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No time for a letdown

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Instead of basking in the glow of their victory at the Golden Dome, Pitt players spent the week answering questions about why home is where the heartbreak is and how to avoid another stunning setback.

They only have themselves to blame, after losing twice this season at Heinz Field when nationally ranked against both Bowling Green (4-5) and Rutgers (3-5) this season. Now, they get another chance when Louisville (5-3, 1-2) visits Saturday.

“I think the best thing about this game is it’s a conference game,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “We know the importance of getting a conference win. They do some things on offense and defense that were similar to what Notre Dame did.”

If this was a season about lost opportunities – like the one we endured in 2007 – then we would be talking about how the Panthers should be 7-1 and ranked in the top 15 or 8-0 and ranked in the top 10. We would be talking about LeSean McCoy as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate instead of a dark horse.

Instead, Pitt is 6-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big East and ranked No. 25 nationally. The Panthers are in the race for the conference championship – the Cincinnati-West Virginia game should help clear up the picture – and in control of their own fate. They are bowl eligible, needing one victory for their first bowl berth under Wannstedt.

Which makes beating Louisville, which owns seven consecutive victories over Pitt, all that more important. The Cardinals are a riddle: They beat South Florida one week, lose at Syracuse the next. Louisville still has a high-powered attack, ranking third in the Big East in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense.

“If you look at the statistics, they’re playing as good of football as anybody in our conference,” Wannstedt said. “I know they had a tough one last week, but they have five wins. We’ve had difficulty with them the last couple years. It’s a conference game, so we have to go out and play a lot better than we’ve played the last couple of weeks to win this game.”

The concerns are with the Cardinals’ defense. They are allowing 23.9 points (sixth), 224.9 passing yards (eighth) and 316.5 total yards (fourth) this season. Then again, Pitt isn’t far behind. The Panthers are allowing 27.0 points (seventh), 197.6 passing yards (fourth) and 318.8 total yards (fifth).

Numbers also are misleading. Louisville ranks second against the run, allowing only 91.6 yards, but gave up 207 to Syracuse last week. The Panthers are fifth in the conference in rushing offense, at 164.6 yards, but LeSean McCoy is running like the best back in the country right now.

“Nobody has really lined up and tried to run the football at us, to power up and run it down our throat,” Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said earlier this week. “UConn was the only team that tried to do that. Kansas State, I think they ran it 10 or 11 times with the tailback. South Florida ran it 12 times with the tailback. Nobody had really lined up and tried to do that, to try and pound us. I didn’t think we tackled as well as we needed to, obviously. A function of that is Brinkley’s a good back and he breaks tackles, but we’ve got to get that guy on the ground – I don’t care who’s carrying it.”

If there is one other area Louisville appears susceptible, it’s against the pass. The reasons teams aren’t running is because they’re able to throw. That works against Pitt, where Bill Stull is returning from a concussion and Pat Bostick is coming off a three-interception game.

Kragthorpe knows that Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will play to Pitt’s strengths, which the Louisville coach expects to be running with tailbacks McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, no matter who’s taking the snaps from center.

“We know we’re going to see very similar offensive schemes, whether Pat’s in there or Stull’s in there at quarterback,” Kragthorpe said. “They’re going to line up and pound the ball at us with both of their tailbacks – the two-headed monster – and we’ve got to find a way to be able to defend that.”

It says here that stopping the “two-headed monster” is Louisville’s only hope.

* Stull shared his story after only the second concussion of his career, and said he was “just scared out of my mind.”

With good reason.

Pitt has a daily reminder walking around its practice facility and sidelines in a neck brace, so the Panthers are well aware how quickly football can be taken away. When Stull came to, he immediately wondered if he was the next Adam Gunn

Stull said he was “still thinking that I could finish this game” until he saw his father, Bill Sr., on the field. Then, he became “emotional, upset, ticked off” all at once.

Stull saw a replay of the collision with McCoy on television from his room at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital that night. “I was told the back of his heel hit the back of my head,” Stull said. “Honestly, it felt like someone said, ‘Bill, keep your head right there and still and I’m going to kick you as hard as I can.’”

Stull said the first Pitt player to visit him in the hospital was none other than Pat Bostick, his backup. Shows you what kind of kid Bostick is.

“We were a little bit scared that he wasn’t moving,” Bostick said after the Rutgers loss. “It sombers things a little bit, but we tried to rally around the fact that we were going to win one for Bill. It didn’t work out that way, though.”

Stull was touched by the response of his teammates.

“I feel great that coach has confidence in me, that my teammates have confidence. …. Linemen calling and waking me up, how are you doing? Not even, are you playing? That means a lot to me, to know that my teammates care.”

What really upset Stull was not being able to play against Notre Dame. It’s every kid’s dream to play in South Bend, Ind., especially for a quarterback. Stull played against Irish safety Kyle McCarthy in pee-wee football, and his father still has videos of Stull throwing a touchdown against McCarthy’s team.

But Stull was suffering from blurred vision, headaches and nausea most of the week, and knew as soon as he tried to take three- and five-step drops in practice that something was wrong. After taking a redshirt last season with a thumb injury, watching was hard.

“I knew it wasn’t happening. I didn’t talk to anybody the rest of practice,” Stull said. “It brought back the memory of last year, not being able to play.”

Normally, Wannstedt said, a player has until Friday to pass concussion tests. But it’s different for a quarterback, because of how much information needs to be processed on the practice field to prepare for the upcoming defense he will face.

“We were optimistic and knew that it would get better as time went on,” Wannstedt said. “If you’re a defensive lineman and you’ve been a starter and you feel better on Friday, then you probably can line up and play 15-20 plays, but not at quarterback. They pressured about 60-65 percent of the time, so it was not an easy defense to diagnose. You had to spend time in it and get practice in it to go out and attack it.”

Safe to say, Stull can’t wait to play again.

But, more than anything, he’s thankful to be healthy.

“I’m actually upset with myself, being out for a week,” Stull said. “I just want to play. Anything I can do to play. I’m not going to keep that type of stuff in my head. In the long run, it was good that I didn’t play last week, and risk another injury.”

* Speaking of quarterbacks, the seldom-seen Greg Cross has been a mystery to many.

Wannstedt and Cavanaugh addressed Cross’ status this week, noting that it’s not their intention to use him in the Wildcat package because it would take the ball out of McCoy’s hands and that Cross wasn’t ready to unseat Stull as the starter.

“Greg’s a great kid and he brings something different to the table,” Wannstedt said. “The way LeSean has come on, we had hoped he was going to be this much of a dominant player but the way he’s come on it really bothers me when he’s not getting the football when he has opportunities to get the football.”

Can’t blame Pitt coaches there. They get criticized enough as it is for not giving the ball to McCoy more, even though he’s averaging 26.5 touches per game this season. And giving it to McCoy out of the Wildcat gives him four cuts to make instead of one.

“That’s taken away from it a little bit,” Wannstedt said, “but the intent, when we brought Greg in, we weren’t sure if Billy was going to come back off his thumb (injury), we weren’t sure if Pat would progress or where he and Kevan (Smith) would be, and we weren’t counting on a freshman (Tino Sunseri).

“If Billy wasn’t here, we would be running with Greg Cross a lot more than as a quarterback with a bit more of the option game. It’s a different offense.”

All of that is understandable. What doesn’t make sense is why Pitt coaches, with Stull out and Bostick struggling, insert Smith after a turnover that gives the Panthers a first-and-10 at the Notre Dame 27 last week. Why not use Cross there?

And what’s the harm in using a package that puts Cross, McCoy, Stephens-Howling, Aundre Wright and T.J. Porter – along with Dorin Dickerson – for short-yardage and red-zone situations? That’s one I’d personally like to see sometime this season.

Line up Cross, McCoy and LaRod next to each other and let the defense guess who’s getting the ball and react in time to stop that runner. Good luck with that.

But I’m just a sportswriter.

* From the department of why-aren’t-they-playing comes a story about two guys – Elijah Fields and Andrew Taglianetti — who made big impacts on defense and special teams when given the opportunity to play against Notre Dame.

Where Taglianetti, a cornerback in high school, is happy to play anywhere, Fields appears set on playing one position even if Pitt coaches are using him in multiple.

“I’m going to play anywhere they need me,” Fields said. “Anywhere I can help the team, that’s where I’ll play. But I’m a safety. Don’t get it wrong: I’m a safety.”

Interesting how these two were intertwined, considering that Taglianetti’s development could cause Fields to move to another position. Fields, no matter what he wants, could end up starting at weak-side linebacker next season.

“I could grow into a linebacker, but I’m going to work hard this off-season and try to drop to 215,” Fields insisted. “I can play linebacker, though. I can do it.”

Then again, he’s already balked at playing cornerback, even though he’s used there in the “bandit” package, which features six defensive backs. And Fields plays outside linebacker in the nickel and “buck” packages, the latter of which features a three-man front. Not that Fields is complaining about it, even after not playing at all against Navy and in a limited role against Rutgers.

“I just like being out there,” Fields said. “Every opportunity I get to get on the field, I’m happy with it. It’s pretty tough but I just keep my head up and keep working hard because you know I’m going to get opportunity to play. You’ve just got to make the best of it.”

That’s quite a difference from two years ago, when he sulked.

“My freshman year, I wasn’t focused,” Fields said. “I probably would have packed it up and wanted to leave. Now, since I’m maturing, I’ve got to stick it out.”

Fields credited three people with his development on the field and off: his mother, Lisa Butler; his high school basketball coach at Duquesne, Montel Staples; and Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley, who is working closely with Fields.

“I talked to coach Montel Staples a lot, and he told me to hang in there and keep my head up and keep working hard,” Fields said. “My mom, she helped me out a lot. I talked to her every night. She said to keep working hard and something good will come out of it. I just keep working it.”

Although he’s not receiving any consideration for punt returns, Fields would be a viable candidate to handle the role, even if, at 225 pounds, he’d be an oversized target. He was spectacular on punt returns in high school, not only in judging the ball but in making the first defender miss and letting the rest bounce off him.

“I don’t know. They’ve got to deal with the size issue but I’ve still got the ability to do it,” Fields said. “I guess they recruit guys like Aundre Wright and Cameron Saddler for that. I still feel pretty fast. I feel like I’m getting faster, actually.”

As for Taglianetti, he already has made a major impact on special teams by blocking a pair of punts this season. He’s also on the kick-block units for PATs and field goals, along with Greg Romeus and, now, Jonathan Baldwin.

“I think it’s more just effort,” Taglianetti explained. “Coach Wannstedt and the staff have been putting in a good game-plan to block these kicks. I’m just going full-speed and I’m lucky enough for them to put me in that position to get there for the block. I guess I have a feel for what I have to do to get there.”

Don’t be so modest, Tags.

Wannstedt said it takes a special player to block kicks regularly.

“You have to have players that can do it,” Wannstedt said. “You can have the greatest schemes in the world but if guys aren’t fast enough and don’t have a knack for getting their hands on the ball, you’re not going to have much success. We’ve got some guys who have a natural knack of doing it. Taglianetti blocked a lot of kicks in high school. As a coach, you try to come up with schemes that give him a chance to.

“I’ve been around some great athletes that would close their eyes and just didn’t have a knack for getting their hand on the ball. There’s a lot of variables that go into it but the most important would be great effort and having the ability to do it.”

Then again, sometimes scheme does have something to do with it.

“Actually, the block last week was designed for Aaron Berry to block it coming off the corner. Friday, we told Taglianetti, ‘That guy just may turn out on Taglianetti. If he does, you might be free.’ It wasn’t designed for him to be the block guy,” Wannstedt said. “But we get in the game, sure enough the guy turned to get Aaron Berry and Taglianetti blocked it.”

Taglianetti also forced Notre Dame’s punter to adjust on another kick, shanking it 18 yards. So, even if the stat sheet doesn’t give credit, his impact is even greater.

Yet there’s always that concern…

“Roughing the kicker is always a worry,” Taglianetti said. “I was getting blocked. As I was running down, I said, “Man, I might not get there.’ Then I looked up and the kicker was right there and I just laid out for it. I felt where I was even if I laid out, I would have gotten the ball. I rolled off right after I got it just in case I didn’t get (the ball). I rushed up, I didn’t think I was that close. He might have been a little razzled from the first time. He shanked it a little bit. But I don’t think I really forced the issue.”

It was the highlight of a long week for Taglianetti and other Central Catholic graduates – my late father, Paul (Ace) Gorman, is a ’52 grad – after the sudden death of Vikings junior running back Kyle Wilson. What better way to pay tribute.

“He was an awesome kid,” Taglianetti said of Wilson, his teammate on Central’s 2007 WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA champions. “He was a sophomore, but we always had a good relationship, both playing running back there and also returning kicks.

“I drove him home one time and he was an awesome kid to be around. He had a great laugh, a great smile. He had a good personality, and a good attitude. It was sad to see a kid like that pass. He was a good kid.”

Takes one to know one.

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