If there is one thing Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has wanted all season, it was a chance to see what his Panthers could do when playing with an early lead.
He got that opportunity Saturday against South Florida, as the Panthers took a 20-14 advantage into halftime at Heinz Field. Pitt had outgained USF, 195-124, in the first half, a balanced effort of 115 yards passing and 80 rushing.
The result was a defeat that wasn’t nearly as close as the 48-37 final score indicates. USF turned a 14-10 deficit into a 34-14 lead by the 9:21 mark of the fourth quarter.
And the Panthers had no one to blame but themselves.
“I don’t know how you can be 10 of (13 passing) in the first half and play a fairly clean game, rush for 80 yards and then in the second half, the penalties come in,” Wannstedt said. “We rush for 15 yards total in the second half and throw three interceptions for touchdowns, really. That’s what it came down to.”
Pat Bostick’s three interceptions were the most costly, as two were returned for touchdowns and the other was taken back to Pitt’s 1 to set up another score. That’s 21 points in a game the Panthers lost by 11.
“Pat made some mistakes, but we all make mistakes,” tailback LeSean McCoy said. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t point the finger at one thing. You win as a team and you lose as a team. It’s as simple as that.”
That said, let’s take a look at how the second half of another game Pitt could have won went so wrong:
• Matt Grothe’s 80-yard TD run
USF linebacker Chris Robinson drew a dead-ball personal foul penalty on the final play of the first half, and the 15-yard penalty was assessed on the opening kickoff in the third quarter, which Dave Brytus hit for a touchback.
Grothe ran a quarterback counter, darted through a gap in Pitt’s defense and sprinted past free safety Eric Thatcher and cornerback Kennard Cox for a touchdown to cut give the Bulls a 17-14 lead only 53 seconds into the second half.
“We had a couple mental mistakes. We had a mental mistake on the long run,” Wannstedt said. “We should have had a safety in the middle of the field, so we had two mental mistakes really. We missed him at the line of scrimmage and missed him deep.”
Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop likened it to Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk’s 55-yard run on the Bearcats’ first possession.
“With the quarterback running, there’s an extra person that we don’t really account for,” McKillop said. “We were in a bad coverage for it, and they hit us. We didn’t get over the holes. We didn’t stop it. It’s not something we haven’t seen before. Myself personally, I have to see it and I have to get over and make the play.”
McKillop took blame for allowing Grothe to run free.
“I should have been there,” McKillop said. “I should have keyed. I’d seen the play. There’s certain steps you’ve got to take. I’ve just got to react quicker.”
Pitt was still very much in the game at that point, and things looked better when Bostick completed passes of 20 yards to Oderick Turner and 11 yards to T.J. Porter to give the Panthers a first-and-10 at their own 49. That’s when fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn drew a holding penalty, pushing Pitt back to its own 39. Even after USF jumped offside, the Panthers couldn’t recover. McCoy had runs of 1 yard, minus-1 and Bostick was hurried on a pass intended for Cedric McGee that fell incomplete.
McGlynn was asked if the holding penalty was legit.
“They’re called,” McGlynn said. “I don’t think they were legitimate, but I don’t think any holding penalty ever called on me is legitimate.”
USF went 63 yards in 12 plays on its next possession, but Shane Murray forced Grothe to fumble and Joe Clermond recovered it at the Pitt 20. Bostick was sacked on second down for an 8-yard loss. On third-and-18, senior tight end Darrell Strong drew a flag for a false start. The next pass was incomplete, and Pitt punted again.
“We threw the ball successfully toward the end of the game and in the first half. What really killed us, and you can ask anyone on our unit, is penalties,” Bostick said. “You bust a couple plays early and get a couple chances for first downs and you’re getting them called back for stuff …
Then again, the penalties were made by seniors.
“They’re not rookie mistakes,” Wannstedt said. “I think they were by the older kids. They’ve got to know better. They’ve got to understand that, and they do. You’re pressing and come unglued. You’ve got no chance to overcome that.”
• Bostick’s interceptions
Pitt was still in the game until the final play of the third quarter, when Bostick’s pass intended for Strong was intercepted by safety Nate Allen and returned 37 yards for a touchdown and 27-14 USF lead with three seconds left.
USF middle linebacker Ben Moffitt picked off another Bostick pass and returned it 60 yards to the Pitt 1, where Mike Ford eventually scored from for a 34-14 lead.
Pitt scored on its next possession, driving 75 yards in seven plays thanks to passes of 12, 9 and 19 yards to Strong, 7 yards to McCoy and 17 to Cedric McGee to set up McCoy’s 12-yard scoring run to cut it to 34-21.
Pitt held USF to a three-and-out, but cornerback Trae Williams broke on a Bostick pass intended for Porter and returned it 21 yards to give the Bulls a 41-21 lead at 5:31.
“The interceptions, a lot of them are inexperience mistakes,” Wannstedt said. “We can’t have them. They’re going to cost you games.”
Bostick explained the picks in detail:
“One of them was a tipped ball. That happens. I have to get the ball up, I guess. I’m not going to call it a fluke. The first one, the guy kind of squatted on me. I knew the coverage, I knew what they were doing and I knew what I had going. He came out of where I thought he’d be and made a play on the ball. Looking back, I wouldn’t have thrown it. I was kind of expecting him to do what I thought he’d do, and he didn’t do it. The last one, I just waited too long. That’s one that really disappoints me. I can’t do that.”
The Panthers acknowledged that the interceptions hurt, knowing that it killed their chances to beat USF much the same way it did against Connecticut on Sept. 22. If Pitt beats UConn and USF at home, the Panthers are 6-5, 4-2. Add the losses where Pitt could have won on the final play at Louisville and Rutgers, and the Panthers are 8-3, 6-0 heading into Saturday’s game at West Virginia.
“We made some mistakes throwing the ball and the big plays will come back to hurt you,” fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn said. “It’s hard when we had three interceptions, but we kept fighting. We kept fighting until the last possession, but it’s hard to win football games when you make those mistakes.”
But it wasn’t just Grothe’s 80-yard run or the senior’s untimely penalties or Bostick’s interceptions. It was all of them combined. Pitt doesn’t have the aptitude to overcome so many mistakes, especially against talented opponents.
Instead, it came down to this:
“They came out and played at a higher tempo than we were in the second half,” Bostick said. “It’s disappointing because we knew what they were capable of doing. We didn’t execute well enough to sustain a lead and win the football game.”
• Although Wannstedt on Wednesday led everyone to believe that Pitt’s starting quarterback would be a game-time decision, it was never even an issue.
Kevan Smith replaced Bostick in the second half at Rutgers, but sustained a shoulder injury on his right (throwing) arm. First, Pitt said it was a separation. Later, they said it wasn’t that severe. Who knows?
Bostick made his seventh consecutive start.
“Kevan never practiced all week,” Wannstedt said. “He didn’t take one rep. He did warm-ups, said he was OK but that he couldn’t throw the deep ball. He didn’t take one snap all week in practice. All he did was warm up.”
• Speaking of injuries, sophomore tight end Nate Byham limped off and didn’t return. Wannstedt said Byham would have an MRI Sunday, which is usually bad news. I’m hearing that he has a torn MCL, but we will receive official word on Byham’s injury and playing status at Wannstedt’s Monday news conference.
• It’s tough to blame McKillop for having a role in losing a game when he makes a career-high 18 tackles (14 solo). But he didn’t want to hear it.
“Not good enough, not good enough,” McKillop said, “for myself or my team.”
• Coming off a season-low 60 yards rushing against Rutgers, McCoy rushed for 55 on 18 carries against USF but ran for three touchdowns to break Tony Dorsett’s freshman record of 13. McCoy also was a huge factor in the passing game, with six catches for 83 yards to account for 138 all-purpose yards.
“Shady, we could never really get him on track,” Wannstedt said, “and that was a game where we needed to run the ball and convert third downs in the second half to keep them off the field and we could never do that.”
Not that he really ever had a chance.
“The plan was definitely to come in and try to back them off by throwing the ball,” McCoy said. “We didn’t get too much into the running game, so you can’t say they shut it down.”