Ever the optimist, Dave Wannstedt tried to find positives in a defeat that was deflating because of how close his Pitt Panthers came to winning at Louisville:
The final impression of Pitt freshmen Pat Bostick and LeSean McCoy was their fumbled handoff at the Louisville 1-yard line, but their fourth-quarter play provided inspiration for the future, if not the rest of the season.
“Those kids have a passion to win,” Wannstedt said. “And all the guys do. Don’t get me wrong. You don’t shut a team down to one touchdown in the second half without playing some defense. We’ve got a lot of guys like that.”
McCoy had 65 of his game-high 120 rushing yards and 30 of his team-high 60 receiving yards in the final period, catching a 30-yard pass from Bostick to set up his impressive 7-yard run that tied the game with 4:27 remaining. Earlier, McCoy had a 27-yard touchdown catch from tight end Darrell Strong.
After struggling through three quarters, Bostick completed 6 of 10 passes for 118 yards in the fourth en route to a 136-yard game. He was 4 of 6 for 64 yards passing on Pitt’s 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, and made what appeared to be a touchdown pass to Oderick Turner with 1:10 remaining.
“As far as managing the game on the road, against a good football team,” Wannstedt said, “(Bostick) definitely grew up.”
And their teammates have noticed.
“They came a long ways,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Duhart, a junior-college transfer who arrived in the same recruiting class as Bostick and McCoy. “We have faith in them. It was hard for me, coming in the first year. D-I football is very fast. You have to catch on quick.”
The fumble on Pitt’s final play left Bostick and McCoy devastated. To his credit, Wannstedt made both freshmen face the media after the game, sitting between them as they answered questions. He wasn’t going to let one play in a loss define them. They mean too much to Pitt’s future.
Though teary-eyed and fighting back sniffles, Bostick and McCoy grew up before our eyes. They shared blame for the loss, even though they were the primary reasons the Panthers had a glimmer of hope at the end.
It was a learning experience that will prove valuable.
“I don’t think it’s as much learning how to win, but if we keep giving that effort with experience, all of a sudden you win all these games,” Wannstedt said. “You limit a couple of mistakes. I don’t know what happened on that handoff, but that’s inexperience.”
• Another bright spot in a gloomy day was the play of the defensive line, which accounted for 21 of Pitt’s 57 stops and three sacks for minus-28 yards against a Louisville line that had allowed only 11 in the previous eight games.
Wannstedt has long preached his philosophy of winning the battle up front, and the Panthers can finally say that they are winning their share.
“They showed up today,” Wannstedt said. “Most of our pressure today came when we were rushing four. A few of the blitzes we pressured. The teams that have given them problems this year, you have to win up front with your defense. That’s the philosophy we went in with.
“We mixed in some man. We played some zone. We pressured a little bit. Ultimately, it came down to those four guys up front.”
Pitt is able to wear down opponents by using an eight-man rotation that has little drop-off from starters to backups and keeps everyone fresh for the fourth quarter.
“It’s a big help knowing that we have a nice rotation,” Romeus said, “that whoever comes in can make plays.”
Tackle Mick Williams and end Greg Romeus each had six stops, nose Rashaad Duncan had three and ends Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop and tackle John Malecki all had two apiece. Romeus, Williams and Malecki had sacks.
“When they give good pressure, then we give good pressure,” Romeus said. “It’s contagious. When one guy gets a sack, the whole d-line wants a sack.”
Malecki also blocked a field goal in his best performance since the Michigan State game.
What makes the rotation even more important is that it has allowed the Panthers to get playing time for their backups, who are ready when called upon. That came true when Williams and Duhart had to replaced Gus Mustakas (knee), and will do the same for Romeus, Jabaal Sheard and Tyler Tkach when Clermond and McKillop graduate.
It appears to be a position where Pitt’s future is bright.
“In a sense, we’re trying not to look as far as next year,” Duhart said. “We’re still in the right now. It’s still going to be a great team next year; ain’t but a couple guys leaving.”
• If only Pitt could find a similar rotation at linebacker.
As feared, the linebackers have proven to be a weak link to the defense, despite the play of middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who had a game-high 8.5 stops and ranks as one of the top tacklers in the country.
Adam Gunn (three tackles) has been solid but unspectacular. Shane Murray (3.5) was pulled in the second half in favor of Jemeel Brady (2.5), who drew a costly holding penalty that gave Louisville a first down on its own 40 on what proved to be the game-winning scoring drive.
The Dorin Dickerson experiment has been sidelined, as he’s seeing such little playing time that it’s almost as if his first two years of eligibility have been wasted as a backup. (Dickerson isn’t even on the kickoff return team anymore; he was replaced as the up-man by Dustin Walters).
Pitt can only hope that its defensive line play is contagious to its linebackers.
• Pitt did a nice job keeping Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm in check, as his statistics – 21-of-30 passing for 236 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception – were well below his season averages.
But the Panthers might have shown Brohm too much respect, considering they based their offensive game plan around keeping the ball out of his hands.
“We felt like if we stayed with the running game that it would eventually come at some point,” Wannstedt said. “We were going to get their best coaching effort and their best playing effort today. Their backs were against the wall.
“I did the Orange Bowl last year (as a color analyst) for Fox, and I remember the chant at the end of the game, as Brian Brohm’s standing there: ‘One more year.’ He came back for a reason. We might have faced the No. 1 quarterback in this year’s draft, I don’t know.
“But they’ve got some real talent.”
So does Pitt, even if its starting skill players consisted of three freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. If the Panthers would have played offense at the same pace in the first three quarters as they did in the fourth, they could have put up 464 yards against Louisville’s defense.
Or 108 more than the Cardinals had.
• File this under fool’s gold.
I got a reliable tip that Pitt submitted a request to the Big East Conference to wear its gold uniforms at Louisville, which the Cardinals denied because they considered it a home uniform after the Panthers used the all-gold look against Louisville last year at Heinz Field.
Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe read the letter to his players at practice last week and, for whatever reason, it infuriated the Cardinals.
Which leads me to ask the following questions:
Why even ask to wear uniforms last worn in a 48-24 loss to your upcoming opponent?
Why give a team that has lost four of its past six and whose season is on the line any additional motivation?
Finally, when you were 3-4 this season and haven’t been to a bowl game since 2005, why is your uniform-color combination such a high priority?