Many thanks to my co-worker and our esteemed Pitt basketball writer Ray Fittipaldo for stepping in for me these past few days as I needed some time off given the back-to-back road trips and short week in between. I’m also fighting off the flu, but I think I finally am starting to win that battle. And soon this blog will be Ray's domain much more regularly as the Panthers hoops team looks to make another run to the NCAA Tournament. (As an aside, I know they are going to be a little young but I went out to Greentree a few times to watch the summer league and I was really impressed with those young frontcourt players, particularly J.J. Richardson....)
At any rate, the N.C. State game is a thing of the past and while I think it was certainly a disappointing loss -- particularly since the Panthers played well for about 42 minutes and actually held a 14-point lead -- I also think a number of Pitt fans are losing their minds when they are calling for the heads of coaches, players and anyone else associated with the program about it.
The Panthers didn't finish the game, they didn't make the plays they needed to going down the stretch and they didn't handle prosperity (a 14-point lead) particularly well -- but the bottom line is this -- they lost to an ACC team (not a MAC team, not a team in its first season as a Division I program, not a I-AA) on the road by seven points (as opposed to, say the Virginia game of 2007 when they got beat by like 30) and it is only one loss and obviously, it wasn't a conference loss.
So my first thoughts are take a deep breath, take a step back and let the season play out a little bit more before you start firing people and yanking scholarships. A lot can happen and this is or at least can be a good football team.
Think about it -- Pitt is 3-1 and getting read to start the games that really matter - Big East games. Yes, they let yet another winnable game get away and while the disappointment and frustration from the fan base is easy to understand given the recent history of this program, it is also a little misguided considering there is so much of the season left. But the bigger picture is the Panthers are 12-5 in their last 17, so they are winning a lot more than they are losing these days.
That being said, the Panthers won't survive another game against any team with a reasonable amount of talent if they don't get some things fixed and fixed quickly. They need to start learning how to finish games and the defense needs to stop talking about being great and actually start playing like it is great. Heck at this point, forget great, good --- even "slightly better than mediocre" -- would be an upgrade over what we've seen in two of the past three games from that unit.
In fact, if that defense - and in particular the secondary -- doesn't get it together in a hurry, they could go down to Louisville and get beat by a team which is banged up and lacking direction and a program which seems to be in disarray. (As another aside -- think about how far and how fast Louisville has fallen. I mean, in 2006 they won the Big East and a BCS Bowl. And that year after they played Pitt and won 48-24 in a game that wasn't even that close, I remember talking to some people in the press box and wondering if the Panthers would consistently be able to compete with the Cardinals because they had that thing rolling. Just two years later Pitt beat Louisville 41-7 and just three years later [meaning, this year] a lot of people picked them to finish last in the Big East. It is an amazing free fall and one which, sadly, has probably hurt the Big East's credibility in some ways because this is one of the programs that was on the brink of competing for a place in the top 10 every year.) I know this defense looked great in training camp and appears to have enough talent, but I am beginning to wonder if maybe some of that talent is overrated. But there is eight games left for this defense to prove it isn't this bad.
So, like I said, relax, take a deep breath and let's take a look at the Good, Bad and Ugly from the N.C. State game.
** The Offense scored 31 points and Bill Stull continues to show he can be an effective player and can make plays in the passing game. He hit Jonathan Baldwin with long touchdown pass, he has been efficient, and he has thrown the ball to his receivers for the most part in good position for them to make plays. I don't think anyone expects Bill Stull to be Dan Marino, but he has been much better than he was at the end of last season and the way he is playing will give the Panthers a chance to win games. And I think he has, at least for now, put to rest any quarterback controversy. He is the guy who this team will sink or swim with and deservedly so.
** Dorin Dickerson. Forget his talent - Saturday he played like a man on a mission and showed the kind of will to win and toughness that some people thought he didn't have. Yes, he didn't come up with a really tough catch in the endzone but that would have had to be a spectacular catch as the ball was thrown a little bit high and he took a big hit at the same time. But he had a couple of plays where he caught the ball and made guys miss, ran through tackles and struggled for a few extra yards. He had a 20-yard kick-off return also and it seemed like a lot of those yards came after he got hit. He's finally coming into his own as a player and a weapon.
** Dan Hutchins had a tremendous day punting the football. He is really pretty good at directional kicking, at pinning teams inside the 20 and he really was a big reason the Panthers held a big edge, at least early, in field position. He also made all four of his extra point attempts as well as a field goal, so he showed he can be reliable that way as well.
** The defense was horrible (we will get to that) but Mick Williams was a warrior. He was the one guy on that side of the ball who really showed up and was accountable. N.C. State couldn't do much with him and his 4 1/2 tackles for loss was evidence to that point. During training camp in a Q&A I was asked who would be the leader of the defense and I said Williams and he hasn't disappointed. If the other ten guys took the field with Mick's intensity and passion, perhaps we'd be talking about a 4-0 football team.
** Dion Lewis had a great first half and finished with a very respectable 19 carries for 95 yards (5.0 per carry). He also added two touchdowns. He did tail off in the second half, which has been a little bit of a trend, but I think one thing that has worked against him is that teams expect Pitt to run the ball once it gets a lead in the second half so he is facing more "eight and nine men in the box" type situations. N.C. State certainly sold out a little bit to stop the run. Still, being as he is a freshman, it is hard to not like what we've seen from him this far.
** Maybe he was just "the best of the worst" and thus hard to accurately evaluate but...for the second game in a row Elijah Fields actually played pretty well and seemed to be where he was supposed to be a lot more than not. Fields clearly needs to be more physical than he has been, but he has been pretty good at making tackles (far better than his teammates) and he has been pretty good in coverage as well. Again, it could be just that he wasn't as bad as his teammates but he at least appeared to have a decent game.
** Special teams – the units, all of them, are good. The punt return hasn’t been explosive – but Aaron Smith catches the ball well and makes the most out of whatever he is able to get. The team doesn’t give up many big plays in the kicking game, don’t get kicks blocked – and blocked a kick of their own. This is one area which the Panthers seem to be consistent and very good.
** Offensive line – I think this unit continues to answer a lot of questions each week. The Panthers only gave up one sack and have gotten better each week in pass protection. The run blocking has been good, but needs to continue to improve as the Panthers will no doubt face more and more stacked fronts.
** Bill Stull and the offense. How could he be both good and bad? Because as I wrote in this article the offense hasn't been nearly as good or efficient --- or aggressive -- in the second half of these games as it has been in the first. And when you are handed a gift – a ball on the 8-yard line – and you can’t cash in – well, then you aren’t ready for prime time as an offense. Four consecutive possessions went three-and-out to close the game. The offensive inefficiency had as much to do with the Panthers getting pounded in time of possession and in number of plays.
** The defense, as we know, did not play well at all. The Panthers gave up 530 yards, 27 first downs and frankly at some points looked confused and winded. The disappointing thing is that this defense was supposed to be good, perhaps even great. But the linebackers had perhaps the worst game I’ve seen played by that unit since I’ve covered the team. The secondary still can’t cover anyone. And for all the hype surrounding the defensive ends, they’ve yet to show up and make an impact – and they are supposed to be difference makers for this team. I still think there is enough talent on the defense for the unit to be good, but they need to start playing better and I think that perhaps they are going to have to do some things a little different to give the secondary some help.
** Sometimes coaching is to be blamed for bad offense and sometimes it is up to the players. A great example of the latter was the drive the Panthers had right after N.C. State tied the game 31-31. Dickerson returns the ball to the 45, setting up great field position. Pitt got a holding penalty, however, setting up a third-and-11. Bill Stull then dropped back and delivered a good throw down the field about 20 yards to Jonathan Baldwin on the sidelines. Baldwin caught the pass, but he didn’t have an awareness of where he was in relation to the sideline and when he landed, his foot was a few feet out of bounds. That should have been a first down and Baldwin, as he gets more experience, will learn to get his foot down in that spot. Yes, the throw was a little to the outside, but it was a good throw nonetheless. So that drive stalled because of a holding call and poor execution of what should have been a big gain.
** Dan Mason didn’t look healthy for much of the game and thus didn’t play as many snaps as people expected him to. It looked like he got his shoulder dinged up a bit in the Navy game and when he made a tackle early in the N.C. State game he came off holding his arm and it continued like that throughout the game. He is healthy according to Dave Wannstedt, as is Adam Gunn, but again, we’ll see Friday when the game against Louisville game starts who is actually healthy.
** While the defense as a whole has been bad – the pass defense, or the lack thereof – has been rather awful. And it isn’t just the secondary. A lot of the passes thrown by Russell Wilson were just little circle routes, wheel routes – whatever you want to call them – where a guy out of the backfield, either a running back, an H-back or a tight end, or a slot receiver, runs underneath the other routes and into the middle of the field and thus forcing a matchup where he is covered by a linebacker. Pitt’s linebackers, and it didn’t really matter which one it was, were toasted the entire day by these plays and couldn’t cover or tackle anyone until it was too late. The secondary has been a mess from day one and frankly it is probably time to make some changes, either in personnel or in the coverages and defenses which are being played. I don't know if the younger guys are better than the guys who are starting, but at this point, I have to ask -- can they really be worse than what we've seen thus far?
** Tackling. I don’t understand it to be honest – there is no team in the country who spends as much time tackling and hitting at training camp as the Panthers. People ask me – do they even practice tackling? I’m telling you, they have more periods of inside run drill and tackling drills during their camp and even during the season than most teams. They should be able to tackle – but they take bad angles and they don’t wrap up and in some cases, I’m not convinced the guys trying to tackle are good enough to make the plays that seem like they should make.
** Penalties are becoming a real big problem. The pass interference penalties are really getting ridiculous. I think that they are usually 50/50 type calls but like Dave Wannstedt keeps saying – there has to be something to them. Jared Holley’s was probably a tough call given the circumstances as was Aaron Berry’s. But the bottom line is, don’t make contact and in Berry’s case, get in better position, and you won’t leave it up to an official to make a call. And some of the personal foul penalties are just examples of playing dumb and/or selfish football. This one is on the players, not the coaches.
** First-and-goal from the 8 with the game on the line and while games are generally won and lost by players and their execution, the sequence of plays in that situation was less than inspiring. A run on first down, a side ways pass on second down and who knows what the heck fourth down was? The third down play at least put the ball in the endzone but it wasn’t executed as well as it needed to be so that is on the players. But the other three plays didn’t even give the Panthers a chance. And of course – how in the world do you not throw at least one, if not two or three, fades / jump balls (whatever you want to call them) to Jonathan Baldwin? For that matter, how do you not throw it to him at all? He is your best offensive weapon – the guy who is supposed to be your difference maker, let him make a play. That’s what great players do. They make plays to win games (or in this case tie them) and to not give him a chance is very puzzling. And it isn’t like they don’t practice this – they spent all of training camp throwing touchdowns to Baldwin by putting them up and letting him go get them. Last year against Notre Dame, they did it three times in a row before he came down with it. That’s what he does.
A NEW BOWL GAME - Finally, in case you haven't heard the New York Yankees and apparently Big East and Big 12 are partnering for a new bowl game which will be part of the Big East's lineup starting in 2010. The Yankees are set to make an announcement tomorrow (Wednesday).