Sometimes, you just need a clutch play.
It will go down in the statistics as a 10-yard catch, but Cedric McGee’s one-handed snare of a Bill Stull pass on third-and-4 at the Buffalo 44 was nothing short of a season-saver for the Pitt Panthers.
The ball was thrown behind McGee as he crossed the field from right to left, but he reached back with his left hand to snag it for the first down and more. It was the paramount play in Pitt’s 27-16 victory over Buffalo Saturday night before an announced crowd of 42,494 at Heinz Field.
LeSean McCoy took over from there, running for gains of 2, 18 and 12 yards to set up his 2-yard touchdown run for a 24-16 lead. Until then, the Panthers led the Bulls by a point, and an incomplete pass would likely have forced Pitt to punt and then pray that its defense could protect the lead.
“I got bailed out on that catch by Cedric,” Stull said. “It was one of those (insert Mr. Bill voice here) ‘oh no’ throws, but that just goes to show that we have some great playmakers.”
Someone in the press box remarked that it was the best catch by a Pitt receiver since another guy was wearing No. 1 for the Panthers. To be fair, it wasn’t as impressive as Joe DelSardo’s over-the-shoulder touchdown catch against Rutgers in 2004 or some of the ridiculous leaping grabs Jonathan Baldwin made in training camp last month.
But it was easily the most important, because of its timing.
And you wonder why Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt loves McGee? It’s not just because McGee is the nephew of Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, whom Wannstedt coached at the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys. But McGee represents the qualities Wannstedt looks for in his players – toughness, dependability, accountability.
So it had to be gratifying for both Wannstedt to have one of his favorite players save the season and for McGee to come through for the coach who has constantly supported him. McGee finished with three receptions for 28 yards, and the one-hander was his longest catch of the game.
And Pitt found someone to come through in the clutch.
“We needed to win, obviously, against Buffalo. They’re a good football team. I think we cleaned some things up. The biggest difference in our Buffalo game compared to our opener was that we didn’t turn the ball over four times.
“And that was the difference in the game.
I’d argue that the difference in the game was the clutch play by Stull and his receivers, as Pitt’s passing game accounted for 85 of the team’s 127 yards on the final two scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
Stull completed 6 of 10 passes, finding five different receivers and attempting throws to two others in a nice display of distribution. And McGee wasn’t alone in making clutch catches, as Stull completed passes three times to convert on third down on those scoring drives.
Junior T.J. Porter, who didn’t have any catches in the season-opening loss to Bowling Green, led the Panthers with six receptions for 57 yards. He had catches for gains of 6 yards on a second-and-12 and 20 yards on a third-and-6 to keep the drive alive before McGee made his spectacular one-hander.
Porter had three catches of 14 yards or more, and provided a spark in both the second and fourth quarters. Oderick Turner also made a nice catch-and-run for a 36-yard gain on a third-and-11 that set up Conor Lee’s 42-yard field goal.
“Billy was better this week,” Wannstedt said. “I think the protection was better. Our receivers played with more energy than they did last week. They were a little more precise. I think we were just crisper. Last week, we dropped a couple of balls early and I think we just weren’t very strong mentally.”
Wannstedt also credited his offensive coordinator and assistants for their play-calling, which was much improved since the Bowling Green loss. Consider that Stull connected with three receivers, two tight ends and missed on screens or swing passes to fullback Conredge Collins and tight end John Pelusi.
“Matt Cavanaugh and our offensive coaches tried to do some things to loosen the defense up,” Wannstedt said. “We tried to get the ball outside. We ran some screens and reverses. We threw the ball deep. We tried to mix it up as much as we could to keep some drives going.”
Unfortunately, if Pitt had done that a week earlier, it might be 2-0.
* As for Wannstedt’s insistence that turnovers played such a pivotal role in the wins and losses, here’s more evidence that not everyone shares his opinion. Pitt and Buffalo each had one turnover, so there was no advantage. Both came at the end of a half, on a desperation throw. The only difference was that Stull’s was meaningless while Drew Willy’s ended any chance of a comeback. Both teams fumbled but recovered the ball, so that was a push, too.
“I think what hurt us most was the penalties,” Buffalo coach Turner Gill said. “Pittsburgh is a very good team and they’re going to make some plays, but you can’t beat yourself. I thought our penalties came at some key moments where we really needed to hang in there. In a way, that’s somewhat satisfying, though. I know penalties are things that can be corrected. If you’re getting blown off the ball every play, then you have bigger concerns.”
Buffalo had six penalties for 60 yards, but three of them were 15-yard personal fouls and two of those proved costly. One actually served as the turning point of the game. Buffalo was leading, 6-0, late in the first quarter when Bulls safety Mike Newton drilled McCoy after Stull’s pass sailed off McCoy’s fingertips on a third-and-6 at the Pitt 37.
“The penalty on our defensive back in the first quarter is a new rule,” Gill said. “When a pass is thrown over a receiver’s head, you’re not allowed to hit him. As a coach, that’s very difficult to get your players to adapt to. You want them to stay aggressive in those situations and not stop to think about where the ball is going. We just caught a bad break at a key time.”
Buffalo caught another bad break when officials ruled Derek Kinder had his feet down inbounds on a 15-yard catch at the Bulls’ 18. After a 15-yard pass to tight end Nate Byham, McCoy scored on a 3-yard run for a 7-6 lead.
Buffalo right tackle Andrew West also made a monumental mistake by drawing a personal foul that negated a 16-yard run by James Starks. Instead of a first down at the Buffalo 41, the Bulls got the ball at their own 24 and watched their drive end when Pitt cornerback Aaron Berry sacked Willy for a 4-yard loss.
* Then again, sometimes you have differences of opinion where only that of the winning team’s matters. Here’s two takes on the line play:
Buffalo’s Gill: “Coming in, we thought their front four was the strength of their defense. I give a lot of credit to our offensive line. As the game progressed, I didn’t have to adjust any of my play calls to adapt to their defensive line, which I thought I might have to do.”
Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus: “The guys we were going against last week (Bowling Green) seemed a lot smaller than the guys we went against this week (Buffalo), but I thought we performed better this week. We’re not happy with some things we did, but we came out with the win and that’s most important.”
A sign that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the offensive line: Buffalo’s front five averaged 308 pounds, 23 pounds heavier than that of Bowling Green, yet Pitt’s defensive line claims it had more trouble with the Falcons.
* Pitt’s offensive line, by the way, averages 295 pounds, even if the players’ listed weights are wrong. Both tackles are listed at 300 pounds, which balances out, as Jason Pinkston is closer to 315 and Joe Thomas 285.
“I thought the offensive line played great this week, and that contributed to Bill Stull’s play,” Byham said. “Bill played great today and showed why he’s a starting quarterback.”
* Some signs that Pitt’s defense wasn’t all that impressive:
Buffalo’s 15-play, 73-yard scoring drive that spanned six minutes, 54 seconds and gave the Bulls a 6-0 lead with 1:59 remaining in the first quarter was its longest scoring drive since a 16-play, 80-yard drive against Miami last season. That’s Miami of Ohio, not Florida.
Buffalo tailback James Starks, whom Wannstedt said might be the best back the Panthers face this season, finished with 97 rushing yards on 20 carries (or 4 yards more than McCoy on the same number of attempts). It was the highest rushing total by Starks against a BCS opponent. His previous high was 66 yards at Auburn.
* Then again, Willy’s nation’s-best streak of 284 attempts without an interception was ended by Pitt free safety Eric Thatcher with 1:26 remaining in the game. It was the first pick in eight games for Willy, who hadn’t thrown an interception since September 2007, when he had one against Ball State.
Buffalo, by the way, was 4-3 in those eight games.
“The interception was tough,” Willy said. “I was just trying to make a play. I made some guys chasing me miss and then I kind of just threw it out there hoping our guy could grab it, which is something I don’t usually do. The streak was nice, but I’m glad I can put this behind me and just move forward with being a good quarterback.”
* The interception was the third of Thatcher’s career, and he was second on the Panthers and third overall with nine tackles (seven solo). But that doesn’t necessarily mean he had a good game, especially in trying to defend Buffalo receiver Brett Hamlin.
Thatcher missed a tackle on a third-and-9 pass to Hamlin that went for 14 yards to the Pitt 34. The Panthers lucked out when A.J. Principe’s 44-yard field-goal attempt was blocked.
Thatcher also was responsible for the blown coverage on Willy’s 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Hamlin that cut the score to 17-16 with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter. Not what you’d expect from a fifth-year senior and three-year starter.
“I kind of slipped inside my guy and got a little separation from him,” Hamlin explained. “When our quarterback started scrambling around, I think they kind of lost me and I managed to get going vertically. Drew made a great throw on the play and I was able to cradle it and let my momentum take me into the end zone.”
The good news is, Thatcher came through when it counted.
* Although Principe hit a line drive into the line on his 44-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter, Pitt defensive tackle Tommie Duhart was credited with a blocked field goal. It was the second of Duhart’s career, the first coming against Michigan State last year.
The Panthers actually have a pretty strong kick-blocking unit. Greg Romeus blocked an extra-point attempt against Bowling Green last week. And John Malecki who blocked a field goal at Louisville last year, has remained on the unit despite switching to offensive guard.
* Speaking of kicking, Conor Lee improved his streak of consecutive PATs to 80 by going 3-for-3 against Buffalo. He’s perfect on extra-point kicks for his career. Lee also converted field goals of 21 and 42 yards.
* Wannstedt made it clear afterward how much he was looking forward to the bye this week before Pitt plays host to Iowa on Sept. 20 at Heinz Field.
* “We got out of the game gaining a little bit of confidence,” Wannstedt said. “We got out of the game healthy. With as many young players as we have, we’re still a young football team, so we’ll use the bye to our advantage and really get back to work on fundamentals and against ourselves than Iowa, necessarily, and try to make some improvement.”
That’s a positive spin on another sorry statistic. Pitt is 0-5 coming off bye weeks under Wannstedt, with losses to Louisville (42-20) and West Virginia (45-13) in 2005, South Florida (22-12) in ’06 and Navy (48-45 in double overtime) and Rutgers (20-16) last year.
* Not that you want more bad news, but Pitt is 0-3 in Week 3 under Wannstedt, with losses to Nebraska in ’05 and Michigan State the past two years. The Panthers were coming off victories each of the past two years.
* On Monday’s Big East conference call, Wannstedt emphasized the difference in losing the season opener to Bowling Green and beating Buffalo a week later was how the Panthers approached the game.
“Week 1, we go in three points up at halftime (17-14) and everyone was looking at each other. Basically, the look was worth a thousand words: how can this game be close? Then we got out and press and turn the ball over in the second half,” Wannstedt said. “This week we go in only up by one (10-9), but there was a lot of energy in the locker room, a lot of excitement to get out there and play the second half and not really look at the scoreboard and worry about the score. I thought that was the biggest difference and biggest learning experience our team had.”
One similarity is that Pitt had the ball at the Bowling Green 20 but settled for a field goal and Buffalo had the ball at the Pitt 13 before settling for a field goal. Sometimes, nothing sparks a team like a defensive stand before the half.
* Wannstedt had another interesting observation in the differences between Weeks 1 and 2, to the effect that the loss was a blessing in disguise:
“I would say (Pitt won), without a doubt, because we got beat and we came to the realization that we’ll get beat again if we don’t go out there and play for 60 minutes,” Wannstedt said. “We haven’t proven we’re a good football team yet. We’re just trying to win a game. The interesting thing was, though, if we would have come out flat in the opener, you could really turn and say, ‘They were reading their press clippings.’
“But that was no the case. We came out and were hitting on all cylinders, but when we hit some adversity, we didn’t respond the right way. We didn’t sustain for 60 minutes. The second game, we did. That was the theme all week in practice. I put together a few gimmick things for them and did some things during the week to really try to illustrate and emphasize that it really is a 60-minute game, regardless of who we’re playing and what the score is.”
To this day, I don’t understand how a coach who so detests gimmicks on the field – such as the Wildcat offense – uses them so frequently off the field.
* There is a bright side to all of this, of course, and it’s that the Panthers are just scratching the surface in terms of what they can do. This has been my argument for why I stand by my preseason prediction of a 9-3 record. Pitt has too much talent, even if we are constantly reminded how young and inexperienced it is, not to make major improvements from the opener.
“I told my coaches, ‘The exciting thing about this is we’re probably about 60 or 70 percent, I really believe in my heart, of where we can be as a football team,” Wannstedt said. “That’s exciting. If we were sitting here and played as well as we did and never turned the ball over in two games and we were sitting here 1-1, you’d say, ‘Geez, is this is it?’ But our defense has such a long way to be able to grow. They have not seen LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, they’ve got huge days, I believe, in front of them and Billy Stull is going to get better every week.”
No argument here. It’s just a shame that they weren’t better in Week 1.
* The downside of the West Virginia victory for Wannstedt is that he now has become the nation’s expert on defending the read-option offense. Wannstedt was asked repeatedly on the Big East conference call about how the Panthers were able to stop it in the 13-9 upset, and how other teams can.
“We tackled good,” Wannstedt told one reporter. “I’m going to oversimplify it for you, but we tackled good. We missed two tackles for a total of 8 yards. That would be the biggest thing.”
Another reporter asked him if it really was that simple.
“I’m oversimplifying it, but I think it ultimately comes down to that,” Wannstedt said. “They’ve got great athletes. You have to have a sound scheme, but there’s a lot of different ways to defend people, whether you’re a 4-3 team or a 3-4 team. You can get it done both ways. It’s a matter of what you believe in and what’s sound. Then, obviously, you’ve got to execute it. In the past, we had guys in position to make tackles and make plays, and didn’t do it. Last year, it worked out that way.”
Then Wannstedt was asked if he could go into greater detail about the keys to stopping the read-option by someone previewing the Michigan-Notre Dame game. His answer was priceless:
“You know what? I’ll be honest with you. This would take a long time and I really couldn’t care less about that offense right now,” Wannstedt said. “I’m not interested in talking about Rich Rodriguez or his offense.”
* One question Wannstedt didn’t mind fielding was about what advice he would offer aspiring coaches. His answer should be printed out and taped to the mirror of anyone who has designs on a coaching career, no matter the level, and it might as well serve as words of wisdom to any job prospect.
“I would say you’ve got to be willing to work more hours than what you’re going to be paid for and you’ve got to be willing to move. If you’re willing to move around the country and you’re willing to put in a ton of hours to start off and not make very much money,” Wannstedt said. “If the joy of coaching is really your primary focus, then you’ve got a chance to be a coach. I don’t know any coach on any level that gets into it to make money. If you’re going into it to get to the pros, you’re probably way ahead of yourself. If you do a good job and opportunities present themselves, and you move up. … I never got into it saying I wanted to be an NFL coach. I got into it because I love coaching and working with the kids and things just happened. That’s just the best way to approach it. That way, you’re not re-evaluating every year or you’d get discouraged.”
Same goes for sports journalism.
* Wannstedt made it a point to compliment Pitt’s student section for livening up Heinz Field, and the playing of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” between the third and fourth quarters was apparently a big hit.
“Our student section was outstanding,” Wannstedt said. “I’ve been here four years and, by far, in the last couple of games, that’s the best they have been. And it makes a difference with our players.”
Which makes me wonder where the student section was a week earlier, when Pitt needed some support while trailing Bowling Green by 10 points with 11:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Does the student section really need a song to be played to stir up some interest in cheering for the home team?
Not to knock Pitt’s student section, because it did make a difference in the atmosphere and hasn’t had much to cheer about lately, but this congratulating students for actually cheering reminds me of the Chris Rock joke about fathers bragging about supporting their kids: That’s what you’re supposed to do.
It’s good to see Pitt’s student section show up for football games, let alone make some noise. But the loudest cheers prior to “Sweet Caroline” came when the East Carolina-West Virginia score was flashed on the Jumbotron. Until the Pitt students make football games at Heinz Field feel like basketball games at Petersen Events Center, let’s hold our applause.