Raleigh, N.C. -- As I sat in the press box and reflect on this game - a 38-31 loss to N.C. State -- one of the writers who covers N.C. State said to me "this has to be one of the worst losses you've covered, right?" to which I laughed and said, "not even close...."...and that may speak a lot more about the state of Pitt's football program than anything I could write in this space after that complete meltdown in the final 18 minutes of that game tonight.
But that got me to thinking -- and just in case you need to be reminded -- I started covering the Panthers in 2002 and so where does this loss rank in the list of the mind-boggling, poorly played and poorly coached Pitt losses that I've had the pleasure to cover since then. I'm not sure if this will make Pitt fans feel better, or worse, about what went on today in Raleigh....
So before we get into the game, and without further delay, here are the worst Pitt losses since I've covered the team....
1.) Ohio 16, Pitt 10, OT (2005) - It is one thing to get beat by a MAC team. It is another to get beat by a bad MAC team, particularly when they don't score an offensive touchdown. But this loss was the difference between the Panthers going bowling in 2005 - a year after going to the Fiesta Bowl. This is the worst team Pitt has lost to since I've covered the team. The Panthers dominated this game in every category, but played for a field goal at the end (instead of the touchdown) to tie it and send it to overtime.
2.) Connecticut 46, Pitt 45, OT (2006) - The Panthers led the Huskies by 14 points with about nine minutes to play. But they got too conservative on offense and allowed the Huskies, led by quarterback D.J. Hernandez, to go on two long touchdown drives to tie the game then the Huskies won it in overtime. Once again, if they win this game - against a team which finished 4-8 - they go bowling. Instead, they finish 6-6 and stay home. Hernandez, by the way, was such a good quarterback that he was moved to wide receiver the next spring.
3.) I'm all redfaced that I forgot this gem - THANKS to Imma_Man_Im_40 for reminding me about this one and this is where I'd rank it: Navy 48, Pitt 45 (2007) -- At some point we all believed there would be some, any defensive adjustments in this game but they never came and the Midshipmen basically ran up and down the field against the same defense. But despite that and a whole lot of other head-scratching moments, the Panthers still had a chance to win as they trailed by three in double overtime and had third-and-goal from the 2. It was simple, right? Hand the ball to your second-round draft pick running back and run behind your first-round draft choice tackle - a guy who had fish flopped Navy defensive linemen around the field the entire night -- once or maybe twice and win the game.....or maybe not. Instead of running twice, the Panthers chose to put the ball in their freshman quarterbacks hands, he threw two fades and neither was close to connecting. The loss was the difference between a 5-7 season and a 6-6 season which might have been enough to get to a bowl.
4.) Bowling Green, 27 Pitt 17 (2008) - Pitt jumped out to a lead then (are we getting a pattern here yet) got ridiculously conservative, left Bowling Green - a MAC team which finished 6-6 and a team which saw its coach fired at the end of the season -- in the game and by the time it figured out it was in a game, was scrambling to try and get back into it. The Panthers had several opportunities early to blow the game open but opted instead to punt inside the 36 on fourth-and-short.
5.) West Virginia 24, Pitt 17 (2002) - Yes, I know, it is a rivarly game and the Mountaineers were on the rise that season but the Panthers, who were at home, dominated the game but turned it over four times -- three of them either in or down near the redzone. And as bad they played, they still had one last chance but the always reliable Larry Fitzgerald dropped a game-tying touchdown on the Panthers final drive.
6.) Texas A&M 14, Pitt 12 (2002) - All together now -- "the swinging gate"!!! Pitt might have won this game had it not been for the ridiculous decision to try some sort of swinging gate formation on the first touchdown the Panthers scored. Pitt took a bunch of illegal shift penalties on it and ended up missing the extra point. Then, when the Panthers scored late, they had to go for two to try and tie the game and didn't make it.
7.) Toledo 35, Pitt 31 (2003) - Unlike Ohio and Bowling Green, the Rockets were at least a good MAC team. Still, the Panthers, ranked in the top ten, put former Seton-LaSalle star and then-Toledo quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in the college hall of fame in this game. But despite an awful performance by the defense, the Panthers still could have won this game had they converted a late third-and-1. Of course, instead of quarterback sneaking Pitt's 230 or 240-pound quarterback or running a fullback who is now in the NFL - against a defensive line they pushed around - the Panthers opted to throw a wide receiver screen, behind the line of scrimmage to the left side of a left-handed quarterback (meaning he had to turn his body the wrong way and was throwing back behind the receiver) and the play failed, Pitt punted and Toledo marched down the field for the winning touchdown.
8.) North Carolina State 38, Pitt 31 (today) - The Panthers led 31-17 with four minutes left in the third quarter agianst an opponent that defines mediocrity - and that is a common theme with just about every one of these losses. But somehow Pitt allowed NC State to go down the field three times and score touchdowns in the final 18 minutes of the game. The second and third drives had all of the gems of a bad loss -- penalties, missed tackles, failure to get off the field on third-and-long and even fourth-and-long. Despite a bad performance, the Panthers had one last chance when N.C. State handed them the ball on the 8. But four plays produced zero yards and Pitt didn't even take one shot at the "jumpball" to Jonathan Baldwin, even though he was being guarded by a 5-foot-10 guy (who I am told by N.C. State people is a former walk-on) and a freshman safety.
9.) Oregon State 3, Pitt 0 (Last year's Sun Bowl) - The Beavers entered the game without their two best offensive weapons and it showed as they did absolutely nothing on offense and were dominated by the Panthers defense. But Pitt made sure the Beavers were never in danger of losing, despite only kicking a field goal, because they self-destructed under a barrage of bad decisions, bad plays and the Panthers never made any adjustments to try and do anything other than chuck the ball in the air and hope someone catches it. Then, the one good drive they did put together was fueled by LeSean McCoy and the running game but on third and fourth and 2 the Panthers threw the ball twice, both incomplete and turned it over on downs.
10.) Notre Dame 20, Pitt 14 (2003) - Yes, I know it is the Irish, but this was a bad version of the Irish. And they had a freshman quarterback, Brady Quinn, who did next to nothing but didn't have to because the Irish ran Julius Jones off tackle for like 9,876 yards.....Pitt on the other hand couldn't protect its quarterback and never made any adjustments, for whatever reason, to slow down the Irish pass rush. The Panthers also blew all three of their time-outs in the third quarter (then couldn't stop the clock late when they needed to) because they couldn't get plays into the game quick enough. Of course, we (the stinking media) asked Walt Harris after the game what was the problem getting the plays in and he produced this gem "It is hard to call plays when you are not sure which ones will work!" Really?
11.) Nebraska 7, Pitt 6 (2005) - Nobody expected Pitt to win this game, but the Panthers should have won it except: Greg Lee was somehow caught from behind on a pass down the sidelines in which he had about two steps on the corner covering him and there was no safety over the top -- of course, instead of running straight to the endzone, he ran across the field and was caught and Pitt had to settle for a field goal; Pitt had Nebraska's quarterback sacked for a go-ahead safety, but he somehow shed the tackle and got out of the endzone. Pitt then lined up on third down for a game-winning field goal and even caught a break when the ball was centered off the holders helmet and Josh Cummings grabbed it and threw it into the flat for an incomplete pass - which stopped the clock and gave Pitt one more chance -- but the field goal was blocked and the Panthers lived at heartbreak hotel yet again.
Honorable Mention: Notre Dame 14, Pitt 6 (2002) - The Panthers dominated the Irish in every category but couldn't get out of its own way in the redzone. Michigan State 17, Pitt 13 (2007). The Panthers would have won had they punted on first down every drive of the first half. Instead they insisted on turning the ball over. All 17 of Michigan State's points came off turnovers.
As notes from the game:
** The Panthers defense was bad. The secondary was really bad. But not every player on the defense played bad. Mick Williams had 4 1/2 tackles for loss and a career-high eight tackles. After the game, he had bumps and bruises and ice packs all over his body - he clearly left it all out on the field. I also thought Elijah Fields was the one member of the secondary who played reasonably well.
** Quarterback Bill Stull was effective again. He completed 12 of 23 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns. But a disturbing trend has developed for this team in the second half of games -- the inability to keep drives alive. After Jonathan Baldwin's 79-yard touchdown reception the Panthers went three-and-out on four consecutive -- their final four -- drives. That suggests an inability to make adjustments and also a lack of creativity and it also suggests that the offense at least had a little hand in the loss. Think about this -- N.C. State had 81 offensive plays, Pitt had 46 (time of possession was N.C. State-37:07; Pitt-22:53 -- that has as much to do with the offense's inefficiency as it does the defense's inability to get off the field.
** Building on that theme, Dion Lewis had 10 rushes for 79 yards in the first half -- and nine rushes for only 16 yards in the second half. Again, 31 points should be enough to win most games and the offense is improved, but the offense still is not efficient in the second half when it should be closing out ballgames. This is a disturbing trend because Pitt's a team that wants to seal victories with its running game. Lewis did score two touchdowns, giving him seven rushing touchdowns on the season. The Pitt record for freshman rushing touchdowns in a season is 15 by LeSean McCoy.
** Defensive lineman Chas Alcxih blocked a field goal, the Panthers first blocked kick of the season.
** Cameron Saddler saw his most extensive work on the offense and cashed in a 13-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Dave Wannstedt said he wants to get him more involved in the offense and they did a nice job of trying to get him the ball as he had 111 all-purpose yards.
** Had Pitt won the game, a strong case could have been made that Dan Hutchins, the punter, was the MVP as he punted six times for 45.5 yards and kept the Wolfpack in bad field position for a lot of the game. Hutchins bounced back from a tough game punting last week against Navy.
** Add Russell Wilson to the list of "guys who looked like college hall of famers against Pitt's defense". You know that list, the one which includes guys like Hernandez, Gradkowski, Pat White, Julius Jones, Quincy Wilson, Naaman Roosevelt, etc., etc. Wilson completed 21 of 35 passes for 322 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran 10 times for 91 yards. It certainly wasn't the best performance we've seen against the Panthers but it was pretty impressive to say the least.
Dave Wannstedt - "Our guys gave enough effort to win the game but we made too many mistakes to win the game. What is so disappointing is the penalties [Pitt had eight for 80 yards], we brought officials in on Wednesday to practice and they followed those guys around. For us to have penalties today, like we did last week, is very disappointing. Defensively, we didn't make any plays. I thought if we would have scored 31 points, we wouldn't have lost this game.
"There is no excuse for these penalties. The pass interference penalties are always debatable but where there is smoke, there is usually fire and you don't get called that many times week after week without there being something there. The penalties we had on defense were mind boggling."
Tom O'Brien - "Right now, we're not a good football team and I'm not a good coach. I have a lot of work to do this week, the team has a lot of work to do this week."
Aaron Berry on why the defense couldn't get stops-- "We had them third-and-long a couple of times up 14 points, him scrambling and making plays with his legs was big for them. We have to find a way to tackle, get them down, so we'll just go to the film room and see what we can improve. We know we played hard enough and tough enough to win the game it just didn't happen. We need to tackle better, a lot of missed tackles today and we have to finish plays."
Greg Romeus on whether it is a bad day for the defense or just a bad defense - "I have 100 percent faith in this defense. We have talent across the whole secondary and in our linebackers. We're not worried about this, we can't get down, we just have to pick up from here and continue to get better."
Jonathan Baldwin on why the offense failed to move the ball late in the game - "We failed to execute. Coach calls plays and we need to execute. The [fade] wouldn't have been successful against the defense they showed us."
Bill Stull on the last play - "I had some pressure and I had to put it up and didn't make a good throw. I need to make a better throw."
Mick Williams on the defense "It comes down to tackling, we missed too many tackles and we didn't play disciplined enough to win this bowl games. We took too many penalties. [Russell Wilson] played a good game, he balled out today and that is all I can say."