it could take advantage of Virginia’s kick-return team, why not blast the opening kickoff deep and give your defense a chance to stop the Cavaliers?
Had Pitt forced a three-and-out and taken a lead, it could have then tried the onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. What Wannstedt did showed no confidence in his offense, especially freshman quarterback Pat Bostick. Not that the offense had done much to inspire confidence with its poor play the previous two weeks.
Bostick was supposed to be the answer to Tyler Palko’s departure. Instead, Bostick left on the eve of training camp only to return a week later. It’s hard to believe the Pitt players have much faith in him as a leader and that move made it obvious Pitt’s coaches don’t trust him yet.
“The snap-count things and the jumpiness, we were doing silent count,” Wannstedt said. “Part of the game plan was we knew they were going to blitz and we were trying to do things on first sound, before they can blitz, and were a little jumpy with the snap count. It’s a little inexperience.
“You can’t hear, so he’s back there and trying to give his foot and a silent count. All those little things do add up, but I thought he did OK. A few bad decisions, but for the most part, I thought he handled it well.”
Even as Pitt’s deficit was building, the Panthers didn’t entrust Bostick to attempt a pass until late in the first quarter. Bostick played reasonably well, completing 18 of 31 passes for 181 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times for minus-20 yards, but, unlike Kevan Smith, didn’t lose a fumble.
What’s disturbing is that Virginia’s secondary was suspect, the Cavaliers were allowing 241 passing yards per game and Pitt elected to rely on the run when that was exactly what everyone expected the Panthers to do.
Where was the balance Wannstedt promised?
“For us to win with a true freshman quarterback that missed some of training camp, you’re going to have to run the ball and play defense and special teams,” Wannstedt said. “He’s doing everything he can. I’m pleased with Pat.”
• There was a mixed reaction to Virginia’s fake 21-yard field goal that resulted in holder Vic Hall dashing for a 4-yard touchdown run with 5:25 remaining in the fourth quarter with the Cavaliers leading by 23.
Virginia coach Al Groh reasoned that it was part of pre-game plans, perhaps something to show ACC opponents and force them to add it to their preparations.
“We had gone into the game feeling that on the first field goal (attempt) in a certain field position we were going to call it,” Groh said. “So, that was the first field goal in a certain position and we went with the plan that we had.”
Others treated it as if Virginia was rubbing salt in Pitt’s wounds, possibly because Pitt pounded the Cavaliers, 38-13, last season. And you have to wonder if there is some leftover hard feelings between Groh and Wannstedt from their days as AFC East foes while head coaches of the N.Y. Jets and Miami Dolphins, respectively..
“I’ve got a thought on that,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve been on both sides of the coin, too. My philosophy is, we’ve got to stop them. It’s our responsibility to stop them. If somebody wants to throw the ball on the last play, throw it. We should sack them and intercept it. Every dog has its day. We’ve got to stop them.”
• That appears to be the problem.
Pitt can’t stop anyone, even if itself. Penalties have become a major issue for the Panthers, as they have been flagged 29 times in the past three games. By my count, they drew eight penalties for 65 yards in the first quarter alone.
Some of it obviously has to do with the offensive line adjusting to freshmen quarterbacks who aren’t used to playing in hostile environments. Wannstedt doesn’t have an easy answer, as he’s tried multiple tactics to correct it.
“We had officials last week – Big East officials – throwing flags. We had noise at practice. We added the 25-second clock at practice to help with the young quarterback,” Wannstedt said. “When we get into the game, particularly early on, we have not been able to keep it together. I wish I could give you a reason why. The only thing I do know, and we will do, we will continue working hard. We will continue to stress the things that we are not doing well enough to win. And keep doing them until we can win. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Wannstedt took issue with some of the calls, though, and after being whistled for 11 penalties for 139 yards, you have to wonder if Virginia got some home cooking.
Mike Phillips and Aaron Berry both drew questionable pass interference penalties, but there’s no excusing the false starts and illegal procedures on offense. And it was across the board, as left tackle Jeff Otah, left guard C.J. Davis, tight end Nate Byham, right tackle Mike McGlynn and right guard John Bachman all drew penalties.
“As far as the penalties, the pass interferences, the holding calls, I will watch the tape. I question several of those. But I will watch the tape. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong,” Wannstedt said. “The pre-snap penalties, it is so frustrating. We’re trying to go on the quick count. We’re trying to go on the silent count. We’re doing the things that winning teams do, but there’s inconsistency with how we’re doing it. I’m not going to get into the reasons why, but if you want to think I’m inconsistent, I couldn’t care less.”
It’s an indictment on offensive line coach Paul Dunn that such an upper-class line – despite constant shuffling – is having problems with the basics. Not only are the Panthers struggling to play as a unit, but their poor play is causing serious setbacks for a young offense.
Consider Pitt’s second offensive series: On first down, LeSean McCoy ran for 2 yards. On second-and-8, McCoy ran for a 4-yard gain but Davis drew a holding penalty. That pushed it back to a second-and-14. After a 1-yard run by T.J. Porter, Pitt faced a third-and-13, but Byham was called for illegal procedure. On third-and-18, McCoy ran for 12 yards.
McCoy had three carries for 18 yards, but it was offset by the two penalties for minus-15. In year three of the Wannstedt era, the running game isn’t the problem. The offensive line, however, is a major disappointment.
• Not to be too moribund, but Pitt’s “finish” theme might be rivaled only by the excessive use of “execution.”
And it doesn’t matter if it’s talking about Pitt…
“We’ve got to get everyone going, get their motors running and just execute,” McKillop said. “I think that’s just a lack of execution, people not executing to the whistle, getting a little lazy and just getting caught.”
…or it’s opponent.
“They were executing. That was what they were doing all game. All the credit goes to them. They picked us apart,” McKillop said. “On our end, we’ve got to step up. When we go to the sideline, we’ve got to listen to coach Rhoads’ adjustments and we’ve got to go out there and apply them to the field.”
It’s not that Pitt has a poor game plan, just that the Panthers aren’t executing. At this point, the Panthers coaches ought to distance themselves from the word, especially with talk of putting them on the firing line.
And, based on McKillop’s comments, it already sounds like the Panthers are tuning out their coaches. Or, at least, they are starting to wonder if this season is a lost cause.
“There’s definitely going to be some doubt with our team, but the most important is we have leaders on our team who are going to have to step up and not have separation on our team, people forming groups and having a mutiny against everybody,” McKillop said. “We’ve got to stick together as a team. Everyone’s got to come in and push through this adversity.
“Right now, there’s been no finger-pointing with this team. We’re sticking together. Coach Wannstedt is preaching what he’s always preaching: ‘Trust. Accountability. Desire.’ We’re sticking to that.”