Call it a confidence-builder.
Pitt wanted to treat its 21-20 victory over Iowa Saturday at Heinz Field like it was a “statement” game. Or make us believe that Jamie Dixon’s motivational speech to the team on Thursday night had something to do with the victory, that the Panthers turned the corner in their program the way the men’s basketball team did in winning at Ohio State in December 2001.
Good story lines, for sure. But this game was about the Panthers – players and coaches alike – overcoming their fear of failure and trusting in each other. There were risks involved, from going for it on fourth down three times after failing to convert on third-and-short to the dazzling debut of Greg Cross to giving LeSean McCoy another shot to be the hero.
Don’t believe the Panthers have confidence issues?
“That was awesome, to get finally get that done, especially against a Big Ten team. Not too many people probably thought we could do that,” quarterback Bill Stull said. “I think it just goes to show our team will fight until the very end and, when it comes down to it, we’re going to come out on top.”
This comes from one of the offensive leaders on a team I predicted to finish 9-3 and in third place in the Big East at season’s start. Perhaps Pitt is playing the underdog card, but my reasons for being unimpressed with the one-point win over Iowa is that I’m not all that impressed with Iowa.
Pitt should win these games, and win bigger.
Fifth-year senior receiver Derek Kinder admits as much.
“We definitely have the potential to do that,” Kinder said. “A couple more touchdowns and we’re scoring 35 points. I definitely think we could have scored a couple more touchdowns. We left some plays on the field. I’m definitely looking forward to when we do finally get it all together.”
So does fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who knew the Panthers were better than their first two games showed.
“The expectations we had going into this season were pretty high and I think people kind of fell off with us and kind of second-guessed the expectations they gave for us,” McKillop said. “Even though we didn’t perform as well as we could for the first two games, we knew we were a better team.”
The Panthers are a better team than they’ve shown, but we’ll find out just how much in the coming weeks. Pitt visits Syracuse Saturday and though the Orange is one of the worst teams in the country, they also have given the Panthers fits. Remember last year’s score? Pitt won, 20-17, and Syracuse had the ball at Pitt’s 45 when Greg Romeus had a heroic sack.
The year before? Pitt won, 21-11, at the Carrier Dome.
This is the first in three consecutive road trips for Pitt, which is 4-11 on the road under coach Dave Wannstedt, including 3-7 against Big East opponents. The Panthers visit Syracuse Saturday, South Florida next Thursday and then have 16 days before playing Navy in Annapolis on Oct. 18.
“We’ll have to stay focused and not get distracted with the hotels, the plane and the fans,” Wannstedt said. “I think we have a pretty mature group and we’ve been here before, for the most part. It will be a challenge though for our team.”
We’ll soon find out what Pitt is all about.
* What I liked about the Panthers was how they responded to adversity against Iowa. LeSean McCoy cares the football carelessly – holding it away from his body in the hand closest to the defense – and loses a fumble at Pitt’s 19 on the first possession. What happens? Pitt holds the Hawkeyes to 11 yards in six plays and a 26-yard field goal.
The Panthers elect not to punt but go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Iowa 40. Not just that, but they throw a 6-yard pass to Conredge Collins, who was just dropped for a 1-yard loss on the previous play. It’s about believing in your players, even when they don’t come through.
* Which brings us to the debut of Cross, who Pitt’s coaches appeared afraid to play because of all the possibilities of something going wrong. He could draw a penalty, fumble the exchange, fumble the handoff, take a sack, throw an interception … or take a clean snap on third-and-6 and make four defenders miss on a 17-yard touchdown run for a 7-3 lead.
“Throughout the whole practice week and knowing how nervous he was to finally get out there, his first play scoring was definitely a good time for all of us,” Kinder said.
* Stull explained that he and Cross lined up together in the backfield on the play, with Stull reading the defense and making the decision whether it was appropriate for Cross to take the snap. That alleviates much of the pressure. Stull saw the defense playing soft and split wide – not that he was ever a potential target for a pass.
“It was more of, ‘If he’s throwing, don’t throw it to Bill.’ I was like, ‘Coach, I’ve got good hands,’” Stull said. “You just have to get down there and get in front of whoever is going to motion out with you and throw a block. You never know if that could be the win. … I saw him take off, heard the crowd roar and peeked over and saw him make four or five guys miss.”
* Stull added his own first career touchdown run on the next possession, after another fourth-down conversion. LaRod Stephens-Howling was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1 at the Iowa 30, then beat two defenders to the edge for a 13-yard gain the next play. Another sign of trust rewarded.
To everyone’s surprise, Stull’s TD was actually a designed draw.
“If it was more of a passive look, we were going to run it with a quarterback draw,” Stull said. “If it looked like they were going to pressure, we were going to throw the fade up. I made sure I thanked the linemen and Conredge Collins for a heck of a block.”
* The disturbing thing about Pitt’s offense is that it went six consecutive possessions without a first down and a seventh that ended in an interception. There was a lull of 28 minutes, 56 seconds between scores. That’s almost one half of the game where Pitt wasn’t able to cross midfield.
The Panthers blamed it on their inability to come up with big plays. Pitt’s longest plays were of 28 and 27 yards, both by McCoy on the game-winning drive early in the fourth quarter. Once again, Pitt turns to a player who made a mistake (fumble) or came up short, and he comes through.
“We need the big plays down the field, is what we need,” Wannstedt said. “A lot of the coverages that they were playing, they were rolling up to the weak side and keeping the safety deep. The routes you were going to get were the running backs in the flat or the intermediate routes.
Which explains why McCoy (two catches for 33 yards) and Stephens-Howling (two for 19) were tied with two others as Pitt’s leading receivers.
* The good news is Pitt’s offense is getting more balanced. …
The bad news is the Panthers are less productive.
Opponent Rushing Passing Total
Bowling Green 129 264 393
Buffalo 111 241 352
Iowa 130 129 259
“We’re making some strides,” Wannstedt said. “The (pass) protection was better. They blitzed a little bit in the second half, and we picked it up and handled it pretty good. We’ve just got to get the running game going. It can be frustrating. We’ve got to get that thing going where we’re consistently running the football and we get some big chunks. When we come out of the game like we did and you don’t have two or three big pass plays or big runs, it’s tough to score a lot of points.”
* Another interesting statistic: McKillop has already busted two facemasks in three games this season. That’s one he takes a perverse pride in like only a middle linebacker would, even if it came at the expense of a bloody nose, both of which caused him to miss a play.
“I can’t really breathe out of it right, but what are you going to do?” McKillop said afterward. “My facemask came down and busted my nose. It was gushing pretty good. Something’s wrong with it. It was already crooked, so it can’t get much worse. When I got to the sideline, I wanted to get some gauze and do the old wrestling trick: You put some gauze under your lip and you suck it. I don’t know if it works – it might be an old wives’ tale – but I think it works. I’d break my nose every game if we won.”
* Punter Dave Brytus, who transferred to Pitt from Purdue, averaged nearly 46 yards on eight punts and booted a 60-yarder and a 57-yarder that bounced out at the 1-yard line. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz must be glad that Brytus is done after this season. Brytus told me after the game that he is 2-1 against Iowa, and threw his only completion on a fake punt against the Hawkeyes as a sophomore.
* Some tidbits from Wannstedt’s news conference this afternoon:
* Jonathan Baldwin played 10 snaps out of 62 Saturday, and Wannstedt indicated the freshman is still having trouble adjusting to the physicality of the college game and the intricacies of playing receiver.
“The first time we tried to get him the ball, they jumped into coverage and jammed him and he wasn’t able to get open,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to try and get him a little more action.”
* Austin Ransom was listed as the starter at weak-side linebacker for the first time this season, even though Shane Murray has been cleared to play. Wannstedt said that they should have been listed as “co-starters” but said that Ransom “deserved to be the starter after the way he’s progressed.” The fifth-year senior is second to McKillop in tackles with 23 stops.
* Elijah Fields earned his first career start at strong safety and “did a good job,” Wannstedt said, but Dom DeCicco “stepped up and played real well last week, so he’ll probably split time with Elijah this week.”