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The Second Season

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After the devastating double-overtime loss to Navy, Dave Wannstedt refocused Pitt’s attention on the Big East Conference schedule. The Panthers started referring to the second half of the season as a “second season.”

A new start, if you will.

Even if they were already 0-1 in conference play, thanks to a home loss to Connecticut Sept. 22. Perhaps the clean-slate mentality worked, as Pitt upset then-No. 23 Cincinnati, 24-17, last Saturday at Heinz Field.

Now, Pitt (3-4, 1-1) has five games to win four. The Panthers start at Louisville (4-4, 1-2), followed by Syracuse, Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia.

“You have to eliminate the overall record, otherwise it will pull you down,” Wannstedt said. “You focus on one game at a time. We do have all Big East games and we’re playing the best teams. It gives us a chance to go out and make a name for ourselves every week. That’s kind of the motivation. I told them today, ‘We’re trying to get win No. 4. It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got to expect their best effort, and we’ve got to match that and some.’”

The Pitt-Louisville game has serious bowl implications. USF, UConn, Cincinnati and WVU already are bowl eligible, with six victories. Rutgers has five. The Big East has five automatic bowl bids, with its champion receiving a BCS berth, and bowl tie-ins to either the Gator or Sun, PapaJohn’s.com in Birmingham, Meineke Car Care in Charlotte and the International in Toronto.

Pitt’s margin of error is slim. Much like last season, six wins probably won’t suffice – unless there aren’t enough seven-win teams to fill the bowl games. Like Ohio in 2005 and UConn last season, the Panthers could be facing another season where an overtime loss to an underdog could cost them a chance at the postseason.

Unless their second season is the reverse of their first.

* There has been discussion this week at Pitt of the need to control the ball, to keep Louisville’s high-scoring offense off the field and win the time-of-possession battle.

“That would be an objective every week, really,” Wannstedt said. “When people talk about the hidden yardage that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, like the obvious – touchdowns, interceptions, sacks – the possession time is something that there are so many benefits when you’re playing a team that particularly is a high-scoring team and you want to minimize the number of possessions that they have.”

It would stand to reason that when Louisville controls the clock, the Cardinals win. And it’s true that they won the TOP battle in their four victories. It’s also worth noting that the Cardinals are won the TOP battle in two of their losses.

Here’s a comparison, with plus-minus differentials:

Opponent TOP Score
Murray State +4:40 W, 73-10
MTSU +17:56 W, 58-42
Kentucky -0:46 L, 40-34
Syracuse +6:32 L, 38-35
N.C. State +16:36 W, 29-10
Utah -8:12 L, 44-35
Cincinnati +3:45 W, 28-24
Connecticut +9:02 L, 21-17

The TOP differentials can be misleading. Syracuse and UConn both beat Louisville despite losing the TOP battle. And Murray State kept the TOP battle close but lost by 63.

Then again, although Kentucky only held a 46-second TOP edge over Louisville, it proved the difference in a game that came down to the final minute. And if Louisville had more time remaining against Utah, it might not have attempted an ill-advised onside kick in the fourth quarter.

Pitt is 3-1 when it wins the TOP battle, 0-4 when it does not. Here is a look at its plus-minus differential:

Opponent TOP Score
Eastern Michigan +5:44 W, 27-3
Grambling State +0:08 W, 34-10
Michigan State -7:42 L, 17-13
Connecticut -0:56 L, 34-14
Virginia +0:24 L, 44-14
Navy -1:04 L, 48-45 (2OT)
Cincinnati +9:04 W, 24-17

The TOP can become lopsided when a team is playing from a deficit, as it is forced to pass instead of run, which takes more time off the clock. And teams playing with a big lead, as Connecticut and Virginia had, tend to get more conservative in the second half.

“As long as your defense is playing good and the game is close, that makes sense,” Wannstedt said. “The minute you fall behind, if you fall behind, you get forced into a situation where you’ve got to start throwing the ball to catch up and that all goes to the side. There’s a lot of teams that throw the ball that control the clock because they’re not throwing it down the field.”

* Wannstedt noted that Pitt is capable of doing just that, not by design but out of necessity. With a freshman at quarterback in Pat Bostick, Wannstedt said the Panthers are using “about 40 percent of our offense.”

Earlier this week, tailback LeSean McCoy said the Panthers had “cut some stuff out of the playbook” to make it easier on an offense that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a redshirt sophomore at skill positions and for a line that was besieged by pre-snap penalties.

“The o-line thought it was too much, so we kind of simplified it for all the linemen,” McCoy said. “I think that worked out well. We came out mentally tough and executed. It worked out for the whole team.”

Perhaps that’s why neither Wannstedt nor offensive line coach Paul Dunn were effusive in their praise of the front five. Wannstedt was asked this week if the Cincinnati game was an indication that the offensive line was clicking.

“I think so. I hope so. I hope that they have some confidence now in what they can do and what our backs can do,” Wannstedt said. “Hopefully, they’ll start coming together as a unit a little bit.”

* When a question to defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads was prefaced by saying that there has been a lot of talk about Pitt’s blitzing schemes, he said, “Ya think?”

Forgive Rhoads if he’s defensive about questions of blitzing, considering the Panthers are coming off their best defensive performance of the season.

Wannstedt and Rhoads can (and do) talk until they are blue in the face about the dangers of blitzing, but it’s easy to think that’s the solution after it worked so well against Cincinnati. So Rhoads was more explanatory this week when asked if Pitt would try another aggressive game plan.

“You certainly try to repeat the success,” Rhoads said. “The success was a combination of all things: pressure, zone, some pressure with man coverage, some pressure without man coverage. You try to repeat that formula, if it’s conducive to what they’re doing. It is to a certain extent. This team is more balanced than Cincinnati from a run-pass standpoint and from a formation-personnel standpoint.

“Cincinnati allowed you to do some things because they were basically two personnel groups. Louisville uses six personnel groups.”

Louisville’s Brian Brohm also is a much more dangerous passer than Cincinnati’s Ben Mauk, who is regarded as more resourceful than polished.

“We brought more ‘zero pressure’ than we have, in different situations,” Rhoads said. “People don’t want to believe this, but when you put the numbers up from the Navy game there was more overall ‘zero pressure’ than there was in the Cincinnati game.

“The difference is one-sidedness of the offense versus the spread and different down-and-distance situations in the Cincinnati game. We did not want Mauk to sit back there and leverage us and throw and catch, so we saw the need for more man coverage in that game. The man coverage was blitz, man-free, four-man pass rush, so it came in various fashions. Their receivers had been making great plays all year long – I’m talking great plays all year long – and we wanted to put the pressure on them to have coverage right next to them and make those plays.

“Thankfully, the wind was what it was. If that ball gets moved centimeters, one inch, because it tweaks a little bit and doesn’t hit those fingers just right, it’s hard to make those great catches. There were a lot of things that played into us playing well last Saturday.”

For those of you wondering about zero pressure, we asked Rhoads: “Five guys covering their five eligible receivers and six guys rushing the passer on the snap.”

Simply put, it comes down to this: If Pitt’s six guys rushing the passer can’t beat Louisville’s five guys protecting the passer, the Panthers will be in for a long day.

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