After watching the debacle that was Rutgers 54, Pitt 34, I have only one question: If the Scarlet Knights were the best two-win team in the country, what does that make the Panthers?
The nation’s worst five-win team?
We’ll see about that this weekend, because Pitt (5-2) has competition for that crown in its next opponent, Notre Dame (5-2). But if the Panthers are going to let a pedestrian player like Mike Teel throw for 361 yards and six touchdowns, what is a primo prospect like Jimmy Clausen going to do?
A day later, I’m still stunned that such a sorry offense displayed such a dangerous downfield passing game. I predicted Pitt to win by 18 points. Instead, the Panthers lost by 20. So much for prognostications.
At least I can say that I saw this game coming down to a matchup of Pitt’s cornerbacks against Rutgers’ receivers. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett believed the Scarlet Knights were going to rely on the run, and they never adjusted to the aerial attack.
Consider this: Teel had completed 9 of 12 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns only 19 minutes, 26 seconds into the game. Only one of those completions was for less than 10 yards, and that was the 7-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt. The others went for gains of 16, 60*, 79*, 14, 17, 15, 26 and 26* yards, with the asterisks showing the scoring plays.
* This was such an up-tempo, high-scoring game that it’s not fair to say one play determined the outcome. But three really hurt the Panthers:
The fake field goal
The setup:With the game tied at 7-7, cornerback Aaron Berry picked off a Teel pass at the Rutgers 47.
Never mind that LeSean McCoy scored a 33-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game. This was Pitt’s third series so, as scripted, LaRod Stephens-Howling replaced McCoy and the Panthers picked up 26 yards on five plays and had a fourth-and-2 at the Rutgers 21.
The call:Instead of inserting All-America candidate McCoy and going for it, Wannstedt sent the field-goal unit onto the field. Instead of allowing All-America candidate Conor Lee to kick a 38-yarder, the Panthers called for holder Andrew Janocko, a walk-on lefty quarterback, to fake it and roll left and throw to tight end Dorin Dickerson.
The result:Instead of picking up a pivotal first down or scoring three points to take a 10-7 lead, the ball changed possession. Rutgers scored on the ensuing play, as Teel tossed a 79-yard touchdown pass to Britt for a 14-7 lead with 6:09 remaining in the first quarter.
Rutgers never trailed again.
The fumbled punt
The setup:McCoy scored his career-best fourth touchdown on a 1-yard run to cap a nine-play, 59-yard drive and cut Pitt’s deficit to 34-31 with 8:58 remaining in the third quarter. The Panthers then sacked Teel for a 7-yard loss to the Rutgers 10 and forced a three-and-out.
The play:A 54-yard punt was fielded by Berry at the Pitt 35, but Rutgers defensive back Zaire Kitchen forced a fumble that was recovered by Colin McEvoy at the Panthers’ 36.
The result:Rutgers once again scored on the ensuing play, as Teel connected with Tim Brown for a 36-yard touchdown pass for a 41-31 lead with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Pitt never got any closer.
The setup: Stull suffered a stinger and concussion with 5:59 remaining and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher, a crushing blow to Pitt’s comeback chances. Pat Bostick replaced Stull on the next series and completed a third-and-1 pass from Pitt’s 40 to tight end Nate Byham for a 34-yard gain to the Rutgers 26.
The play:With another third-and-1, this time at the Rutgers 17, Pitt called for Bostick to roll left and throw a pass across his body. He was hit by defensive tackle Pete Tverdov and the pass sailed into the hands of linebacker Kevin Malast, who returned it 74 yards before being knocked out of bounds by McCoy at the Pitt 8.
The result:On the ensuing play, Rutgers tailback Kordell Young ran for a touchdown to give the Scarlet Knights a 48-31 lead with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
For all intents and purposes, game over.
* That’s three turnovers followed by three touchdowns on the ensuing play, if you’re counting at home. In other words, a total collapse by Pitt’s defense, which was supposed to be the Panthers’ strong suit.
“It’s a little hurtful that they were getting big plays,” middle linebacker Scott McKillop said, “but on the sideline, we didn’t have anybody doubting the secondary or d-line. There was no jawing between anybody. I think that’s a positive thing to come out of (Saturday’s) game: We stuck together as a team.”
That’s reassuring, but I would have rather seen McKillop rip somebody’s head off for costing Pitt a shot at the Big East title.
McKillop, who led the Panthers with six tackles, is a stand-up guy who won’t sell out his teammates. He’s the epitome of a leader, and it’s no wonder Pitt’s defense had performed well with him in the middle.
“We didn’t come out and play as a defense, and I’ll take the blame for that,” McKillop said. “We’ve got to practice better. We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to play better. As a leader, you’ve got to step up and make plays.”
* Berry had the worst day of his college career.
He should be cured of any overconfidence in his cover skills after giving up a couple of long pass plays and being schooled by Britt, who finished with five catches for 143 yards and a career-best three touchdowns. The first of those came after Berry’s interception, and he tried for another despite a perfectly placed pass by Teel on a post pattern in double coverage.
“I think if I laid out for it, I could have intercepted it,” Berry said. “I thought I was going to intercept it. At the last second, the ball started drifting on me. He’s a big-time player. He’s going to make plays like that.
“We knew they were going to take shots. We just didn’t make plays. I misjudged one. I should have made the play. I was right there. That’s on me. I let the team down on that one.”
Berry’s days as a punt return man might be over, if not for his fumble then certainly for what he did on the next one. With Pitt trailing by 10, Rutgers punted from its own 17. Berry signaled for a fair catch with the ball in the air, from his own 30 and no defender within 10 yards.
Instead of giving Pitt good field position, Berry gave Rutgers a 52-yard punt. Six plays later, Bostick threw the pick.
But Wannstedt despises turnovers, and the fumbled punt might have been enough for him to finally remove Berry from those duties after he has averaged only 5.4 yards on 14 returns this season.
“He just stripped it out,” Berry said. “I thought I had it tight. We had a chance to get back in the game, and I felt I messed our momentum up. I didn’t protect the ball. He definitely made a good play. I was on my way down and he just stripped it out. I’ve got to hold onto the ball.”
Berry acknowledged his rough day.
“I’ve got to make plays out there. I didn’t make too many plays to help my team out. It was tough but every corner goes through it, every big player goes through it. I just got to get over the hump, practice hard all week and come back strong.”
* That decision to burn Bostick’s redshirt doesn’t look so short-sighted after all, what with Stull being carted off the field on a stretcher.
“It was a tough position, when you don’t get all the reps all week,” Bostick said. “I had to be ready to go. It has a funny way of working out that way.”
Surprisingly enough, Stull didn’t sustain any serious injuries. Don’t be shocked if he’s back for the Notre Dame game this weekend.
If not, look for Bostick to start against the Fighting Irish.
“I’m going in preparing as if I’m going to start this week,” Bostick said. “If anything else happens, I’ll just continue to prepare. The circumstances don’t really matter. It’s just the fact that I’ve got to prepare like I’m going to play.”
* The good news for Stull was tempered by the bad news that Pitt has lost starting center Robb Houser for the season to a broken left ankle. Houser is not a candidate for a redshirt this season, so the injury essentially cost the junior-college transfer a quarter of his Division I-A career.
Pitt moved senior left guard C.J. Davis to center – a move I called for two years ago, as Davis projects at the position on the next level – and replaced Davis with fifth-year senior Dom Williams.
“C.J. is obviously a very experienced player,” Bostick said. “He’s been here for four years’ worth of games. He knows this offense as well as anybody, so that could be a good thing, with his experience. It’s just a matter of plugging guys in where we need to, getting this ship back in the right direction.”
Don’t know if Williams is the long-term answer at left guard, though. He’s had an up-and-down career at Pitt. He started against Notre Dame and Ohio as a redshirt freshman in 2005 before giving way to Davis, but hasn’t started since.
If Williams is more of a short-term solution, the Panthers actually have plenty of possibilities. Writing about Davis last week caused me to consider who would replace him next season. Pitt could flip right guard John Malecki to the left side and insert redshirt freshman Chris Jacobson. It could move Malecki and slide right tackle Joe Thomas back to right guard – where he started 14 games the past two seasons – and start freshman Lucas Nix.
But Pitt’s offense has run rather smoothly with Houser at center and Stull at quarterback. We’ll see how their respective injuries – and their substitutions – affect the Panthers in the penalty box.
* Stull had a career day, and it was evident that he’s become more comfortable throwing the ball to backups Porter and Jonathan Baldwin, who each have a 100-yard game to their credit this season. They might not move into the starting lineup, but they should start splitting reps more evenly with Derek Kinder, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner.
It’s only a matter of time before Pitt’s coaching staff realizes what Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said Saturday, that Baldwin “already is a tremendous player, and he’s just going to get better.”
“It’s a scary thing for an opposing coach,” Schiano said. “Their whole receiving corps is build around great playmakers, so you know when they’re in the zone you’re going to have to score a lot of points to beat them.”
Which, Rutgers showed so capably, is certainly possible.
* Last, but not least, a special SHAT-out to the South Hills Association of Tailgaters for their standing invite. It is one of the most well-organized pre-game parties outside Heinz Field, and Big Lar (Larry Thompson) and his son, Black Cloud (Pat Thompson), are to be commended for this week’s delicious menu of strip steak and shrimp-on-skewers.
And it’s worth mentioning that Trib co-horts Garrett Conti, Rob Gregory and Frank Verdecchia – all of whom helped move me into my house five years ago – are SHAT members who regularly send me save-the-date reminders but also call me out if I’m not on time for the tailgate.
Some day, I’ll have to invite them back to my house. Promise