September 26, 2008

Greg Robinson has no choice but to pretend he isn’t about to be fired at any moment (like after this weekend). The players are at least saying the insane party line about things.

“I believe the time is now,” defensive end Anthony Perkins said. “We’re going like a water hose, springing spurts (of progress). Everything’s coming together.”

“I’ve been excited all week about it. This is a great opportunity for us,” Robinson said. “I don’t see it as any other way, and I’m not going to let something get in the way of that. This is all about coaching this football team to win a Big East football game.

Syracuse is hoping to build on the momentum they took away from last week’s 30-21 home win over Northeastern.

“It’s good to have a win like that, to know that we’re capable of winning,” Syracuse senior safety Bruce Williams said. “It’s really important for us, just to get one and feel that taste.”

Nothing like the momentum of beating a 1-AA team.

Well, it happened again. A bunch of links that piled up during the week and now I just have to dump them.

Pitt hasn’t taken a lot of penalties. That has to make Coach Wannstedt happy. Just look at the company Pitt is keeping in that category.

The other thing I noticed was that many of these schools this season are in the northeast. Boston College is the least penalized team in the country thus far, followed by Pitt at No. 2 and then a two-way tie at third among Navy and Vandy with Syracuse at No. 5.

And Vandy is the only undefeated team in the top-5. Wait for the bottom 5:

#118 Georgia 4-0
#118 Texas Tech 4-0
#117 Utah 4-0
#116 Florida 3-0
#115 TCU 4-0

Tech coach Mike Leach, the guy who loves pirates more than anyone I’ve ever met, has an interesting take on this as well. “I’ve thought about that, and in our case, we wouldn’t be in the top five if you removed our first game (18 penalties), where we were really aggressive and sloppy,” he said. “We were too close to the edge, although it’s not unusual for us to be up there. Thing is, if you look at the list of some of those least penalized teams. There’s a lot of really bad teams there, and maybe they’re not pushing the envelope enough. Maybe they’re saying ‘We’ll at least we’re disciplined.’

Disciplined my (butt). You’re just afraid to play hard.

“John Wooden used to say teams that make the most mistakes will win and that means don’t let the fear of failure keep you from playing aggressively.

“The other part of it is, if you open it up like we do and like Florida does and some of these other teams do, you have more individual matchups where two people are isolated and you can see what’s happening better than say if we just hand it to a running back and everybody wedge-blocks up the middle.”

Gotta love Mike Leach.

Speaking of deceptive numbers. Pitt is 9-9 in the Red Zone this year. One of 8 teams that is batting 1.000. Guess who else is in there? Syracuse. They are 11-11.

The coaching hot seat topic is big. It’s funny (not really), about 4-years ago Pitt went up to the Carrier Dome for what I called the “lame-duck bowl.” Reasoning that the losing coach was sure to be fired. I was wrong. Both coaches were gone after that season (yes, I know, technically Harris left for another job, but come on. PItt was shoving him out the door). I’m not saying there will be a repeat, but if Pitt were to somehow lose this game, well yeah it could be the thing.

Syracuse fans are having visions of Lloyd Carr.

Adam Gunn featured and talking about his injury in a broader story on injuries in football.

Over to ESPN’s Big East blogger, Brian Bennett. He has a nice piece on Austin Ransom. His list of things to Watch in the Big East, the middle 3 are tied to the Pitt-Syracuse game.

5. Pittsburgh’s consistency. Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt has placed mouse traps around the football complex this week to try to remind his team not to succumb to a “trap game” at Syracuse. Please. Pitt isn’t good enough yet to look past anyone, especially an Orange team that lost by only three points at Heinz Field last year.

6. Syracuse’s confidence. Did finally getting a win give the Orange enough of an ego boost that they can hang with Pitt? That would have to be some boost. But the Panthers offense isn’t that tough to devise game plans for or contain, and Syracuse has traditionally played Pittsburgh tough. But if it is a blowout …

7. Greg Robinson’s situation. I don’t believe Daryl Gross will fire Robinson before October. But the way the Syracuse athletic director talked this week, it’s clear he’s moving rapidly in that direction. A hapless performance by the Orange would put everyone on Robinson watch beginning late Saturday afternoon.

Local Syracuse station focuses on Syracuse wanting revenge for last year. Slight tangent, notice that the TV station still uses the old “Pittsburgh” logo. Yeesh.

I’ve never understood how in the Syracuse coaching change they could let present Pitt running back coach (and ‘Cuse alum) get away. I’m not complaining, I just can’t believe it. A nice piece on Walker and LeSean McCoy.

He’d love nothing more than to break out this weekend in Syracuse because of Walker.

“It’s big,” he said. “I always jerk him around, mess around with him. Obviously, he’s from the ‘Cuse and played at Syracuse. I’ve seen some tape of him. I always mess around with him about it. It’s a little something extra for him to go back there, play them and come out with the win. That’s big.”

Hmm. Wonder if that had anything to do with LaRod Stephens-Howling going for 221 at the Carrier Dome a couple years back?

Anyone remember when the Pitt coaches talked about having Stephens-Howling and McCoy in the backfield at the same time?

Q: When are we going to see McCoy and Stephens-Howling in the backfield together?

ZEISE: Good question. I have no idea but it was something we were told would happen and it was worked on throughout training camp. Heck, I even wrote a story about it. Again, all of these things are situational and coaches have concerns about trying to do too much or get too many formations involved so it wouldn’t shock me if we see fewer formations and whatnot as opposed to more. In fact, Dave Wannstedt said as much on Monday at his news conference, that the Panthers are trying too do many things on offense and that is taking him somewhat out of his comfort zone.

From Paul Zeise’s chat on Thursday, a couple questions about passing downfield.

the_Pitts: Why doesn’t Stull throw across the middle more to his TEs? It seems like he can get 10 to 15 yards every time on those plays.

Paul Zeise: Those plays are there to be had indeed, particularly against the defensive fronts that Pitt has and will face. But those passes also don’t seem to be a priority as this offense seems to favor shorter passes and passes that go sideways, like wide receiver screens, bubble screens, passes to the fullbacks, circle routes to the tailbacks etc. etc……

ConservativeCav: If you dont throw down the field, the LB’s and safeties will move closer to line of scrimmage to stuff the run!!!

Paul Zeise: I know this — and that might explain why LeSean McCoy is not finding much room to run these days.

Do the coaches know this, though?

Expect a lot of running from both sides. Pitt is still looking to get the running game going, in case you hadn’t heard.

Pitt (2-1) has neither eclipsed 200 team rushing yards nor had a 100-yard rusher through its first three games and ranks last in the Big East in rushing yards (123.3). If the Panthers are can’t cure their run game against a Syracuse defense that allows 198.2 yards a game, it could spell trouble.

“We’re all a little disappointed that the numbers aren’t where they should be,” Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. “Nobody wants to discount winning a couple games, but we feel like, to complement our offense, we need to run for more yards than we’re getting.

“And I feel like we’re close.”

So Pitt’s a bit disappointed in their running game. What about Pitt’s run defense?

“I haven’t been pleased with our run defense,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve been OK, but we haven’t been dominant in anything.”

DC Phil Bennett sees room for improvement, but does think the defense is getting better.

“Our focus has been on us, and how we can get better,” Bennett said. “I thought we finished [the Iowa] game, and there were so many things that you could see, and one is that we are just one or two plays in the game away from a really, really fine game. We just need to keep striving for perfection in order to do that.

“At this point, it really doesn’t matter who we play. We need to focus on the little things we can do better, that is more important — taking care of us and not our opponent.”

And finally still more questions about how Pitt uses (or more precisely, doesn’t use) the players it recruits.

Q: I am a little confused about Collins. He is not used in short yardage situations. He is not used to change pace or mix the play calling up and so far he hasn’t been the greatest blocker. What myth does the staff work under regarding the necessity of a full back except for their 1982 Pro style offense?

Zeise: I could not agree more. I have been saying this one for the past three years — why did this guy get recruited to come here if he is not going to be used in a role that takes advantage of what he does well? He seems to be a good player, coaches seem to think he is a good player, but he is just not a part of the game plan at all. I understand that fullbacks are becoming sort of like the dinosaurs — extinct — but when you have a player with this guy’s skills, at least when he has the ball in his hands, to not use him seems to me like you are leaving some things on the table. I don’t think the guys is a big-time playmaker who deserves 20 touches a game, but between receptions and rushes, is five or six per game too many to ask for?

Zeise has always seemed to have a man-crush on Collins, but the point is still valid. At this point, I almost think Pitt would be better served putting in another offensive lineman at the fullback spot just to provide better blocking.

Sean of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician — the best Syracuse blog, and the best Big East blogger out there — and I traded questions, answers and self-pity ahead of the Pitt Syracuse game tomorrow. My responses to his canny questions are here.

1. Okay, so exactly who is healthy for the Orange? Seems like on top of everything else, there are injuries and curious attempts to maintain redshirts. What running backs can Pitt expect to see? I understand it’s the Cam Dantley reign at QB.

When you ask who is healthy are you asking from a physical standpoint or a mental one? Big difference. Assuming you mean physical, there’s really only one player you might not see and that’s Delone Carter. Before straining his knee a few weeks ago Carter was entrenched as the #2 back on roster and good for 10-15 carries/game behind Curtis Brinkley. The good news for SU is that we have Doug Hogue ready to step in and cover the role until Carter is up to speed again. My guess is that you’ll see a little bit of Carter, a little more of Hogue and whole lot of Brinkley.

There’s also freshman Averin Collier who was said before the season to have a shot at some serious PT. Combine the success of Brinkley et al and a leg injury in the summer and Collier hasn’t seen play #1 yet this season. A smart coach might redshirt this future star so that you can maximize this potential. But we’re not dealing with a smart coach. So Collier is still active. And unless Curtis Brinkley is run over by a tank and Delone Carter’s leg arbitrarily falls off, Collier won’t see very much action this season, if at all.

Cam Dantley is indeed the quarterback. He doesn’t exactly do a lot to convince us he is the man to lead us back to glory but he’s certainly doing enough to warrant holding on to the starting job for now. It was a surprise to SU fans when Andrew Robinson was benched so quickly but in retrospect it was a long time coming. Robinson was having mechanical problems all pre-season and if Greg Robinson actually based his decisions on who deserves it and not on what the nice thing to do is, Dantley would have been the starter at the beginning of the year.

2. AlmostFest? WTF? For a noon game? Exactly how many people actually show up for any sort of concert at 10am?

I’ll have you know that StormFront is Upstate New York’s PREMIERE Billy Joel cover band. You haven’t heard Downeaster Alexa until you’ve heard it filtered through six guys from Albany who’ve never set foot in Long Island.

I don’t know much about the greater Pittsburgh area but what I know about Syracuse is this…this is PRIME cover band territory. These people LOVE Billy Joel, KISS and Van Halen. But how often do Billy Joel, KISS and Van Halen make it up to that part of the country? Once every five years? If that? Cover bands are like nature’s pacifiers in Central NY.

Of course, there is no KISS cover band this year. Worse than that, there is no midget KISS Cover band this year. If you’re not gonna do it right…don’t do it.

3. Everyone and their dog knows Greg Robinson is dead coach walking. Is this going to go the distance for the season or does the good DOCTOR end it early?

I have been saying for the past couple weeks that, assuming we lose, he’s getting fired immediately following this game. Syracuse has a bye coming up, it’s perfect timing. So naturally, that won’t happen.

I’m beginning to come around to this theory that he’ll get the Zook Treatment and be allowed to finish the season. If he doesn’t get fired after this one, you might as well let him finish out the season at that point. It won’t make a difference either way but I guess you won’t look entirely heartless if you let him stick around and try to get a sympathy win over Rutgers.

What will NOT happen is Greg keeping his job all season long only to be fired when its over. There’s just no possible way, it’s too late.

4. Dave Wannstedt is hanging mousetraps around the practice facility to let the players know this is a trap game. What is Greg Robinson doing to motivate the Orange this week?

You can keep your stinkin’ moustraps. You know what we use? Arbitrary, ultimately-meaningless catchphrases. We’re fightin’ the fight. We’re working on our want-to and we’re improving our have-to. We’re really flashing. We’re turning corners and pushing through ceilings and giving more than 100% which seems impossible but you would be wrong in thinking so.

5. So, after Lane Kiffen, and possibly present OC Mitch Browning, who are the names that the DOCTOR is supposed to be considering with the “first pick of the draft”?

Well, first I’ll give you the list of coaches who are apparently being pushed on us by our own alumni:

Marty Morninwheg, Kevin Gilbride, George O’Leary…

I’d add more but I passed out just writing that list. For the people who think they’re doing us a favor by pushing these people for the job, I hate you all.

Who are the legit candidates at this very moment in time?

Turner Gill, Al Golden, Lane Kiffin, Skip Holtz, Florida OC Dan Mullen, Illinois OC Mike Locksley and UCLA OC Norm Chow.

Now, all of this could change vastly by the time December rolls around so I’m not one for getting too worked up about it just yet. As long as its eventually not a lifer NFL assistant desperate for a head coaching job, I’m probably gonna be fine with it.

6. Aside from seeing a slimmed Pat Shadle, what unexpected sights can Pitt fans expect from Syracuse?

You can’t underestimate how good Pat Shadle looks, no homo. It’s something to be seen.

I think you’ll be surprised with how good our running game is.

I think you won’t be surprised with how bad everything else is.

I think you’ll be surprised how good our punter is.

I think you won’t be surprised that he’s the best player on the team.

I think you’ll be surprised at Cam Dantley’s arm strength.

I think you won’t be see we only take advantage of it once or twice all game.

I think you’ll be surprised by the assortment of signs that SU fans bring to the game displaying their disdain for the current status.

Then again, I think you won’t.

Sean will almost certainly be doing his own liveblog/chat tomorrow. Read TNIAAM regularly for the latest on the end of the Greg Robinson era.

Coach Jamie Dixon is in New Jersey today for St. Benedict’s Dan Hurley’s coaching clinic. Dixon is one of the headline/name speakers at the clinic. I’m sure he’ll get congratulations from some of the other coaches for the raise — though, when you’re hanging out with Bill Self and Rick Barnes you are still on the low end of the pay scale.

Legends Classic Championship Round Tickets go on sale this morning. The games at the Prudential Center in Newark on November 28 and 29 will include Pitt, Mississippi St., Washington St., and Texas Tech. Dick Weiss included Sam Young and DeJuan Blair on his list of players that the Wooden Award Committee should stick on the watchlist.

Levance Field’s ankle is now officially a source of anxiety. I’m not putting it at major anxiety, but it is a concern. The latest setback is an infection that has put the kibosh on rehab and conditioning while it heals.

It isn’t expected that he will miss the season or anything, but it will slow him down when practice starts in October. The only upside is that it will give the other guards opportunities to compete to run the offense initially.

On the subject of Dixon’s extension, the terms weren’t disclosed but it is expected that he will be making around $1.5 million per year. Dixon has a great comfort level with the PItt powers.

Pederson offered Dixon more money and three more years on his existing contract, and Dixon had only one question: how long the administration of Pederson, Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg would remain intact.

“My only concern, and I raised this to Steve, was this contract runs for eight years,” Dixon said. “I wanted to know how long they will be here, what the direction of the university is and where they will be.

“They couldn’t give me guarantees, but that’s a big part of our success. Jerry, Steve and the chancellor are a big part of it. They’ve done an unbelievable job running this place.”

AD Pederson says it’s not just an extension by a few years.

“Essentially, we reworked the whole deal,” Pederson said. “We didn’t just add three years. The terms changed for the whole seven-year period.”

Pederson declined to reveal financial terms of the contract, which paid Dixon a salary of $1.3 million last season, but he said it includes a raise that places Dixon among the upper-echelon of Big East Conference coaches.

“There’s really is something special about Jamie,” Pederson said. “The reasons he loves it here and the reasons he’s so loyal are real sincere reasons. From my standpoint, this wasn’t a contract extension done for recruiting reasons or public-relations reasons. It was done because we want him to be the coach here a long time, and he wants to be the coach here a long time.”

Well, maybe upper-middle of the BE coaches. We are talking pay for coaches like Calhoun, Pitino, Boeheim, Huggins and Wright. To say nothing of the fact that Brey got a raise from ND. Marquette actually helped lower the upper-end with Crean moving to Indiana.

With Dixon’s 132 wins, he’s a virtual lock to pass Paul Evans’ 147 wins to move to 3d on Pitt’s all-time coaching wins list. Behind only Robert Timmons (174 wins) and H.C. (Doc) Carlson (367).

Joe Starkey feels his cynicism over coaching declarations of loyalty beaten back in the case of Coach Dixon.

Call me a sucker, but I think so, too. I think Dixon really is going to be here for the next seven years — and quite possibly longer.

Several reasons for that.

For one, Dixon seems deeply connected to Pitt’s administration — he’s much tighter with Pederson than he was with former athletic director Jeff Long, for example — and truly seems to appreciate the city and that Pitt took a chance on him.

I believe Dixon when he says he wants to become synonymous with this program the way Mike Krzyzewski is with Duke.

Coach “J,” anyone?

“I don’t want to be the guy looking for the next job,” said Dixon, who owns the best winning percentage (.680) in Big East history. “I don’t want to be the guy who gets fired, (either).”

I’m still a cynic. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Dixon is Pitt’s coach. He wins, there is absolutely no whiff of impropriety. He has been the best fit for Pitt.  While Dixon is highly successful, his success has been less overtly spectacular. This has aided the school in keeping him.

Administrators and ADs at other programs are aware of him and keep putting him on the short list. His maintenance and slow growth of Pitt’s program, though, has kept him from becoming a splashy name. He doesn’t excite the big money boosters at other programs. That means less pressure on the AD to pursue and money thrown at Dixon. A lot less than a coach at a mid-major or another school who engineers a quick turnaround or makes a big splash by getting to the Sweet 16 very abruptly.

Given the history of Pitt in keeping coaches and paying the money, I think this has been a big help in keeping Dixon and building his trust and desire to stay at Pitt over time. There was only after his 3d year, the serious threat to him leaving.

Now having said that, never assume “forever.” There are a couple places on the West Coast that could come calling in the next 3-5 years that can’t be taken lightly. Oregon may have extended Ernie Kent, but if he flounders they will cut him loose. They have lots of money going into new facilities and they have Phil Knight of Nike ready to give them more for anything they need. I also don’t think I will breathe easier until Lute Olson retires and is actually replaced at Arizona. That is an attractive job and they will have the money to throw as well.

With basketball practice starting in less than 3 weeks, Josh (Merlin) Verlin over at the Oakland Zoo is getting geared up. He’s happy about the Dixon extension and notes that Pitt’s Media Day will be on October 16, the day before the first official day teams can practice.

Finally, for the hoops deprived, the tip-off for college basketball junkies will be on Tuesday November 18.

A marathon of 14 college basketball games on Nov. 18 — spread over 23 consecutive hours — will help kick off the 2008-09 college basketball season on ESPN.

The games open at midnight ET with national championship game runner-up Memphis hosting Massachusetts, where Tigers head coach John Calipari once coached. It wraps up with the two winningest programs in college hoops history — Kentucky and North Carolina — meeting in Chapel Hill at 9 p.m. ET.


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