Enough with the excuses.
Pitt got outcoached and outplayed by Bowling Green Saturday. It’s that simple. Point the finger at who you will, whether it’s the coaches or the players, but it doesn’t change the final score:
Bowling Green 27, Pitt 17.
I can pinpoint pivotal plays in the game, which I’ll get to later, but this game was an obvious sign that Dave Wannstedt’s football philosophies aren’t in tune with the college game. With all due respect to Bowling Green, the Panthers were outmaneuvered by an inferior opponent.
That has to be hard for Pitt to swallow, especially with the excitement built by the upset win at West Virginia in December and the enthusiasm that it carried into a season the Panthers started ranked No. 25 nationally.
“We will regroup because we’ve got character players,” Wannstedt said. “These guys are hurt right now. They’re disappointed. The things that happened today that probably had the most influence on the game, I believe we can correct. … If you take away the turnovers in the game, you probably eliminate two or three of their scores – and that will be the difference in the game.”
Truth is, that’s usually the difference in every game. Coaches are constantly harping on the importance of turnovers, of protecting from them on offense and creating them on defense. Yet how many games has Pitt lost under Wannstedt because of turnovers? Last season alone, the Panthers blew games against Michigan State, Connecticut, Louisville and South Florida because of costly turnovers that led to touchdowns.
- The excuse then was that Pitt was young, especially at quarterback and tailback. But this is a veteran team. Bill Stull might have been starting his second game at quarterback, but he’s a fourth-year player in the program. His top three receivers – Derek Kinder, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner – have all been at Pitt for at least four seasons. His top two tight ends are both juniors. His fullback is a senior, his tailbacks a senior and a sophomore.
- When Wannstedt was asked if the Panthers ever considered using packages involving junior-college transfer Greg Cross, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, in the second half, he dismissed it for this reason: “That’s more of a run package. At that point, the thing we felt we had to try to do was to throw the football more.”
- Pitt was supposed to dominate games with its deep and talented defensive line, yet Bowling Green’s play-calling rendered it ineffective.
- Some keys to the second half:
- When strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn suffered a concussion on the first drive of the second half after a collision with Scott McKillop, that forced Pitt to play two backups with little to no experience at the position. Converted receiver Austin Ransom already was starting at weak-side in place of Shane Murray (knee), who was regarded as a solid if unspectacular player but whose reputation should soar now that he’s out.
- Ransom had never played linebacker before, was at the position for two weeks and found himself in the starting lineup. For one, that’s an indication that weak-side backup Tristan Roberts isn’t ready. What’s worse, Ransom led the Panthers with seven tackles (four solo), had the team’s only turnover (a first-quarter interception that Pitt failed to score on) and had two quarterback hurries and a 1.5 tackles for loss.
- The other player Bowling Green attacked was sophomore strong safety Dom DeCicco, also making his first start. DeCicco had five tackles (four solo), but missed as many as he made. One, on Bullock’s run led to a touchdown. Another, when he whiffed on Turner on a third-and-1 at the Pitt 33, led to a first down.
- Another sign that statistics don’t tell the entire story: Oderick Turner had five receptions for 42 yards, but had several costly drops. Not what you’d expect from a three-year starter who had a strong training camp.
- Speaking of statistics, Bowling Green’s Jahmal Brown was the leading tackler with 14 stops (11 solo), while McKillop had six (three solo). Cornerback Antonio Smith had 12 stops, including two tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
- Speaking of Stull, he finished a respectable 29 of 51 for 264 yards with a touchdown in his first full game. He also was sacked four times, lost that fumble and threw an interception in the end zone.
- Pitt is 10-2 in season openers, dating to 1997. The Panthers, however, are 2-2 in season openers under Wannstedt. They also lost to Notre Dame in 2005 and beat Virginia in ’06 and Eastern Michigan in ’07.
- Six Panthers made their first career starts: center Robb Houser, defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, Ransom, cornerback Jovani Chappel and DeCicco. John Malecki, who started at nose tackle against Virginia last year, made his first start at right guard.
- Conor Lee increased his streak of successful point-after tries to 77, hitting two against Bowling Green. Lee was 1-for-2 on field-goal attempts, making a 36-yarder and missing a 42-yarder.
- Although Pitt outgained Bowling Green, 393-254, in total offense, much of that can be attributed to Pitt’s 137-6 advantage in the first quarter. Over the final three quarters, Pitt had only a 256-248 edge.
The kind of talent that showed its capabilities by driving 71 yards in eight plays to score on its first possession, the kind that scored 14 points in the first 16 minutes despite punting twice inside the Bowling Green 40, the kind that should have scored more than 17 points total.
Especially considering its opponent.
“We felt like we had to get a lead on these guys,” Wannstedt said. “If you get a lead on these guys and they’ve got to throw it, then they can’t come in with their other quarterback package.”
That other quarterback package included direct snaps to receivers Freddie Barnes and Anthony Turner. The Falcons first unveiled it at the 8:16 mark of the first quarter, with a first-and-10 at their own 20 and trailing, 7-0. (It could have been worse for the Falcons, had Dave Brytus not booted a punt from the Bowling Green 34 into the end zone for a touchback). But Pitt responded, as Greg Romeus dropped Barnes for a 1-yard loss, Aaron Berry broke up one pass and a blitz caused another attempt to fall incomplete.
That’s when the trouble started.
Instead of taking advantage of a strong defensive effort, the Panthers blew their momentum when Berry lost a punt in the sun and let it bounce past him at the 32 and roll to the Pitt 2. That led to a Pitt drive that stalled when McCoy was dropped for a 3-yard loss on third-and-2 at the Bowling Green 32 and precipitated the second punt from the 35.
This one was downed at the Bowling Green 6, and the defense forced another three-and-out that led to an 11-play, 41-yard scoring drive for a 14-0 lead with 11:02 remaining in the second quarter.
That’s when Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon got creative, and the game got interesting. The Falcons unveiled an unbalanced set that led to pass plays of 11, 2, 3, 7 and 9 yards on a variety of screens and bubble screens. Then backup tailback Chris Bullock (starter Willie Geter was suspended) dodged safety Dom DeCicco and broke off a 36-yard run to the Pitt 5. Two plays later, Barnes threw a 5-yard pass to Jimmy Scheidler for a touchdown to cut it to 14-7 with 8:01 remaining in the half.
Bowling Green got its big break when McCoy fumbled at its 48 with 3:51 left. The Falcons rotated Barnes with starter Tyler Sheehan and completed passes of 18, 11 and 22 yards to the Pitt 1. Sheehan fumbled at the 1, but recovered. Then Bowling Green was called for a holding penalty on second down. Yet the Falcons completed an 8-yard pass, then scored on the following play to tie it at 14-14 with 1:31 remaining.
“In the second quarter, Bowling Green came out with a little more flash to their offense,” Scott McKillop said. “They went to a quick, hurry-up offense and caught us off-guard. We have to come up with big stops.”
Bowling Green overcomes its mistakes. Pitt fails to capitalize. Aren’t these the exact same types of mistakes that killed Pitt against Michigan State and Louisville last year? The Panthers failed to score from the 5 when Chris Vangas drew a holding penalty at Michigan State. The Panthers lost to Louisville when McCoy fumbled on the 1-yard line.
When Wannstedt let the clock tick away, then ran a LaRod Stephens-Howling draw to set up Conor Lee’s 36-yard field goal with three seconds left for a 17-14 lead, the Pitt student section was booing.
Can you blame them?
Bowling Green did just that while trailing by 14.
Pitt never trailed by more than 10.
“Half the passes were bubble screens and screens,” Wannstedt said. “They literally neutralized our defensive line, took those guys out of the game. When we did get them in third-and-long and get a little rush, we got pressure. We got there. But with not having a lead and the game being close, our defensive line was really not in a position to do what they can do.”
Wonder if any of Pitt’s future opponents will pick up on that?
That, of course, had something to do with Bowling Green trying to exploit and obvious weakness in Pitt’s defense by running plays his way.
“I think Austin Ransom being the leading tackler shows what kind of young man he is,” Wannstedt said. “When Shane Murray got hurt, we had not been pleased with where we were at with a couple of young linebackers. Austin is a smart guy and the right guy against this style of offense. He gave us a chance to cover players, since he could run a little quicker than some of our other linebackers. They attacked the weak side of our defense, where Austin was at, obviously, since he was having his first start.”
Even so, Pitt didn’t use redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields, which shows that the coaches either don’t trust him or aren’t making in-game adjustments. It will be interesting to see how that position battle develops.
Pitt fans booed loudly when Turner caught a 7-yard pass on a third-and-8 at the Pitt 24, which makes you wonder why the Panthers are running 7-yard routes when they need 8 for a first down.
Which brings us to cornerback Kenny Lewis, who played at Penn Hills High School. He had six tackles (five solo), a forced fumble and recovery, an interception and a pass breakup. He could have blown a 20-17 lead wide open with his 64-yard touchdown return if not for an “inadvertent whistle.”
Even though Bowling Green failed to score on that possession, the Falcons made up for it by forcing a turnover when Smith hit Stull, knocking the ball loose for linebacker Angelo Magnone to recover at Pitt’s 11. Blame Stull if you’d like for not holding on, but fullback Conredge Collins failed to pick up a 180-pound cornerback on a blitz. Bowling Green’s Sheehan scored two plays later on an 11-yard run, but only after fifth-year senior safety Eric Thatcher dropped a potential interception at the goal line.
Not the kind of play you’d expect from your senior leaders.
Bowling Green had a 10-point lead, but with 11:59 remaining, it was no time to panic. Yet Pitt passed on 21 of its 26 plays, with Stull completing 9 of them for 84 yards.
“You hate to have a young quarterback put in the situation he was in at the end of the game, having to run two-minute drills and make plays,” Wannstedt said. “That’s not the best environment for the first game out of the chute or your quarterback. I thought he played solid and did everything he could do. I thought his inexperience showed up, and there is not anything anyone can do about that. He needs the playing time.”