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September 30, 2008

Looking to Tampa

Filed under: Coaches,Football,Opponent(s),Wannstedt — Chas @ 1:57 pm

I’m not going to dwell on the Syracuse game. I mean it. If you want to see some good summation, check out Zeise’s “Good, Bad, Ugly.” from yesterday. Not much more needs to be added by me on that.

Survive and advance has been what we’ve seen from PItt. The players aren’t denying it, but they aren’t apologizing for it either.

And as Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop describes it, the Panthers would be able to wipe away some of the negative vibes that have surrounded the program since losing the season opener to Bowling Green and struggling to beat mediocre teams in each of their past three games.

“Whatever it looked like, whatever people think about it, whatever we did or didn’t do right — we won the game and now we are 3-1 and on a little bit of a roll,” McKillop said.

“Now we go to find out where we stand — South Florida is the measuring stick for the rest of the conference. They are a great team and they’ve been rolling this year.

“It has been a long time since we got a chance to play on national television with something on the line and we need to capitalize on it — we need to show that we’re a good team, that we can play with good teams and beat them.”

You know, he’s right. In terms of showing that, rather than just being a spoiler or that Pitt was “making progress,” it has been a while before a national TV audience. You would have to go back to the Rutgers game of 2006 for the last nationally broadcast game where Pitt had a chance to show people that they weren’t a pretender. Pitt was 6-1 and Rutgers was 6-0. One of those teams was going to turn out to be a fake. It was Pitt as that was the 1st of 5 straight losses to doom the season.

Now it’s the first real test and it will be for all to see. Three wins so far. A good chance none of the teams Pitt has beaten will finish above .500, so that has held to the typical standards. The only teams Pitt has beaten that finished better than 6-6 have been Cinci (in ’06 and ’07) and WVU (’07). 3-16 in Wannstedt’s tenure (and the jury is still out on whether BGSU gets put in that group). Thursday night games have been a flop for Pitt — period.

The Panthers are hoping to reverse a disturbing trend when they play the Bulls at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Raymond James Stadium. Pitt won four of its first five games on ESPN’s Thursday night package — including a 21-17 victory over Miami in 1997 — but has lost eight of its past nine. The exception was a 16-13 victory over West Virginia in 2004, which helped clinch a share of the Big East title and, ultimately, a BCS bowl.

Wannstedt is 0-3 on Thursdays. Not that he’s worried — about himself?

“I’ve been around these short weeks,” Wannstedt said.

“Every year when I was with the Cowboys, I think four years when I was with the Bears and three years when I was with the Dolphins, we played on Thursday — Thanksgiving — and one thing that I think helps you more than anything else is what you do the week before.

So pulling out a win against a really bad team means, what?

“If you do well the week before, if you look back, teams usually on a short practice, guys aren’t as sore, guys are into it and guys are excited to go out and play again.

“So the win [against Syracuse] will definitely give us a chance to prepare as best we can in three days.”

I suppose from an attitude standpoint since they came away with a win it will.

Guess what? Pitt needs to run the ball.

Wannstedt is correct in stating that the running game has served as a great indicator of how Pitt fares. Over the past 16 games, dating to the start of the 2007 season, Pitt is 8-5 when it runs for 100 or more yards, 3-2 when it runs for 150-plus yards and 2-0 when it surpasses the 200-yard mark. The Panthers are 0-3 when held to less than 100 yards.

“For us to win games, we’ve got to run the ball,” Wannstedt said, “or it won’t happen.”

Well considering the QB situation over the last 16 games, yes, it would be vital. In those same games, the Pitt QBs have thrown for under 200 yards in 12 of the 16 games (5-7 record) and exceeded 200 yards 4 times (1-3 record). Pitt hasn’t had a 300+ passing game since Palko graduated. Say what you will, but this is really a Wannstedt/Cavanaugh team with those passing numbers.

Well, at least there are no mousetraps this week.

“If you need a theme to get pumped for this week’s game, you might as well not show up,” Pitt tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling said. “Everybody better be ready to play. We know it’s going to be a tough game. And we have to be ready. We know it’s going to be a great atmosphere for them, being at home, and their fans are real rowdy. But we have a pretty much veteran team, so we’ll be ready for that.

“This is a big game for us. We knew that, starting last week, every game is for the Big East championship, so that’s going to continue with every game. Every one is for the Big East championship from now on out. [South Florida] is one of the top teams in the Big East that everybody is talking about right now, so it’s definitely another big statement game for us.”

Although the players know this a very big game and aren’t afraid to say it, Wannstedt has tried to downplay the magnitude of the game. He said the Panthers are going to treat it like any other game.

Sure. It’s just your typical Thursday night road game on ESPN against the #10 team in the country. Nothing different there compared to all the other games played this season. He did have to answer questions at the weekly press conference about whether this team “has turned the corner.”

“I hope. We’ll find out. This will be a great opportunity this week. This will test us in areas where we haven’t been tested — the atmosphere, the talent — a lot of different factors.”

So, this is a big game.

When the question turned to Bill Stull’s struggles. Guess what theme Coach Wannstedt sticks with?

“Billy has struggled a little bit on some of those short passes and I think that’s because he’s just anxious to get those guys the ball when they’re open. That’s a little bit of inexperience but as I’ve said many times before, he’s only making his fifth start. He’ll improve every game.”

That’s funny. Most people watching Stull thinks it’s because his footwork has been shoddy. Dancing about, throwing off the back foot, and generally not stepping into his throws. Maybe he is forgetting, maybe he just doesn’t think he has room with the O-line. Whatever, I am not buying the “inexperience” excuse.

Before the season, it was how Stull was the best kept secret in the Big East and would surprise people. He struggles and it’s inexperience.

I like Stull. I think he’s the best option at starting QB. The fact is, though, he hasn’t been very good. If it’s “inexperience” as Wannstedt puts it — despite being a redshirt junior and having been in the system all this time — then that is one more issue with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh’s development of QBs. And that sure doesn’t bode well with those that follow Stull.

Wannstedt also said that LB Shane Murray saw action in about 15 plays versus Syracuse and could see more on Thursday. Right guard Joe Thomas has a turned right ankle, but should be available — if not starting on Thursday.

DPJ of Cat Basket was at the press conference and he reports that Wannstedt was a little more critical of Stull’s performance than the transcribed quote indicated. He was not inspired.

Also this week, the subject of Jonathan Baldwin and Lucas Nix was brought up. Dave said that it was unfair to the older guys like Joe Thomas to have them out of the game for a freshman. He also cited inexperience and mistakes as reasons of why they could not play. Luckily someone in the audience pointed out that Baldwin caught the 2 point conversion pass and almost broke a screen pass on a 3rd and forever into a first down. The only response Dave Wannstedt had for that was that we were on a 3rd down and wanted to do a safe play where we would not lose any yardage. I wish someone would have pointed out the continual bad play of Turner and asked about that, unfortunately we were left with a non-answer.

The vibe from this press conference really gives off the impression that Wannstedt knows what our limitations are, but he refuses to address and change to fix those weaknesses. I really don’t think Greg Cross will get any significant playing time, and neither will Baldwin or Nix. I’m also afraid that this team is not being given any motivation to go out and upset this team. If the team does not believe we can win, then there is no way we will win. We need to come out angry and play like it is us against the world just as we did last year vs WVU. I just hope that on Friday morning there are a ton of comments telling me that I was wrong.

Are you kidding me? Unfair to older guys? What happened to the best players play? Oh, but they might make a mistake. Ugh.

This from ESPN.com Big East writer Brian Bennett says more of what we already knew.

Mark from The Burgh writes: Why do you think Wannstache is so reluctant to use his young talent that he is just leaving on the shelf, it’s like you have to be a junior or older to play or I guess a redshirt sophomore? How many games do you think the Panthers can win? They are winning in some close games that has to be good for something I would think.

Brian Bennett: Wannstedt’s reliance on veteran players is a reflection of his conservative nature and his background as an NFL guy. I thought his comments on the Big East coaches’ teleconference Monday were telling, when he basically said that in big games the first thing he looks at is how to avoid mistakes that will lose the game. That’s the mentality. The other thing to note, at least this year, is that the Panthers haven’t had any breathers. Every single game has been life or death in the second half, even Syracuse. It’s hard to put young players in those spots. As far as how many they can win, I’d say right now they’d be favored in three more games this year (Navy, Rutgers, Louisville) with two more games looking like toss-ups (at Notre Dame, at Cincinnati). Plus, they have the rematch with West Virginia at home. So my original prediction of eight wins is still very possible if they continue to improve.

[Emphasis added.]

I’m not encouraged about Thursday night.

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