There was a time before the season when Pitt’s road schedule appeared daunting and its home slate was considered weak. Funny, isn’t it, how things can change in college football in just a few weeks?
Before the season, Louisville was considered a game Pitt had little to no chance of winning on the road. The Cardinals returned a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brian Brohm, top receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia and power back Anthony Allen.
Now, Pitt (3-4, 1-1) finds itself ahead of Louisville (4-4, 1-2) in Big East Conference standings heading into Saturday’s game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The Panthers snapped a four-game losing streak with a 24-17 victory over No. 23 Cincinnati, while Louisville is coming off a 21-17 loss at Connecticut in which it blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. (Before you put the mortgage on the Panthers, keep in mind that Louisville won at Cincinnati, 28-24, and Pitt lost at home to UConn, 34-14).
But this game has become as pivotal to Louisville’s bowl chances as it has to Pitt’s. The Cardinals finish at West Virginia, at South Florida and at home against Rutgers, while Pitt plays host to Syracuse, visits Rutgers, has USF at home and finishes at West Virginia.
The loser of this game could easily finish 4-8, which you would have never predicted before the season.
“I’m sure this is a game they had circled on their schedule,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “When you look at who they have left, this is probably a game that they checked off, and they know this is a big game for them as it is for us. Our football team will expect their best effort.”
* Pitt kicker Conor Lee was named Big East Special Teams Player of the Week after matching his career high with 10 points against Cincinnati.
Lee, a redshirt junior from Upper St. Clair, made field goals of 41, 25 and 37 yards and converted his lone point-after try despite swirling winds at Heinz Field.
“It was challenging down there,” Wannstedt said. “We did have 12-15 mph winds, and it was gusting up. A couple times that he went in there and we needed at the time, he didn’t falter at all. And that was a big point in the game. I think it did have some affect on their kicker. The wind was a factor.”
Where Lee was perfect, Cincinnati’s Jake Rogers missed a 26-yard field-goal attempt at the end of the first half that would have provided a 20-10 halftime lead.
For the season, Lee is 19 of 19 on extra points and 10 of 11 on field goals, a 90.9 percentage. Wannstedt started his news conference by saluting Lee, who broke Carson Long’s 32-year-old consecutive PATs record (60) in the 48-45 double-overtime loss to Navy on Oct. 10.
Lee has extended the streak to 66.
“Because of the circumstances, I probably did not give Conor his proper due last week, when he broke the most consecutive extra-point record at the University of Pittsburgh for a kicker,” Wannstedt said.
* Snapping a four-game losing streak was important for the Panthers, who endured five consecutive losses to end the 2006 campaign and had lost nine of their past 11 and were coming under intense scrutiny and pressure.
Not only was the victory over No. 23 Cincinnati Wannstedt’s first against a nationally ranked opponent, but it was a sign that the Bearcats aren’t quite ready to surpass Pitt in terms of relevance in the Big East.
It also diverted talk of coaching changes, at least temporarily, and halted discussion of why Pitt’s defense can’t stop the spread offense. The Panthers held Cincinnati’s high-scoring offense (40.6 points a game) to 17 and caused three crucial turnovers in the fourth quarter.
And it reinforced what Wannstedt has been preaching all along, that Pitt was a good team that had endured bad luck, that the Panthers had to persevere to prove their point.
“That’s what’s great about football — it’s a team game — but it may be one part of the game or one individual or one instance that cost you that game,” Wannstedt said. “In most cases, it is. If you don’t fight through the mental battles and really separate reality from perception, it’s very easy as individuals and coaches and players to, all of a sudden, start not believing that you’re good or you can’t play the game, can’t go out and make plays.
“We were kind of at the crossroads of that juncture. By winning a game and having some of our guys go out there and do some good things, it kind of reinforced some things of that nature.”
* Speaking of pressure, much of Wannstedt’s news conference was spent talking about the pros and cons of blitzing, especially after the Panthers played more aggressively against Cincinnati’s spread offense.
Wannstedt continues to deflect such talk, as he views blitzing as dangerous for a defense as it is for an offense and noted that it’s not effective in certain situations.
“We probably brought a little bit more, but I think their offensive style enabled us to do,” Wannstedt said. “It was a touchdown game. It was one where both sides needed to make plays and could not afford to really screw anything up. When you’re in that type of game, there’s a little more pressure on everybody — players, coaches, everybody — to make the right plays.
“Forget about blitzing Navy. They’re running the triple option. It’s different. You take our previous two games, Virginia and Connecticut, and we’re down 21-nothing or 28-nothing and they’re just handing the ball off. There’s no pressure for them to make plays. At no time did they feel in a situation where they were going to take a sack or force a throw. The circumstances of this game had a lot to do with us bringing more pressure and mixing it up more. Yes, we did do it but there’s reasons why we did it.”
Now would be a good time to remind you that Louisville has had its way with Pitt since joining the Big East. The Cardinals accounted for 467 yards in a 42-20 win in 2005 and 499 yards in a 48-24 win last season.
“All you have to do is put the tape on,” Wannstedt said. “The last two years, we couldn’t slow them down. The games were close for a while, but in the end we couldn’t hold up physically, we couldn’t hold up on the scoreboard.”
* Is it a coincidence that Pitt played more aggressively with Wannstedt off the sideline, where he was confined to the press box to keep his left leg elevated after surgery on his knee and Achilles tendon last week?
There’s a perception that Pitt has too many cooks in the kitchen (or sideline) when it comes to defense. The Panthers have to listen to Wannstedt, the head coach, is a former defensive coordinator; defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads; and defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, a former Duquesne University head coach.
That’s a recipe for mass confusion.
Wannstedt prefers to be on the sideline, but admits that the press box offered a unique vantage point.
“There’s two sides to that,” Wannstedt said. “As a coordinator my entire career, calling defenses for 15 years, I think one year I was on the field.
“When you’re in the box, you can definitely see things better. You really get a feel for what they’re doing from a big picture standpoint. You have more information in front of you to help you make decisions. And you’re still talking. Every offensive play, Matt Cavanaugh and I are talking. Every defensive play, Paul Rhoads and I are talking. Special teams, Charlie Partridge. I talked to the officials before the game and alerted them that I was going to be running my timeouts through the assistant coaches.
“We had everything covered that way. What you miss, I would have loved to be standing next to Scott McKillop when we were running the clock out at the end of the game. You’re up in the booth with Bob Junko. — That’s what you miss, being down there with the players and being involved in the game.”
Wannstedt is still rolling around Pitt’s South Side training complex on a motorized scooter, so there’s a good possibility he will watch the game from the press box again this weekend at Louisville. You don’t mess with a streak.
“We’ll see this week,” Wannstedt said. “I may have to go up there again this week. It all depends on when I get the stitches out and when they allow me to start being able to stand on my feet for a long period of time.”
A signature victory, by the way, provided the best pain medication for Wannstedt since his surgery. “I felt better with 25 stitches and two surgeries than I did a week ago with nothing,” Wannstedt said. “A win helps everything, including your Achilles and your knee.”
* The Cincinnati game marked the first under Wannstedt that the Panthers followed his formula for victory: They ran the ball and stopped the run.
Pitt had 260 yards rushing on 46 carries, with LeSean McCoy (137) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (100) both eclipsing the century mark. It was the first time two Pitt players did so since 1988, when Curvin Richards had 202 and Darnell Dickerson 108 against Rutgers.
“It’s amazing how your confidence will grow when you start believing in the guys carrying the ball,” Wannstedt said. “I think one goes hand in hand with the other. Where we’re at today with LeSean and LaRod and where we were at four weeks ago, it’s different. — There’s something brewing there, a chemistry between our offensive line and our backs.”
Surprisingly, Pitt’s run game got better after sophomore right guard Joe Thomas injured his hamstring midway through the second quarter on a 21-yard run by McCoy. That’s when the Panthers turned to redshirt sophomore John Bachman.
“John Bachman went in, filled in and played well, played a good game,” Wannstedt said. “The key is we don’t take a step backwards. This is going to be a challenge for us.”
When asked if Bachman would start against Louisville, Wannstedt initially said he would but then backtracked and said it would depend on whether Thomas was healthy.
“That decision,” Wannstedt said, “hasn’t been made yet.”
It’s a no-brainer. Look for No. 62 to get the nod.
* Typically, Wannstedt has gushed over freshman quarterback Pat Bostick, who has improved by leaps and bounds since throwing his first pass for an interception in his college debut against Grambling State.
But Wannstedt identified Bostick as the missing link to Pitt’s offense, knowing that the Panthers can become one-dimensional by playing it so safe with their play calling.
Bostick was efficient in completing 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown and one interception (and a two-point conversion), but hasn’t shown much arm strength on deep balls. Despite a savvy pocket presence, he has very little mobility and was stopped on fourth-and-inches in the first quarter, which led to a Cincinnati field goal.
The good thing is, Louisville serves as a blueprint.
“The only thing that’s really missing, and it’s going to take time, is our passing game. We need to throw the ball better,” Wannstedt said. “We’re not going to be a team, with Pat, where we’re going to get a lot of runs out of our quarterback, but we need to be a heck of a passing team, similar to Louisville.
“Louisville in the past, if you would have said, ‘What type of offense do you want to have?’ That’s what we want to have. We want to be able to throw the ball and run it, just as effectively. We’re making progress. It’s just that every week is a new adventure with these kids.”
* In his first start, sophomore receiver T.J. Porter finally flashed the athleticism that was long expected of him and impressed the coaches enough to earn another.
Porter led all receivers with seven catches for 85 yards, including a 34-yarder by snatching a third-and-9 pass over the middle and taking it to the Cincinnati 9 to set up Lee’s 25-yard field goal to cut it to 17-13 in the third quarter.
He also showed an aptitude for downfield blocking.
“We were actually going to split time between him and Cedric McGee, and Ced got hurt — nothing serious; hopefully, he’ll play this week — so T.J. got the call and played well,” Wannstedt said. “The things that are obvious to everybody are the catches. The things that you’re looking at from a head coach’s standpoint: how is he playing when he’s not getting the ball. Sometimes, that’s what separates them at the young age they’re at right now.”
* One of the players showing great promise is redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus. A glance at his final statistics is misleading, as he had only one tackle and one pass break up.
Let’s put those plays into perspective:
The pass breakup came on a third-and-27 at Cincinnati’s 44 at the start of the second quarter, when he batted down a Ben Mauk attempt and forced a punt.
The tackle came on a third-and-8 at Cincinnati’s 46, when Romeus tracked down Mauk and forced another punt.
Some guys just have a great sense of timing.
“Greg Romeus is definitely coming on,” Wannstedt said. “We’re rotating them. Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond are both playing good, so we’re keeping them fresh and rotating them.
“I like how we’re doing it now. He’s been in there in enough critical situations and he’s made plays and he’ll continue to make plays. Those other kids are playing well, too. Even when Greg becomes the starter, when Chris and Joe are gone next year and he’s the guy, there will be somebody behind him that we’ll rotate in there.”
* Before the season, Wannstedt said he wanted to redshirt as many of the 25 newcomers as he could, and the Panthers could possibly redshirt as many as 19.
To date, six newcomers from the Class of 2007 have played: Bostick, safety Dom DeCicco, defensive tackle Tommie Duhart, McCoy, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and receiver Maurice Williams. Wannstedt said two others, guard John Fieger and tackle Jordan Gibbs, could be forced to play if there are more injuries on the offensive line.
The remainder of the class didn’t dress out for this past Saturday’s game: defensive lineman Myles Caragein, center Greg Gaskins, linebacker Max Gruder, defensive end Justin Hargrove, running back Shariff Harris, fullback Henry Hynoski, cornerback Buddy Jackson, offensive guard Chris Jacobson, defensive tackle Wayne Jones, linebacker Brandon Lindsey, offensive tackle Dan Matha, cornerback Sherod Murdock, linebacker Tristan Roberts, receiver Aaron Smith, defensive end Tony Tucker, running back Greg Williams and receiver Aundre Wright.
“We’re trying to redshirt as many as we possibly can,” Wannstedt said. “How it plays out, I don’t know. Injuries would probably be the only thing that could change it. At this point, we’re playing four or five of them and we’ll be able to redshirt 18, 19, 20 of the freshmen — which would be a big boost to our football team two years from now.”