Depending on your perspective, there were many ways to view Pitt’s 34-24 victory over Syracuse Saturday. Some saw it as a disappointment that the Panthers, 14-point favorites over the Orange, had to rally from an 11-point second-half deficit. Others saw that as an inspiring sign, that Pitt had a comeback victory on the road in an important Big East game.
“You’ve got to look at it in a positive way, that we were down and fought back into it and got the win,” insisted tailback LeSean McCoy. “We dug deep. It was the way we responded.”
I’ll agree with Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who said: “Any time you win on the road, it’s a good win.” Even if the Panthers didn’t earn any style points or distinguish themselves from the hapless Orange.
Make no mistake, Syracuse is a bad team.
Even if Pitt left tackle Jason Pinkston disagrees.
“Everyone says Syracuse is a bad team,” Pinkston said. “They are not a bad team. They’re just like us. They’ve had a couple slumps where they could have come out with a win but didn’t.”
Simply put, that’s the sign of a bad team.
But Pitt is learning how to win, even if it’s an ugly win. There are no asterisks in the standings for style points, by the way. Pitt didn’t cover the spread, but it hasn’t done so in any games this season.
What I saw was a chess match between two former NFL defensive coordinators now on the hot seat, one (Syracuse’s Greg Robinson) much more so than the other (Pitt’s Wannstedt).
That’s why my game story focused on Wannstedt’s willingness to go for it on fourth-and-inches at the Pitt 32 late in the third quarter and Robinson’s resistance to going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 38 in the first.
It’s not that those were the plays of the game, even though Syracuse punted and Pitt quarterback Bill Stull picked up a first down. It’s that one coach showed faith in his team, while the other displayed none. Robinson said going for it would have been a “desperate” move, considering the Orange had an 11-point lead and pinned the Panthers at their own 13.
If that’s the case, what do you call a man with an 8-32 record?
It was almost identical to Wannstedt failing to go for it on fourth down twice in Bowling Green territory in the season opener, from the 34 and 35. It’s fair to say Wannstedt learned his lesson in that 26-16 loss, even though he continues to blame the defeat on Pitt’s problems with turnovers.
In fact, Wannstedt credited a turnover for the Panthers’ victory, pointing to the defensive-end duo of Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard teaming to sack Syracuse quarterback Cameron Dantley and force a fourth-quarter fumble that was recovered at the 34 with Pitt leading, 27-24, and 8:05 left.
“That made the difference, really,” Wannstedt said. “That was the game-winning play.”
It could be argued that any number of plays were just as decisive, although the turnover led to a LaRod Stephens-Howling touchdown that gave the Panthers a double-digit lead with only 3:22 remaining.
I’ll make an argument for another play, that was just as important: On third-and-9 at the Syracuse 24, Stull threw a bubble screen to 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who slipped one defender and stretched it into an 8-yard gain. That pass play, designed as a mere dump-off that typically would set up a punt, led to the fourth-and-inches sneak.
It was Baldwin’s first catch of the season, and proof that he can do special things in the pass game when used properly. Baldwin followed that by catching a game-tying, two-point conversion “like a loaf of bread,” as Wannstedt would later say, in a play that “was too easy.”
“We’ve got to get him the ball more. I’m going to say that,” said Wannstedt, who has grudgingly answered weekly questions about why Baldwin hasn’t been more involved in the offense. “It’s tough. The problem with playing young kids, as head coach my responsibility is to this team. … There’s a fine line between developing players and winning games.”
Sometimes, as we found out, they go hand in hand.
* The obvious feel-good story was the production of tailbacks LeSean McCoy (28 carries for 149 yards) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (13 carries for 71 yards), as Pitt rushed for a season-high 241 yards on 46 attempts.
Although one e-mailer wondered why Stephens-Howling isn’t starting ahead of McCoy, the Syracuse game is probably the best proof that McCoy is more dangerous when Stephens-Howling can give him a spell than vice versa. McCoy might be a slow starter, but he gets stronger as the game goes on. Just when the defense thinks it’s getting a break, Stephens-Howling enters and hits the holes quicker and with better breakaway ability.
Since the start of the 2007 season, Pitt has only rushed for 200-plus yards four times. The Panthers are 2-2 in those games, with losses to Michigan State and Navy and victories over Cincinnati and Syracuse. It’s no coincidence that Pitt won the games when McCoy didn’t have to carry the load by himself, as Stephens-Howling didn’t play against the Spartans and had only 15 yards on three carries against the Midshipmen but combined for 171 yards in the games against Cincinnati and Syracuse.
“For us to win any games, we’ve got to run the ball,” Wannstedt said, “or it won’t happen.”
* The presence of Stephens-Howling can only help McCoy’s maturity on and off the field. Stephens-Howling has gracefully handled his demotion, and has become effective in several special-teams roles. He had tackles on both punt and kickoff returns, the latter a potential touchdown-saver, and had a 22-yard kickoff return against Syracuse.
Stephens-Howling also took the high road when jokingly asked if he would have run for a touchdown or fallen down when surrounded by defenders after a 34-yard run the way McCoy did. LaRod said that they had agreed not to talk about that play until the following day in film study, when McCoy would be at the mercy of his backfield coach and mates.
* It was a breakthrough game for McCoy, in multiple ways. For one, it was his first 100-yard game of the season, after getting seven last year. In addition, the 34-yard run was his longest of the season, following a 27-yard touchdown against Iowa a week earlier.
Afterward, it seemed like a burden had been lifted off his shoulders.
“It definitely felt good, especially for me just to get over 100,” McCoy said. “For our offense to pound the ball just takes a lot of guts, to come out there with one receiver, the big boys up front and one tight end. They know what you’re going to do. That’s just mentally and physically tough for an offense to go out there and do that.”
* Which brings us to the offensive line.
“It was our o-line against their d-line. Our o-line was pushing them downfield the whole time,” Stephens-Howling said. “We were doing simple plays. We didn’t really change much up. We just kept running it down their throat. Our o-line was just blasting them. It didn’t matter which running back was in there. We were gaining positive yards each time.”
McCoy and Stephens-Howling had only 4 negative yards between them in what was easily the line’s best performance of the season, even if Syracuse had the worst run defense in the Big East. (USF has the best). But Pitt proved it could control the line of scrimmage and dictate the pace of the game while changing from pass-oriented to run-oriented in midstream.
“We wanted to be on the field,” Pinkston said. “We have an All-American back and LaRod, who is running downhill. We figured if we can keep running hard and blocking, we can win a game for us.
“We’re coming together. (Offensive line) Coach (Tony) Wise always says, ‘You’ve got to improve on something every game.’ We’ve got to keep getting better. We can’t take steps back just because we’re young. We don’t have a lot of people with too many reps, just C.J. (Davis) and Joe Thomas. We have to keep taking steps forward and don’t look back.”
That Pitt is 7-of-8 on fourth-down calls this season is a good sign.
“He’s putting it in our hands and letting us know he trusts us,” Pinkston said. “That makes everyone feel good when the coach says, ‘You know what? The offensive line, I trust them. They can do it. Go ahead and go for it.’ That gives us more confidence, to know that we have four downs on this drive.”
That confidence carries over to the running backs.
“It’s a lot of faith, just knowing that the offensive line is going to get it done,” McCoy said. “Me and LaRod go in and make guys miss and fight for extra yards, but the game – point-blank – was our offensive line went in there and did their job, blowing guys off the ball. You know in college football, the offense is going to run the same plays. For an offensive line to do that and be successful, it says a lot about them.”
* Says a lot about Wannstedt that, in the waning moments of the game, he put Syracuse native Kevin Collier in at tailback and allowed him to carry it twice. Collier, who has dropped off Pitt’s depth chart after a wrist injury sidelined him last season, likely had his entire family in attendance because his younger brother, Averin, is a freshman tailback for the Orange.
Kevin Collier produced 23 yards in those two carries.
* Speaking of classy moves, it was well-deserving of the Big East to honor Conor Lee as its special teams player of the week. He scored 14 points and converted four field goals, including three of 40 yards or longer, that kept the Panthers in the game.
Lee was prepared to make another, if necessary.
“It was such a rollercoaster ride,” Lee said. “I thought I was going to hit a game-winner with a second left.”
Save that for Thursday at USF.