Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso has been preaching his gospel to the Panthers, a Biblical reference to his stressing the fundamentals of playing on the front line.
His players have become devout followers, as evidenced by both their play and post-game testimonials.
“Coach always tells us that if we get a sack in the last two minutes, the game’s over,” redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus said.
Romeus did just that against Syracuse, using his long reach to drop Cameron Dantley for a 6-yard loss on second-and-1 at Pitt’s 45 in the final minute at Heinz Field.
Instead of gaining ground to attempt a game-tying field goal, Syracuse was forced to spike the ball on third down to stop the clock. The Orange had nine seconds left, and their final pass fell incomplete as Pitt pulled off a 20-17 victory.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called it a “big-time sack,” and it arguably was the most clutch play of the season for the Panthers’ defense. What was most impressive is that it was just one of many for Pitt’s defensive line Saturday:
The first came on Syracuse’s first offensive series. Tommie Duhart, making his third start at defensive tackle, hurried starting quarterback Andrew Robinson on a second-down pass that was broken up by strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn. (Duhart later made a big play by dropping tailback Doug Hogue for a 5-yard loss on a toss).
After Pitt took a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter, senior defensive end Joe Clermond beat right guard Ryan Durand to sack Robinson for a 9-yard loss. Two plays later, Clermond and Scott McKillop teamed to sack Robinson for another 9-yard loss and force a punt.
In the third quarter, weak-side linebacker Shane Murray sacked Dantley for 4-yard loss. On the next play, Clermond hit Dantley to force a fumble that Syracuse’s Durand recovered for a 6-yard loss. (Clermond had seven tackles and a career-high 2.5 sacks for minus-20 yards).
Late in the third quarter, defensive tackle Mick Williams and Clermond pressured Dantley into an incomplete pass on first-and-20 at the Syracuse 20. On the next play, Romeus deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage. The Orange were forced to punt, and Aaron Berry returned it 53 yards to the Syracuse 13 to set up Pitt’s go-ahead touchdown.
“We went out there ready to play. We knew all through the week what we needed to do to win the game,” Clermond said. “Coach Gattuso challenged the d-line and told us that we needed to step up. We can make a big difference in games. In the games we play exceptionally well, we’ll win.”
Pitt finished with six sacks for minus-40 yards, as the Panthers used an aggressive game plan that mixed defenses and used several players either blitzing or stunting.
“It just shows how good the coverage is. Our DBs did a real good job today,” Clermond said. “They had a very good offensive line. They switched some guys in and out, but we just stayed relentless and kept going after them and coach Gattuso had faith in how we play. We talked to coach about giving us the freedom to go up the field and give some pressure to help out the DBs.”
• Wannstedt coached from the press box for the third consecutive game, and Pitt’s defense turned in another stellar performance. The Panthers held Syracuse to 265 yards total offense, including 30 yards rushing. The Orange were 2 of 14 on third-down conversions and 0 for 1 on fourth down.
Syracuse had trouble moving the ball, even when it started with good field position. One scoring drive started at Pitt’s 42 but mustered only a field goal. Another saw a 56-yard touchdown pass from Dantley to Taj Smith (six catches for 109 yards). Only the final scoring drive was extensive, covering 63 yards on 10 plays and capped by a 3-yard fade to Mike Williams (eight catches for 81 yards).
“Defensively, we give up the one long pass play, which we shouldn’t have – they’ve run that play before; we should have stopped that play – but overall, I was very pleased with our defense,” Wannstedt said. “We mixed it up well for as many times we were on the field and as much as we were struggling on offense, I thought our defense did a great job.”
• The Syracuse game served as a breakthrough performance for Pitt’s special teams units, and was the closest the Panthers have come to putting all three phases together. If only the offense had played better…
Before the game, Wannstedt stressed the importance of special teams play, both in coverage and on returns.
“It is and it will have to continue until we catch up on offense,” Wannstedt said. “That’s the good thing about emphasizing special teams. When you emphasize special teams, teams do that, they win games with special teams.
“That’s the sad thing. As we get better down the road as a team – we’ve blocked four kicks already – when you start getting punt returns and kick returns, those should be wins for you. … we haven’t been good enough overall for that to be the difference in the game. But we will.”
Pitt had 214 return yards to Syracuse’s 92, as Berry returned six punts for 106 yards, including the 53-yarder, and Lowell Robinson returned three kickoffs for 108 yards, including a 64-yarder that set up Pitt’s first touchdown.
“It was very important for us,” Berry said. “We put Lowell back there by himself, and he had a better opportunity to see the field. He set up his blocks real nice and hit it. On the punt return, I got great blocks. I was able to set it up and run to daylight.”
Berry had been averaging only 7.1 yards on 14 punt returns entering the game, but felt he was overdue.
“I had a feeling I was going to get one,” Berry said. “I really got a chance to set it this time. I set it and it was right there for me.”
Although he missed a 42-yard field goal into the closed end of the stadium, Conor Lee hit a pair of 32-yarders, including one in the fourth quarter that proved the difference. He is 25 of 29 (86.2 percent) for his career.
“Conor Lee, he’s money in the bank,” Wannstedt said. “When you look at your football team and say, what areas do you not stay awake at night worrying about? That’s one.”
• Much was made of Pitt’s inability to convert a pair of fourth-and-1 opportunities against Syracuse, especially when the Panthers had three tries near the goal line in the first quarter and came up empty.
“It’s never good on a fourth-and-1 to not convert it,” Bostick said. “It’s just disheartening to not go out there and convert a first down with the crowd into it to seal the game and get the win. You’ve got to have a level head, remain consistent no matter what happens. I think we did that.”
Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh just can’t win in these situations. He is vilified for calling for a fade pass to tight end Darrell Strong against Navy. Cavanaugh calls for a handoff to LeSean McCoy at the Louisville 1 last week, and Bostick and McCoy botch it for a fumble. Now, Pitt runs three times, once to Conredge Collins and twice to McCoy, and can’t get a yard.
“It’s just being determined,” McCoy said. “You can go in there and coach up Xs and Os, but you’ve got to want it inside.”
No one can question McCoy’s determination. He has 11 touchdowns this season, two shy of Tony Dorsett’s freshman record at Pitt. (McCoy, by the way, would have already tied the record if he had scored against Louisville and in the first quarter against Syracuse).
If there is anything to second-guess, it’s that Pitt ran to the right side of John Bachman and Mike McGlynn instead of to the left of Jeff Otah and C.J. Davis. Other than that, Syracuse deserves credit for coming up with big stops.
McCoy had the same take.
“We knew their defensive front was pretty tough. We just didn’t get in,” McCoy said. “I thought that on the play to Conredge, he got in – but I guess he didn’t. All week we worked on it, faking to me, maybe pulling some guys in, and giving it to him on the reverse. They stopped it, did a good job. You’ve got to give the defense some credit.”
Collins, for one, thought he was in.
“It’s OK. I’m cool with it. No sweat. We won,” Collins said. “It doesn’t bother me if we win.”
• McCoy can’t claim the same.
It clearly bothered him that he didn’t score again from the 1-yard line, especially after his fumble at Louisville. He admitted afterward that securing the ball was on his mind, that he didn’t want to be the goat again.
Unfortunately, that overshadowed another sterling performance by McCoy. He had his sixth 100-yard game, going for 140 yards on 31 carries, and became only the third Pitt freshman to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.
“To get 1,000 yards, that was cool and everything. I didn’t feel like I deserved it today. I didn’t play to my performance level today,” McCoy said. “The big guys helped me out.”
The success hasn’t gone to McCoy’s head. He’s humbled by his numbers, despite all the fanfare and expectations that accompanied his arrival at Pitt.
“Eventually, I thought I would get (1,000), but I didn’t think (it would be) my first season,” McCoy said. “I thought I was going to play but I didn’t think I would get that much playing time. I’m kind of excited, but …
• There should be no buts for McCoy. What he has done is remarkable, considering the company he’s now keeping. Here is how McCoy ranks among Pitt’s freshmen:
|LeSean McCoy became the third freshman in Pitt history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark:|
|Pitt tailback LeSean McCoy is on pace to break the Big East freshman single-season rushing record. Here is how he compares:|
• McCoy isn’t ready to hear his name mentioned in the same breath as that of Dorsett, one of the game’s greatest and a member of the college and pro football halls of fame.
“He’s the man,” McCoy said. “I’ve seen some tapes on him. When you get in to (talking about) him, that’s some big shoes to fill. That’s one of the great players you can talk about … to compare yourself to him.”
• Overshadowed by McCoy’s milestone was another impressive accomplishment for a freshman: Bostick broke the 1,000-yard passing mark, going 21 of 30 for 153 yards with a touchdown. He now has 1,058 yards passing.
Bostick continues to impress every time he takes the field, not so much for his passing ability but rather his composure. If things went according to plan, Bostick would be taking a redshirt. Instead, he’s started five games. He’s thrown four touchdowns and two interceptions in that span.
Pitt has kept its play-calling vanilla to protect Bostick, but he doesn’t want to be labeled a caretaker.
“That’s definitely important. I don’t know if it’s priority No. 1. It has been priority No. 1. It’s been a main focus of ours,” Bostick said. “Priority No. 1 should be winning. Secondly should be protecting the ball. We’re not caretakers. We can’t go three-and-out. We’ve got to take some shots and make some plays, but having no turnovers, eliminating those is a recipe for good things.”
• Finally, it’s worth addressing some comments I made last week, when I wrote: “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.”
It was an observation, one I didn’t realize would create such a stir. It was later brought to my attention by a member of Pitt’s athletic department that Dickerson had more snaps (37) at strong-side linebacker against Louisville than did starter Adam Gunn (35), and that Gunn was more productive, with three tackles to Dickerson’s one. (Pitt doesn’t generally provide statistics such as snap counts, but I’d love to see their snap-count split against Syracuse).
First of all, it wasn’t meant as a slight toward Gunn.
To his credit, Gunn has been more and more productive every week. It was clear in training camp that Pitt coaches wanted Dickerson in the starting lineup, but Gunn outplayed him and forced their hand. He had one of his best games against Syracuse, with five tackles, including two for losses (one a 7-yard sack) and a pass breakup.
And it wasn’t meant as a backhand slap at Dickerson, who, to his credit, willingly switched from receiver to running back to linebacker in less than a year just to find a way to get on the field. Pitt, to its credit, is trying to find a way to utilize him.
But Dickerson was one of Pitt’s playmakers in training camp, providing a pure pass-rush threat and a defender capable of causing turnovers. For whatever reason, it isn’t translating to Saturdays. And that’s obvious when fifth-year senior Jemeel Brady, a converted safety, plays ahead of Dickerson in certain situations.
Last season, Pitt took a big risk by moving Tommie Campbell to weak-side linebacker. Despite being undersized and overmatched, Campbell started six games.
Dickerson has yet to make one.
Maybe Dickerson has no one to blame but himself. Maybe Pitt coaches, knowing their jobs are on the line, are putting players who make less mistakes on the field ahead of him. If that’s the case, I don’t necessarily blame them.
Pitt defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Paul Rhoads acknowledged this week that Dickerson is big, fast, strong and explosive but also called his move a “project still in the works” and said he “just needs to find a home.”
I thought Rhoads was implying that Dickerson has the ability to play any of the three linebacker positions but hasn’t found the one that best suits him. Then again, maybe he was implying that Dickerson is destined to play another new position.
At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Dickerson has the size and skills to be an athletic H-back like Kris Wilson. With Strong graduating, Dickerson could fill a need there. But the Panthers don’t throw much to their tight ends, so it’s possible he could end up seeing less playing times instead of more.
Wannstedt made an interesting observation to his players in regard to the Syracuse game, when he compared playing in a close game to a prizefighter up against the ropes.
“You just hope you have character kids, and we do,” Wannstedt said. “The big thing we talked about this week was, every fighter has a plan until he gets hit. Once he gets hit in the mouth, the champions find a way to bounce back; the other ones kind of fold.”
I know this: Dorin Dickerson is a character kid. His playing time (or lack thereof) has been a blow, one that hasn’t gone according to his or Pitt’s plans. But he still has two-plus seasons to play.
We’ll see how he bounces back.