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September 22, 2008

Enjoyed the Visit

Filed under: Basketball,Recruiting — Chas @ 4:05 pm

Durand Scott enjoyed his trip to Pitt.

“As of now, my top five are Pitt, Miami, Tennessee, UConn and UCLA,” Scott wrote Monday morning in a text message. He eliminated Virginia and Xavier.

He spent this past weekend at Pitt, where he joined Pitt commits Dante Taylor of National Christian and Lamar Patterson of St. Benedict’s. During the Iowa-Pitt football game, the basketball team was honored with its rings for winning the Big East Tournament.

“It went really well,” he said. “I had fun out there. I met the coaching staff. I know a couple guys out there, Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs and Levance Fields, so I felt very comfortable. I felt right at home.”

And no mention of the boos. It’s still a longshot. He is visiting UConn next.

Not Taking Chances

Filed under: Football,Tactics — Chas @ 2:27 pm

The Church Brew Works made All About Beer’s 125 places to have a beer before you die (in the world) list. I really have to get back there some time. ESPN.com’s Big East reporter/blogger Brian Bennett was in Pittsburgh for the game and was smart enough to go there that night.

I’ve been to places before that used to be old churches, but this was something different. This still looks exactly like a working house of worship, except for the huge vats of microbrew beer. Very cool place, especially for someone who spent 12 years in Catholic school. As Homer Simpson once said, “Mmm…sacrilicious.”

He also listed Dave Brytus as BMOC on special teams in the Big East this week and Mick Williams for defense. The Big East agreed with him about Dave Brytus, naming in special teams player of the week. On defense, though, they gave it to Scott McKillop.

Cat Basket wants to see more of Greg Cross — not get called for more plays — just out on the field more.

The disappearance of Cross for most of the game made Paul Zeise’s ugly list. In “Bad” is it any surprise that the return of conservative play calling the minute Pitt had an 11-point lead?

The idea that a 14-3 lead in the first half is something worth trying to protect — as opposed to extend — is a little frightening.

Especially while still in the first half.

The booing by the fans at the end of the first half seems to have become a topic of debate.

Q: What the heck is going on with all this booing from “Pitt fans”? I watched the game at a bar with a few people from Pitt and was embarrassed by the fans who need a reality check. I mean, the team was beating a pretty good Big Ten team at half time and getting booed running into the locker room. What is wrong with these people?

ZEISE: I agree. In fact, if I had not been at the game and just based the outcome on my e-mails I would for sure thought they had lost the game given all the negativity and the venom directed at the coaching staff. I don’t get it — yes, the coaches didn’t make every play call they should have and yes, they gave up on a few possessions when they got into second and long by getting very conservative — but Pitt did win the game.

Let me repeat — Pitt won a game against a BCS conference team (time will tell how good this team is obviously, but it seems like a good team with some good players) with a big crowd at home on a beautiful sunny afternoon on national television. What is there to be angry about? …

Sigh.

The booing was not at the players but the playcallers. I would think most people understood this. This was in the midst of the 5 straight 3-and-outs. While letting the clock run out at that point at the end of the half was defensible given the field position, that was as much a carry-over from Pitt’s previous series.

With 1:21 left, Pitt started on its own 20 after Iowa had missed a 35-yard FG. Pitt’s plan was to go into the half by running LaRod Stephens-Howling straight ahead impotently to burn the clock. Iowa and Kirk Ferentz seemed to surprise Wannstedt by immediately calling timeout. Which they did on each play since he had all 3 timeouts left. Pitt didn’t do anything to counter. If anything, Wannstedt seemed stunned that Iowa would be that aggressive. As if it violated the book on how you play football.  Instead sticking with another run straight into the defense and a 2-yard pass. All, very safe and took all of 18 seconds. Again, for those in the stands, it was seeing the reversion to Bowling Green conservatism at the end of the half. That had some small booing, but mainly muttering and looks of disgust in the stands.

Luckily, Brytus had a solid punt and no return yards. Iowa fell a yard short and had to punt. Pitt had 2 timeouts and 17 seconds from the Iowa 20. Yeah, the likelihood of anything happening was really low, but to simply take the knee and run off the field was so typical. The fact that Pitt didn’t even try to move the ball on the prior possession along with taking the knee was too much for most fans. That’s when the booing really hit. I didn’t blame them at all. I was too disgusted to bother booing.

Pitt was lucky to be leading 14-10 when they could easily have been down 17-14. Yet the coaching staff had played  most of the second quarter like they had built a big lead.

And you know what? That was what really helped color a lot of the negativity, despite the win. A strong perception that this is what we will see. A coaching staff that is so afraid of mistakes and so conservative that it will paralyze the team at the first opportunity.

In a way, it made things more frustrating since Pitt actually took some chances. They did learn from the BGSU game to go for it more on 4th down rather than punt inside the 35.

In fact, all three of Pitt’s touchdown drives were extended when, at some point, Wannstedt made the decision to go for it on fourth down instead of punting or attempt a long field goal.

And the third time he went for it on fourth down — it was a fourth-and-one at the Iowa 30 in the third quarter — the Panthers were trailing 17-14 and could have easily opted to try and tie the game with a 47-yard field goal.

“We felt like we would have to be aggressive, go for it,” Wannstedt said. “Where we were at on the field we were just out of field goal range and we felt good about the down and distance. I think most of them were 2-yards or less and in that situation I don’t feel bad about going for it but when it gets up to three or four yards, then you are rolling the dice.”

Must strictly follow formula. No deviation allowed.

In the blog exchange, both sides had similar thoughts about the feelings of the fans of the losing team.

Whoever loses is going to be very pissed off about it, thanks to a low score and frightening aerial displays on both sides. Stull should plan to be either very patient or very unproductive this weekend, and the Iowa passing game appears to be a mess once again.

And:

I predict that this could be a painfully frustrating game for both fanbases. Both coaches will play for field position, so there will be lots of punting and the score will stay very close. The fans of the losing team will fume and complain about missed opportunities and how this game was right there for them.

Okay, so neither of us exactly went out on a limb. But we weren’t wrong. As much as Pitt fans were expecting the worst in this game, given Wannstedt’s history at Pitt to date. Well, that’s nothing compared to the frustratingly low expectations from Iowa fans that even predates Ferentz.

If you underestimate the importance of this game, don’t; that’s a grave error. There are only two possible outcomes:

  1. Iowa records their biggest non-conference road win since Penn State in 1983;
  2. We must sit here and explain away the fact that Iowa just lost to the Wannstache.

And that’s it. Buck a quarter-century-long trend of reprehensible road play, or force us to drink suicidally and post a Wannstachalanche. No pressure, Hawks.

Iowa just doesn’t win non-cons of any significance on the road. That does put Pitt’s win in a slightly different context. And boy, they are pissed at the coach for this. Especially because of the curious decision with musical QBs.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz had a hunch Jake Christensen could rally the Hawkeyes to victory — despite misfiring on four of six first-half passes against Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.

He guessed wrong.

Iowa’s final drive of the game fell apart after Christensen fumbled at the Hawkeyes’ 28-yard line in the final minute.

A hunch? Really?

“Probably more of a gut thing than anything else,” Coach Ferentz said. “I just felt like at halftime Jake (Christensen) had a little better feel for what was going on, particularly what they were doing defensively. Thought he gave us the best opportunity to win the football game.”

This is where the “gut thing” gets a little confusing.

Sophomore Ricky Stanzi completed 7 of 10 in the first half, including his first six passes. He also led Iowa on its lone touchdown drive of the half, a Greene 6-yarder that pulled Iowa to 14-10 with 3:24 left before halftime. Well, Stanzi didn’t exactly “lead” on that drive. Six of the nine plays went to Greene, who gained 52 yards, including a 32-yarder on sweep.

Meanwhile, junior Christensen was 2-for-6 for 15 yards in the first half. After McCoy fumbled on Pittsburgh’s first play, giving Iowa first down at Pitt’s 19, Iowa could only go 11 yards and ended up with Trent Mossbrucker’s 26-yard field goal.

Despite the numbers, Ferentz’s gut told him to go with Christensen, who played the entire second half, finishing 12 of 24 for 124 yards with four sacks. Stanzi had his helmet on a few times, but he mostly stood outside sideline huddles with offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe.

Remember, Ferentz has the final word on this. He said exactly that last week when Stanzi was pulled in favor of Christensen in the third quarter of last week’s victory over Iowa State.

It’s a gut thing.

“It was just the feel I had,” Ferentz said. “That’s just how I was feeling during the course of the game.”

They are taking this sort of executive decisionmaking well.

They won’t believe this in Chicago or Miami, where Dave Wannstedt coached NFL teams. They won’t even believe it here, where Wanny has yet to approach the penthouse of the Big East. But he out-coached fellow son of Pittsburgh, Ferentz. Or more accurately, he didn’t out-coach himself. Unlike his Iowa counterpart.

Yay, our coach didn’t outsmart himself in the game.

You do get the feeling that Wannstedt would go with Jake Christensen as well in the same situation. Or is that just me? He’s a year older than Stanzi. Tough mentally and physically. More experience. Just not as good.

Let’s make one thing clear: This is not Jake Christensen’s fault. He is what he is. He’s short. He’s inconsistent. He’s inaccurate. The next pass he throws with any touch will be his first.

It’s not for lack of effort. Or toughness. Or heart. Christensen is a stand-up kid. He’s faced tough questions from the media. He’s been booed at home by his own fans. He’s taken it like a man.

But, by God, if he’s the quarterback that gives Iowa the best chance to win, I’m Brad Pitt.

And if Christensen starts a game at home, he’ll likely be booed again. Not because the fans hate him. But, because the fans don’t have any other way to let the coaches know how stupid they think the decision is.

Pitt’s special teams were exceptional in the Iowa game. That’s a credit to Coach Wannstedt since he coaches special teams. Iowa. Not so much.

This week, special teams play in every facet lagged for Iowa. Iowa missed a field goal, suffered a blocked punt and gave Pittsburgh’s sports information department a reason to push punter Dave Brytus for the annual Ray Guy Award.

At least 11 different special teams plays were negatives for Iowa.

They have a list of screw-ups that includes the missed field goal. Is it worth noting that Iowa was also playing musical kickers as well?

So, apparently Coach Jamie Dixon spoke to the Pitt players to help with the motivation.

It is the Panthers’ first win against a Big Ten opponent since a 12-0 win against Penn State in 2000, and, as defensive tackle Mick Williams explained, the kind of victory the Panthers needed to prove to themselves — and to others — that they are capable of doing big things this year.

“Coach Dixon came in Thursday and talked to us about this being a big program-building kind of game,” Williams said. “And we all got together and said let’s go and do something to build our program. He talked about when Brandin Knight played, it was a win over Ohio State for them and he told us, this is Iowa for us. That was a big thing for us, that he came in and talked to us, and I’d like to thank him for that.

“[In the fourth quarter, when it got tight] that is all we were talking about there today, we knew we had to dig deep because this game is our program-builder right here.”

The Ohio State game Dixon referred to was in 2001 when Knight was a junior and the Panthers, coached at the time by Ben Howland (Dixon was an assistant), went to Columbus and upset the Buckeyes, 62-55.

However you want to give credit, it’s a significant event for Pitt under Wannstedt.

This was the kind of game Pitt has become accustomed to losing. It was playing a BCS opponent, getting outgained and trailing in the fourth quarter.

Most of all, the Panthers were coming off a bye week.

Instead of adding Iowa to its list of devastating out-of-conference defeats, Pitt came through in every phase for a 21-20 victory over Iowa before a crowd of 50,321 on Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.

“There is no substitute for going through it yourself and having success,” said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who improved to 1-5 after a bye and earned his first victory over a Big Ten opponent after losing to Michigan State the past two seasons.

“We’re down in the fourth quarter. We find a way to score, the defense finds a way to stop them, and special teams comes up with the play. That will stick in their minds.”

While the win was encouraging for Pitt (2-1), it wasn’t in impressive fashion. Iowa (3-1) outgained Pitt, 361-259, and held the Panthers to six consecutive possessions without a first down.

On the plus side, the defense made plays when it had to. Oh, geez that sounds very familiar. Didn’t Pitt have a DC that used to throw that out there a lot of times? Bend, but don’t break. It’ll come to me.

“The most encouraging part was the end where we had to make some plays,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. ‘Two series right before the half, our defense stepped up and got two three-and-outs. Then, at the end of the game, the defense stepped up.”

The big question leading up to the game was whether Pitt’s undersized defensive front could compete in the trenches with a big, physical Iowa offensive line.

There were no doubts after an impressive fourth quarter.

Of course the defense had to do the work. Iowa held a 34:48 to 25:12 advantage in time of possession.

Greg Cross finally making an appearance was noted in a couple places.

“It was a nice play that Matt Cavanaugh and our coaches put together,” coach Dave Wannstedt said. “… They both had options depending on the defense. On one, Greg was going to motion out and Billy would be the quarterback. On another look, Greg was going to be the quarterback and Billy was going to be the wide receiver. That’s the look they gave us.”

At 6-foot-2, 210-pounds, coaches have been creating ways to get Cross onto the field. That never happened against Bowling Green and Buffalo.

“We have about a half dozen plays for Greg,” Wannstedt said, “but have never found the opportunity to get him in there.”

The other time Cross was out there, it didn’t work so well, but that may have had as much to do with the timing.

There is a time and a place for Greg Cross and second and ten from your own side of the field isn’t it.  Cross should be put in on a perceived running down and lined up in the WIldcat formation.  From this, they can go ahead and pass- that would actually take someone by surprise.  But to put him in on second and ten and try to drop him back shows that Wannstedt doesn’t understand that it isn’t about putting talent on the field but about putting talent in a position to be successful.

In Florida, that was the difference between Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. Arguably you could also make the same point at Ohio State with John Cooper and Jim Tressel. Zook and Cooper recruited plenty of talent, but it took a different coach to succeed with them.

Ron Cook has a man-crush on LeSean McCoy.

The kid really does get it.

It’s not as if McCoy didn’t make a sizable contribution to what has to be the second-biggest win of the Dave Wannstedt era, a win trumped only by the magic in Morgantown Dec. 1. Just when it seemed as if the Pitt offense had called it a day late in the third quarter with its five consecutive three-and-out series and an interception on the sixth, he took control of the game. He had six touches and accounted for 69 of the 80 yards that Pitt cranked out to get the winning touchdown against a stout defense that hadn’t allowed one in Iowa’s first three games. His 27-yard touchdown run — he started right and cut back — brought back wonderful memories of last season when he was the best freshman running back in America.

McCoy had the easy part, he said. He credited offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh with “a great call.” He said guard C.J. Davis “blew it up” inside and that wide receiver T.J. Porter had “a great block outside.”

Nothing wrong with a little humility, is there?

Joe Starkey wants to see more McCoy, but wasn’t impressed by the performance of Pitt.

This was billed as a statement game at Pitt, but the only statement one could decipher afterward was this:

We’re not as bad as Iowa.

You never know, though, maybe this will prove to be a momentum-turning victory, just like Jamie Dixon said it would. Dixon, Pitt’s basketball coach, gave the football players a pep talk two nights before the game. He told them that a 2001 win at Ohio State proved to be a program-changer in basketball, and that a win over Iowa could be the same in football.

Perhaps, but it’s worth noting that the Ohio State basketball team was coming off its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2001, while the Iowa football team is coming off a bowl-less, six-win season that ended with a nine-point loss to Western Michigan.

Not to be a party pooper.

Momentum? I’ll believe it when I see it. After a bye week – sorry, a game against Syracuse – Pitt goes into South Florida. If it does something special there, count me among the converted.

Coming this week, Dave Wannstedt will talk about how the Syracuse game is a potential trap game.

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