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Somewhere in-between

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Sometimes, Dave Wannstedt just can’t win, no matter what Pitt does.

When the Panthers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2007 college football season with a 13-9 win at No. 2 West Virginia in the 100th Backyard Brawl, Wannsted worried that it created unrealistic, top-25 expectations for a team coming off a 5-7 season.

When the Panthers finished 2008 with the worst scoring display in a major-college bowl game in a half-century – a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the 75th Sun Bowl – Wannstedt worried that the school’s first nine-win season in 26 years shouldn’t be overshadowed by one game.

You can make the argument that there were only slight differences in Pitt’s past two seasons, and the numbers will back it up: Where Pitt won three games by a combined 14 points and lost four by a total of 18 in ’07, the Panthers won four games by a combined 13 points and lost two by a combined 10 points in ’08.

Of course, statistics can be misleading.

The signs of improvement? Aside from beating West Virginia for the second consecutive season, the Panthers had a five-game winning streak that included a victory at then-No. 10 South Florida. Pitt also went from losing a close game to a Big Ten opponent (Michigan State) to beating one (Iowa), and from losing a double-overtime game to an independent (Navy) at home to beating one (Notre Dame) in quadruple-overtime on the road.

Pitt lost at home to Rutgers by 20 points, lost to Cincinnati for the first time ever – which cost the Panthers the Big East title – and lost in a bowl game. Then again, it went 5-2 in the Big East and 4-1 on the road, including a victory at Connecticut, and clinched its first bowl berth since ’04.

Wannstedt did his best Monday in a teleconference with beat writers to put a positive spin on a breakthrough season that ended with a disheartening defeat to a depleted Oregon State team missing two offensive stars.

“As we reflect back on the season,” Wannstedt said, “I think that there’s an awful lot to be excited about and an awful lot to look forward to, an awful lot of positive things to look back on and say what this football team accomplished this year.”

What is hard for Pitt fans to swallow is how the season began and ended. The loss to Bowling Green became more unforgivable every week, given that it came at home in the opener and to a team that ultimately finished 6-6 and fired a head coach, Gregg Brandon, who clearly outmaneuvered Wannstedt with a lesser talented team. The loss to Oregon State was marked by offensive ineptitude against a defense that allowed 640 yards and 65 points to Oregon in the season finale, and was without both its leading rusher, Pac-10 offensive player of the year Jacquizz Rodgers, and top all-purpose threat, Pac-10 first-team selection James Rodgers.

What’s more, it left lingering questions at important positions. Bill Stull was at his worst in the biggest game of his career, and appears to be in danger of losing his grip on the starting quarterback position. Matt Cavanaugh was handicapped by a last-minute substitution at left tackle and Stull’s inability to make almost any throw, and the offensive coordinator’s play-calling once again is being second-guessed.

To his credit, Wannstedt has remained steadfast in his assessment of the direction of the Pitt football program. He never bought in when the Panthers were being touted as a Big East Conference championship contender, and isn’t about to make knee-jerk reactions just because of a bowl loss.

“There’s a ton of stuff to be excited about and proud about this football season,” Wannstedt said. “I’m not going to cloud my mind. I know what we’ve got to get better at. I’m not going to get hung up on one game or one or two positions and let that take away from what was accomplished by our team.”

Maybe not, but the Panthers did blow an opportunity to become the first 10-win team since Jackie Sherrill had three consecutive 11-1 seasons from 1979-81, as well as the chance to repeat history. The ’75 Panthers followed a Sun Bowl victory with a run to the national championship.

Then again, it eased the expectations for ’09.

After the Sun Bowl debacle, nobody is predicting Pitt to win the national title next season. Which is just what Wannstedt wants. Except it’s not what he promised upon taking the job in December 2004: “It has been way too long since we’ve won the national championship here at the University of Pittsburgh. Nobody needs to tell me about the tradition here, about the nine national championships because I’ve lived it, I experienced it and I understand it. It is easy to sell something you are passionate about.”

Just a reminder that Wannstedt started the talk about a national championship. He set such high expectations for himself and his program, only to find that Pitt was nowhere national-title contention. But it was the goal then and, entering his fifth season, should be the goal from now on.

* The biggest issue facing this team, and thereby the greatest obstacle in reaching that goal, is at quarterback. Wannstedt said Stull would enter spring drills as the starter “Day One,” but hinted that there would be an open competition between Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri.

Wannstedt said he hadn’t talked to Stull since the season ended, and wanted to do so before making any declarations. The Pitt coach mentioned that Stull was playing well – he 16 of 22 for 279 yards in two-plus quarters – before suffering a concussion against Rutgers.

“I don’t think things have been the same since. Why? I don’t know,” Wannstedt said. “We did not make progress at that position the last four weeks. I thought from Week One leading up to the Rutgers game, I saw some improvement being made. After the Rutgers game, for whatever reasons, we definitely did not keep moving forward at that position.”

Despite his poor performance in the Sun Bowl, it seems necessary to remind Pitt fans who have made cowardly message-board attacks on everything from Stull’s throwing ability to his character to the way he dresses that he was a clear upgrade at the position from the previous season. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing was the questioning of whether Stull was even the best player at his position for the Panthers this season.

Consider: Stull completed 188 of 330 passes (57 percent) for 2,356 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 starts this season. By comparison, Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick combined to complete 193 of 322 passes (59.9 percent) for 1,960 yards, with 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 11 games last season.

When Stull missed the Notre Dame game, Bostick was 14 of 27 for 164 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Stull twice attempted 27 passes in a game, going 16 of 27 for 228 yards with a touchdown at USF, and 15 of 27 for 216 yards with a touchdown against Louisville. Prior to the Sun Bowl, Stull’s worst games came against Iowa (11 of 25 for 129 yards with an interception) and Connecticut (10 of 18 for 141 yards with two TDs and one INT).

Where Bostick had three games with multiple interceptions, including two (Connecticut and USF) with three picks, Stull had only two games with multiple interceptions and never threw more than two. In that regard, there’s no comparison – and no question who deserved to be the starter.

That said, Stull’s performance in the final four weeks of the season was a hindrance to the offense. Where he was hailed for his toughness early on for overcoming thumb, hip and knee injuries, that same trait was questioned after he was carried off the field on a stretcher for what amounted to a concussion and stinger. Stull also had a propensity for not just getting sacked, but failing to protect the ball and losing fumbles. All of those things came into play in his Sun Bowl struggles, some of which were the fault of an offensive line that allowed 10 hurries and five sacks, including four by fifth-year senior Chase Clowser, whose only career start came with the responsibility of protecting Stull’s blind side from the pass rush.

“We watched the bowl game as an offensive staff the next day and evaluated that, but I haven’t sat down and talked to Billy. That will all take place,” Wannstedt said. “I know we’re better at that position than what we’ve played the last four weeks. … Something was missing. Something got out of sync, and we just never recollected.”

* One thing Wannstedt made clear is that Cavanaugh is the man to fix whatever ails Pitt’s passing game. Not that it was ever a question, but Wannstedt threw his weight behind his offensive coordinator, even as the Pitt coach acknowledged that there are issues to be addressed.

“The passing game, we have a lot of work to do there,” Wannstedt said. “I feel like we have players that can make the plays. For whatever reason, again, I’m not going to base the whole season on what happened in the last game.”

What Wannstedt isn’t as concerned with – even though it seemed to infuriate Pitt fans to no end – was Cavanaugh’s play-calling. The Panthers handed the ball to star tailback LeSean McCoy only once in the first quarter, but Wannstedt said that it was part of the game plan. Pitt wanted to take advantage of having the wind at its back and a one-on-one mismatch.

“We threw the ball deep,” Wannstedt said. “Jonathan Baldwin had a step-and-a-half on the one corner one time and two steps on the other one. We went into that game saying, ‘When we had the wind to our back, we were going to take a half-dozen shots, and that’s what we did.’

“We ran screens, shovel passes, sweeps, belly pitches to try to get ball on perimeter. We ran waggle and bootleg. We threw the ball deep in that game. We didn’t execute it very good. We should’ve and could’ve done some better things as coaches, and we sure as heck could have done some better things at all positions on offense. There was constant pressure on Billy. Those guys were covering us tighter than we needed to be, and when we had some guys open, we didn’t hit ‘em. It’s a combination of the whole offense.”

Maybe so, but there were some questionable calls, as well. Pitt went deep to Baldwin on its first offensive play, then threw an interception on second down. On its next possession, the Panthers drew an off-sides penalty, then saw McCoy gain 5 yards. Yet, Pitt threw passes on the next three plays, including a failed third-and-2 at its 49. On the third series, LaRod Stephens-Howling replaced McCoy, who had one touch at that point. Later, Pitt failed again in throwing deep to Baldwin on third-and-3 at the Oregon State 37. McCoy wasn’t even on the field on a fourth-and-3 sideline pass.

In fairness to Cavanaugh, he tried about every safe play in the playbook. But the middle of the field was open, as evidenced by Dorin Dickerson’s two catches in the final minute. McCoy averaged 3.5 yards per carry and Stephens-Howling 4.1, as they combined for 114 yards. On a windy day when your quarterback is struggling to throw to the sideline, why not use play-action fakes and keep running the ball?

Who did Pitt think it was, Rutgers?

“If we hadn’t thrown the ball down the field, hadn’t tried screen passes, hadn’t tried sweeps, and we ran up the middle 50 times, you could say, ‘What are you thinking?’” Wannstedt said. “We tried getting the ball down the field with everyone we have with our offensive package. We just didn’t execute well enough. We’ve got to coach them better so we can execute better.”

* Which led to this question: has Wannstedt considered hiring a quarterbacks coach to allow Cavanaugh to focus on his role as offensive coordinator? No surprise, but Wannstedt scoffed at the mere suggestion.

“No. Are you kidding me?” he said. “Matt Cavanaugh knows more about quarterback play than 99 percent of the people. He’s forgotten more about quarterback play than most of the other guys know, and you can quote me on that.”

That’s probably true, but Pitt’s quarterback evaluation in recruiting and development under Cavanaugh leaves a lot to be desired. Granted, Cavanaugh turned Tyler Palko from a gunslinger to one of the nation’s most efficient passers in a year, and Palko will be the first to sing his praises.

But Pitt has had a golden opportunity to recruit Palko’s successor, and its first four recruiting classes produced Stull in ’05, Smith and Dexter Davidson in ’06, Bostick in ’07 and Greg Cross and Tino Sunseri in ’08. Davidson is long gone and Wannstedt said Smith and Cross could change positions this spring, if they don’t transfer or switch sports first.

Pitt’s inability to find a role for Cross is inexcusable. I never considered him a contender for the starting quarterback job because of his inconsistency in the passing game and unfamiliarity with the playbook, but Cross is a dynamic runner who, if nothing else, could have complemented McCoy and Stephens-Howling in the Wildcat formation.

“We worked that package every week and just never got to it,” said Wannstedt, who echoed Cavanaugh’s mid-season rationale by saying that the Panthers didn’t want to give Cross carries at the expense of McCoy and Stephens-Howling (even though it split 51 carries among other players this season, including 21 to fullback Conredge Collins). “In my gut, I wouldn’t have signed him if I didn’t believe there was a place for that. How it’s going to fit in and how much work is a point that has to be discussed.

“I’m not disappointed in Greg Cross at all. He’s a great kid. He’s done everything we’ve asked. Now that he’s been here a year, we know what he can and can’t do. We have to take a good look at that, we really do.”

Wannstedt said there is a chance the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Cross could move to safety and the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Smith to H-back or tight end, if the Seneca Valley graduate decides not to give up football to play baseball. Sounds interesting, but if Pitt coaches can’t find ways to get ultra-talented athletes like Elijah Fields and Dorin Dickerson more involved at those positions after three seasons, how are Cross and Smith going to make an impact when they have never played those positions?

* Speaking of star recruits who can’t get on the field, Wannstedt also declared that former U.S. Army All-American offensive linemen Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson “will be in the lineup next year.”

Once again, seeing is believing.

When left tackle Jason Pinkston injured his right shoulder in practice two days before the Sun Bowl, Clowser stepped into the starting lineup. Clowser was Pinkston’s backup all season and played behind Jeff Otah the year before, so it was only logical. But Clowser struggled so mightily that Oregon State defensive end Victor Butler had 11 tackles, four sacks for minus-19 yards and a forced fumble and fumble recovery to win MVP.

Nix never took a snap.

“If we would have known before pre-game warm-ups that Jason Pinkston wasn’t going to play, we would have started Lucas Nix and played him the whole game,” Wannstedt said. “Lucas has a lot of upside and is going to be a great player for us. Lucas has played the whole season on the right side and got no reps on left side. Obviously, the calls are different, the angles are different, the stance is different. We found out in pre-game warm-ups that Jason wasn’t going to be able to play.”

Jacobson didn’t see the field, either, even though he’s listed as the backup at right guard and John Malecki was injured at one point. Redshirt junior John Bachman took Malecki’s place in the front five instead.

There is a possibility that both Nix and Jacobson will be in the starting lineup next season. The Panthers could start Pinkston at left tackle, Nix at left guard, Malecki at center, Jacobson at right guard and Joe Thomas at right tackle. Or they could move Nix to right tackle and Thomas back to right guard, where he started 14 games his first two seasons.

Wannstedt praised Tony Wise for his work with the line, which led the Big East in fewest penalty yards, and believes it will be better even though the Panthers lose a four-year starter in Davis.

“The offense is being scrutinized,” Wannstedt said, “but if you look at the offensive line, some of the changes that we made there at the beginning of the season to the end and during season because of injuries and graduation, I thought that those guys got better as year went on and I’m really excited about having four out of the five back next year and another spring coached by Tony Wise and another year of understanding what’s expected of them.”

Moving Malecki to center looks like a strong possibility, especially with Robb Houser still on crutches. It might have more to do with the upgrade at the position once the Panthers put C.J. Davis there, a move I suggested two years ago. Malecki is intelligent enough to make the calls, athletic enough to snap and step into his block and tough enough to take on the nose tackle. Then again, it would be his third position switch in as many years.

That lineup would allow Bachman to be the backup at guard or tackle, but would require someone else to step into a more prominent role. The most likely candidates are redshirt freshmen Greg Gaskins and Jordan Gibbs at tackle. Dan Matha lost his redshirt year to rehabilitating both shoulders, and spent this past season on the scout team. John Fieger and Wayne Jones are well behind their classmates and don’t yet figure into the plans.

“We’re going to have to get these young kids ready to step up and play. The depth on the offensive line is a concern, not necessarily in numbers but depth in guys that have played,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to have a little flexibility. I feel good that we’re going to have five or six quality guys. We don’t have 10, a two-deep like we do on the defensive line and other positions.”

* The biggest story of the spring – unless McCoy turns pro – will be finding a replacement at middle linebacker for All-America Scott McKillop, and there is no clear-cut candidate to fill those shoes.

“We really haven’t talked about that yet,” Wannstedt said.

While Wannstedt is pushing hard to sign Penn Hills senior Dan Mason, Pitt’s recruiting of linebackers leaves a lot to be desired. Of Wannstedt’s recruits – Dan Loheyde, Nate Nix, Greg Webster in ’06; Brandon Lindsey, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts in ’07; and Shayne Hale, Joe Trebitz and Manny Williams in ’08 – only Nix and Gruder have seen any action. Webster transferred, Loheyde took a medical hardship.

You have to take Wannstedt’s recruiting philosophy into consideration. He recruits skill players at safety and running back with the hope that they can grow into linebackers, and transformed safeties Tommie Campbell, Adam Gunn and Shane Murray and tailback Greg Williams into starters. The same could happen with Roberts and Manny Williams, who were high school safeties, and perhaps someone like Elijah Fields. You never know. After all, a former walk-on receiver caught the coaches’ eyes.

Back to replacing McKillop: Gunn started at strong-side linebacker and was the backup in the middle before a season-ending broken neck, but Wannstedt said he is “not very optimistic” that Gunn will be rewarded a sixth year of eligibility. Shane Murray started at weak-side linebacker before an ACL injury, and is a likely candidate to move inside even though he will miss spring drills and must bulk up considerably.

Steve Dell was McKillop’s backup this past season, but he has been hampered by knee injuries that have cost him some mobility. Wannstedt noted that Nate Nix “is going to be in the mix,” as will Gruder, who was recruited as a middle linebacker but moved to the strong side. Lindsey was recruited at strong side before being moved inside, but might be best suited to play fullback, where he saw time on the scout team. Hale, a U.S. Army All-America middle linebacker at Gateway, has since switched to end.

“We’ve got a group of guys – not many of them have played – but we’ve got a group with desire and ability to play,” Wannstedt said.

* Other overlooked but incredibly important positions to replace are on special teams, where the Panthers lose kicker Conor Lee, punter Dave Brytus and long-snapper Mark Estermyer to graduation. Walk-on Dan Hutchins and freshman Kevin Harper will duel for the kicking duties, and Hutchins is the frontrunner to beat out walk-ons Aaron Hassett and Pat Costello at punter. Fieger is a candidate to handle the long-snapping.

“The kicking position is going to be real interesting in the spring. I think we’re going to have a real battle at (kicker, between) Hutchins and Kevin Harper,” Wannstedt said. “If we were going to kick today, (Hutchins) would be the starter and I have a lot of confidence in him doing it. We’re going to have new kicker last year, so spring practice will be just as important for our kickers as it will for the defense. If were going to play today, he would definitely be our punter and then it would be between him and Kevin Harper as the two guys competing for the field-goal spot.”

* On the recruiting front, Wannstedt said Pitt hopes to sign 18-20 prospects from the Class of 2009. The Panthers have 14 scholarship players graduating and dismissed freshman cornerback Ronald Hobby. With 15 players committed, and Blairstown (N.J) Blair Academy running back Dion Lewis already enrolled, they are already at their allotment but could see some more spots open by the end of spring drills.

“We have four or five players that potentially could graduate by August. We’ll see how it goes through the off-season and spring practice, and if they’re contributing and want to come back, I’ll give them that option,” Wannstedt said. “If they’re not contributing, then we’ll let them graduate and move on. That could open up a few scholarships.”

* Finally, for Panthers fans looking for a unique historical perspective on the Pitt football program that is part scrapbook, part coffee-table book, check out Sam Sciullo Jr.’s University of Pittsburgh Football VaultĀ®: The History of Panthers.

Sciullo, a noted Pitt historian, captures stories from the days of Glenn “Pop” Warner to Marshall Goldberg to Joe Schmidt to Mike Ditka to Tony Dorsett to Dan Marino to now “with never-before-published historic photographs and replicas of unique memorabilia tucked inside the pages.”

The 12-by-10 hard-cover book, which comes in a slipcase, has dozens of sleeves and pockets filled with reproductions of things such as a photo of the 1910 team that didn’t allow a point, a copy of coach Sherrill’s 1976 contract, a 1982 Sugar Bowl score sheet and tickets and programs from some of the most memorable games in Pitt football history.

The book’s foreword is provided by Beano Cook, who called it a “treasure chest that all Panther supporters will want to keep, to remind them of Pitt’s football relevance for more than 100 years.” The after word is from Dorsett, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.

The University of Pittsburgh Football Vault: The History of Panthers sells retail for $49.95, and can be purchased at book stores such as Barnes & Noble, Borders and even Wal-Mart, or online.

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