This time, Pitt was in complete control.
The most promising sign of Pitt’s 26-21 victory over South Florida is that the Panthers once again played to the level of their competition. That’s a bad thing when you’re barely beating the likes of Buffalo, Iowa and Syracuse, but a good thing when you’re defeating nationally ranked opponents like Cincinnati, West Virginia and USF.
That the Panthers won – and won convincingly – overshadowed all the mistakes they made. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has harped on miscues such as turnovers, penalties and failure to convert on third downs in past losses. A good team overcomes its mistakes and capitalizes on those of its foe.
Consider that Pitt won despite a broken play for a 3-yard loss on its first play from scrimmage, allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown, letting USF quarterback Matt Grothe slip out of another sack for a 27-yard run, a Bill Stull-to-Dorin Dickerson touchdown pass nullified by LeSean McCoy’s false-start penalty, a lost fumble by McCoy on its first possession of the second quarter, a failed fake punt on fourth-and-4 at the Pitt 48 and USF’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘The encouraging thing – it’s a great win – but we’re going to play a couple games clean.’ When that happens, we can improve,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got a lot of room to get better.”
This is why we predicted Pitt to beat USF, despite predicting the Bulls to win the Big East. This is why we predicted Pitt to finish 9-3 this season and stuck to that, despite a season-opening home loss to Bowling Green.
The Panthers now have the talent to compete with anyone – or, at least, anyone on their schedule – and the only difference between winning and losing is whether they play to the level of their competition.
Wannstedt wouldn’t take the bait that this was the biggest win in the fourth year of his program, insisting that West Virginia meant more because it was in the 100th Backyard Brawl, that the Mountaineers are the Panthers’ fiercest rival. He didn’t say so, but also because the win over WVU was special for him personally. It was delivered the day his three-year contract extension was announced, against the nation’s No. 2 team and kept the Mountaineers out of the BCS national championship game.
“West Virginia is always going to be, to this point, the best win,” Wannstedt said. “But this is right there behind it since I’ve been to Pitt, without a doubt.”
Can’t argue with that sentiment, but the USF win was more important on other levels. It put the Panthers (4-1, 2-0) all alone atop the Big East Conference – especially coupled with Connecticut’s loss to North Carolina Saturday – and back into the national rankings at No. 24 in the Associated Press poll. In essence, it gave the program renewed credibility.
“A great win for our kids, our coaches, our program, to come down here on the road,” Wannstedt called it. “A lot of things happened in that game: the fake punt we don’t make, the turnover at midfield. There were a lot of opportunities for that thing to flip the other way. Our kids, I really can’t explain it, the character and the heart of these guys.”
The lesson is simple. College football players are going to mistakes. They also can overcome them. The character shows through when they are given a chance by coaches who believe in their players. Wannstedt and his staff certainly showed that faith Thursday night, which is why the Panthers are now in control of their destiny this season.
* For each failure, Pitt had an answer.
When Stull turned the wrong way on the opening handoff, it could have been an indication that he was overwhelmed by the big game and national spotlight. His first pass was tipped – and nearly intercepted – and his second was a shovel pass for an 8-yard gain on a third-and-13. Stull also took an 8-yard sack on second-and-5 at the 49, then answered with a dump pass to McCoy on third-and-13.
Stull’s second series saw him throw a pass low and behind intended target Derek Kinder on a third-and-3, forcing the Dave Brytus punt that was blocked by Quenton Washington and recovered and returned for a touchdown by Charlton Sinclair.
“The punt, we just didn’t block them. We turned somebody loose, and that could have been costly,” Wannstedt said. “If you get a blocked punt, you should lose the game, quite honestly.”
Just when things looked like they were going from bad to worse, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh called for an all-go route on a third-and-8 at the Pitt 47 and Stull responded by tossing a 52-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Baldwin. Stull finished 16 of 27 for 228 yards with no interceptions, and those numbers could have been more impressive if not for a pair of pass-interference penalties and a holding call in the end zone.
* Late in the first quarter, Grothe did it again. Two years after doing a cartwheel to escape a Gus Mustakas sack, Grothe spun free from the grasp of Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus, who had the USF quarterback by the tail of his jersey. The resulting run, with Grothe reversing field from far right side to the left sideline, went for 27 yards to the Pitt 34.
Instead of collapsing, Pitt’s defense toughened up. It got a break when Mike Ford’s 9-yard run on a third-and-1 was negated by a holding penalty. But it stopped Ford for no gain on the ensuing third-and-2, and redshirt freshman linebacker Greg Williams blocked Maikon Bonani’s 42-yard field-goal attempt to keep the Bulls from taking a 10-7 lead.
* Then, after taking a direct snap, McCoy fumbled.
(A quick aside: After the game, McCoy was holding a bottle of Gatorade while conducting interviews. He tried to tuck the bottle under his arm and dropped it. McCoy stopped in mid-sentence and shouted, “Another fumble!” Not that his handling of the ball isn’t a concern – it certainly is – but his ability to add levity to the situation shows why he recovers so quickly).
USF recovered it at the Pitt 35. In years past, this would have been an automatic seven points. The Panthers would have wondered what had happened to their luck and suffered a letdown. This time, they held the Bulls to 5 yards on three plays – with nice plays by cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Ricky Gary – before middle linebacker Scott McKillop stopped holder Grant Gregory short on a fake field goal on a fourth-and-5 from the 30.
* That play begat the 15-play, 72-yard scoring drive in which Pitt converted a fourth-and-1 that saw Stull run a play-action fake to McCoy and roll right to complete a 6-yard pass to fullback Conredge Collins. The Panthers then took advantage of every USF mishap: a holding penalty that negated Stull’s throw-away interception; a personal-foul call on Tyler McKenzie for a late hit on LaRod Stephens-Howling; and a pass interference penalty that gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 2.
With a first-and-goal at the 7, Pitt ran seven plays. That would have spelled doom in previous years – think: Michigan State last fall – but the Panthers even overcame their own mistake when McCoy drew a false start flag that nullified Stull’s 1-yard scoring pass to Dickerson. On the following play, McCoy slipped a behind-the-line tackle and ran 6 yards for a touchdown and 14-7 lead with 4:59 remaining in the first half.
* The Panthers stretched that lead to 17-7 on Conor Lee’s 35-yard field goal with 22 seconds left in the first half before USF used an 11-play, 76-yard drive to cut it to 17-14 with 9:27 left in the third quarter on Grothe’s 1-yard run.
The fake punt, then, could have been disastrous, especially considering USF had outscored opponents, 38-7, in the third quarter this season. Regardless, it was a bold call on a fourth-and-4 at the Pitt 48. Seeing that USF was coming after Brytus – drawing one roughing-the-kicker penalty and blocking another punt – calling for the fake made sense.
It was perfectly designed but poorly executed.
Brytus had completed a pass on a fake punt while at Purdue three years ago against Iowa, so this wasn’t his first attempt. But his throw fell short of his intended target, Collins, who made a valiant effort to catch it. The completion, however, was at the line of scrimmage and 4 yards shy of the first-down marker. Plus, Pitt drew an illegal procedure penalty, to boot.
That could have been just the kind of gaffe USF needed to take control. Instead, Benjamin Williams ran for 5 yards, Berry broke up a pass intended for Carlton Mitchell and McKillop sacked Grothe for a 10-yard loss to force a punt.
The next series could have been disastrous, as well.
McCoy dashed for 27 yards – his third such carry in three games – and drew a late-hit penalty for another 15 yards to the USF 44. Two plays later, however, Stull was hit by end Jarrett Buie and fumbled, which was recovered by linebacker Kion Wilson at the Pitt 46.
The defense hung tough again, this time with Austin Ransom and Jabaal Sheard stopping Mo Plancher for a 2-yard loss and Rashaad Duncan sacking Grothe for an 8-yard loss. The Bulls, despite twice taking over inside Pitt territory in the third quarter, were forced to punt again.
“Every time we turned it over,” Wannstedt said, “someone stepped it up on defense.”
* Lee’s 31-yard field goal with 9:40 remaining gave the Panthers a 20-14 lead, but USF answered with Mike Ford running seven times for 53 yards on a nine-play, 86-yard drive capped by Grothe’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester for a 21-20 lead with 5:57 remaining.
Pitt’s defense fails to protect the lead, and what does the offense do? It answers with a three-play, 60-yard scoring drive: A 38-yard pass from Stull to Oderick Turner; a 19-yard run by McCoy; and a 3-yard scoring run by McCoy. Still, Stull fumbled and the two-point attempt failed, which left the Panthers with a precarious five-point lead with 4:43 to play.
Pitt sacked Grothe again, forcing an intentional grounding and a punt. McCoy picked up a pivotal first down by running for 12 yards on a third-and-9. USF got the ball back with 22 seconds left at its own 30, but Grothe’s desperation heave fell short as time expired.
“I think it sends a message that the kids are focused,” Wannstedt said. “We talk a lot about not getting too high or too low. That was the thing at halftime. There was a lot of excitement but we were talking about keeping their feet on the ground. It’s a neat group of kids, it really is, and I think they’re starting to develop a little something about themselves right now from a confidence standpoint.”
* Random observations:
* Duncan was dominant at times, and deserves some attention for his outstanding play. He finished with two tackles and an 8-yard sack, but was the catalyst on some very big plays. Although he didn’t get credit for it on the statistics sheet, Duncan was involved in a first-quarter sack for a 9-yard loss and the fourth-quarter sack where Grothe drew the intentional grounding penalty.
* Likewise, Dom DeCicco made some big-time plays. His confidence appeared shaken early this season, when he struggled against Bowling Green and eventually gave way to Elijah Fields as the starting strong safety. DeCicco, however, earned his job back and had three tackles and an interception that ended Grothe’s streak without a pick at 110 attempts.
Perhaps most important was his touchdown-saving tackle on the kickoff following Pitt’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Dontavia Bogan returned it 33 yards and saw a crease before DeCicco blindsided him at the USF 35. DeCicco also was involved in that sack on Grothe with Duncan and McKillop that forced the intentional grounding penalty.
* The offensive line is coming together nicely. It took five games for the Panthers drew their first holding penalty – senior left guard C.J. Davis was the offender – and the front five’s blocking cleared the way for 146 rushing yards against the best run defense in the Big East.
“They’re starting to get stronger as the game goes on. That’s the thing with the great teams, the offensive line gets better as the game progresses,” McCoy said. “Every game, they’re getting better. That’s the best thing. You can actually tell the difference. We’re clicking. We know what plays work. … the way the offensive line is playing lately, it’s all coming together.”
Added Stull: “I don’t think our guys up front get enough credit. Them hogs up front, I’m walking out with no limp, no nothing. Our running backs aren’t banged up after this game. I tell them every game, ‘It starts with you up front.’ They set the tone from the first play, throughout the game until the last play … When it came down to it, we wanted it more.”
* This game tested Wannstedt’s theory that you can’t win if you lose the battle in turnovers. The Panthers lost two fumbles to USF’s one interception. And still won. It also doesn’t lend credence to his third-down concerns. Pitt converted 4 of 13 on third down. And still won.
What Pitt should be concentrating on is the areas where it dominated. The Panthers outgained the Bulls, 374-245. They had 73 plays to USF’s 56, and dominated time-of-possession, with a margin of plus-13:48. They had five penalties for 26 yards to USF’s 11 for 84. Pitt won convincingly.
Maybe it’s time to focus not on what Pitt does wrong, but what the Panthers are doing right. This is a talented team, one that is playing to win, no matter who it is playing. Whether Wannstedt wants it that way or not, Pitt is back in the national spotlight and in control of its own destiny.
Now, it’s up to the Panthers to deliver.