Welcome to the Monday edition of Redshirt Diaries. As always is the case, we will take this time to review Saturday's game - a 27-14 win by the Panthers over Navy in terms of "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly".....
* Dan Mason - Those of us who watched training camp said this kid was special and that he'd need to be on the field and he didn't disappoint Saturday. Yes, it was one game against an inferior opponent, but that is a tough offense to deal with and there is a lot to learn in a short time for a freshman playing the most important position on the defense. Mason is everything you want in a middle linebacker, tough, physical, fast, intelligent and most important, he's hungry. He said after the game he wasn't happy with how he played - he was the Big East defensive player of the week, so he must have done a few good things -- because he wants to be dominant, not just a guy who makes tackles. That's the mentality you need from that position.
* Bill Stull - During training camp, I said this many times -- this team will go as far as the quarterback play can take it. So far the quarterback has played extremely well and the offense has been sharp. Stull has been under control, he's spread the wealth, he's used his weapons - he has done a great job of making the reads, going through his progressions and making good decisions with the ball. About the only mistake he made on Saturday - and it was a mistake he made while trying to make a championship-level play, so it is hard to knock him -- was fumbling the ball inside the 5 on that crazy play where he caught his own deflected pass and ran it down the field towards the endzone. If he continues to play this well, the sky is indeed the limit for this team. The one major caution I'd make before we declare the passing game to be fixed -- Pitt has yet to face a defensive front seven that challenged them even a little. N.C. State isn't great, but the Wolfpack will at least bring the same level of athletes as the Panthers have recruited. Pitt has given up one sack in three games, which means Stull has had the luxury of standing in the pocket and playing pitch and catch. This week, he'll face some pressure for the first time.
* Jonathan Baldwin - Another thing I wrote about during training camp was Baldwin's development as a receiver. He showed this with six catches for 111 yards against Navy and he caught a number of different routes - not just the "go" routes and fade routes he was almost exclusively running last year. He wasn't a factor in the second half, however, so that is a little bit of a concern but he at least showed what a weapon he can be by jumping up and grabbing passes out of the air.
* The defensive line - You think this unit came into this game with a bit of a chip on its shoulder? Gus Mustakas was outstanding, Mick Williams, as has been the case since training camp began, was the best player on the field and both Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus showed up and made a lot of plays. That unit, when it plays like that, will be difficult for even the best offensive lines to handle. And even some of the younger guys, like Brandon Lindsey and Myles Caragein, made things happen, so there is depth as well. This group has proven that wonderful talent can make coaches look like geniuses, even those who have degrees from Penn State.....(relax, we're just joking. We think the world of Greg Gattuso, he is an excellent coach and he has done a marvelous job with this group, but every so often we feel it is our job to make sure he stays at least a little bit humble....)
* The defense as a whole - Beyond the front four, the linebackers and safeties -- Max Gruder, Greg Williams, Elijah Fields, Dom DeCicco -- all played excellent games. Gruder hasn't been talked about much but he's coming along nicely as is Williams. DeCicco rebounded from a tough game at Buffalo and aside from a boneheaded penalty, Fields really played well and made some key plays. This is the defense that we thought we'd see and while Navy isn't physically opposing, the Midshipmen have shown they can move the ball and score against almost anyone they play and Pitt shut them down for the most part.
* The offensive line - Again, it is important to note the level of competition through three games for this unit has been underwhelming as I didn't think any of the first three teams the Panthers played were particularly strong up front on defense. But the unit was pretty good on Saturday in pass blocking and while the run game didn't get going like it had in the first two games, some of the issues were the fault of the running backs. And the pass blocking wasn't great in the opener against Youngstown State but has improved the past two games and that bodes well for the unit heading into the stretch of games against teams with better talent.
* The atmosphere - It is always easy for fans of other teams -- even those teams who claim they don't care about Pitt but fill up my inbox with silliness about attendance figures -- and for people within the city to rip the game-day atmosphere at Pitt because, let's face it on many Saturdays it isn't very good. And there are plenty of reasons for that but what we saw Saturday was what I've always believed -- a night game at Heinz Field when there is a good crowd and the Panthers are playing well can rival college football atmospheres anywhere in the country. The noon games don't do much for me but I thought Pitt fans did a good job of making that Saturday's game fun. In fact, crowds like this and a number of others over the past seven or eight years are why I think the "moving the stadium off campus to the North Shore is the death of Pitt football" stuff is absolute hogwash. Pitt didn't sell out Pitt Stadium when they weren't winning or played an underwhelming opponent and it wouldn't be any different now. When Pitt wins games and plays good opponents, fans have shown they will come to the games regardless of where they are and the crowds are usually pretty good for night games. Also, I think the stuff on the Great Lawn for the student tailgates as well as Art Rooney Avenue for the family tailgates has dramatically improved the pregame atmosphere, so while we like to give Chris Ferris and company a hard time, we also think they deserve a lot of credit for trying to improve this area.
* Another slow finish - Pitt's offense has scored 55 first-half points in the last two games -- and just 13 in the second half of those two games (Pitt had a defensive touchdown and what might as well have been a defensive touchdown in the second half against Buffalo) even though both games remained competitive until late. Pitt needs to learn how to deliver a knock-out blow earlier in these games and for whatever reason hasn't been able to deliver it. Navy had a chance to pull to within six points in the fourth quarter and mostly because the Panthers left them hanging around. That's the kind of thing that will come back to haunt you against better opponents.
* The run game - The Panthers run game needs to do a lot better than 37 carries for 126 yards, that's only 3.4 yards per carry. I thought the running backs ran hard, they just didn't finish the game strong the way you'd think they would against an opponent like Navy. Pitt needs to be able to establish a physical running game against those kinds of opponents and while Henry Hynoski and Dion Lewis had a few strong runs but not enough. Pitt's running game will have to show up in a big way this weekend against N.C. State because nothing quiets a crowd quicker than long sustained drives by an offense.
* Dropped passes - Receivers drop passes from time to time but there were three really easy first downs dropped by receivers, including one by Baldwin and another by McGee at critical times in the game. You can't drop passes, particularly when you have a chance to extend drives. Had those three balls been caught, Stull would have been 20 of 24 for close to 300 yards.
* Antwuan Reed - He fumbled the opening kick-off and made a few other key mistakes in what was clearly not his finest hour. He's a good young player and he'll improve, but he's had a couple of penalties this season and he's been a little shaky at times the few times he's gotten a chance to return kicks. These are things he needs to get solved because those kinds of mistakes are the kind that get players put on the bench in Dave Wannstedt's world.
* Five 15-yard penalties - Who do the Panthers think they are - the Miami Hurricanes of the 1980's? There is something to be said for being aggressive and going after the other team. Those personal foul penalties you can live with. Stupid ones -- like roughing the punter when you have no chance to block a punt, whatever it was that Elijah Fields did after the play and Jason Pinkston's -- are the kind of penalties that will end up getting you beat in a big game. You have to be disciplined and frankly Dave Wannstedt made sure he made this a point of emphasis in his post-game team meeting. I don't think this will be an issue in the future, at least not to this degree.
* A shanked punt - Dan Hutchins had a good day kicking field goals and extra points. He had a bad day punting as he averaged only 29 yards on four punts. That isn't going to cut it, particularly when his 14-yard shank set Navy up on the Panthers 36 and led to the Midshipmen's touchdown drive to pull to within 24-14.
* The decision to put Tino Sunseri in the game - I understand the concept of trying to get Tino Sunseri a few snaps here and there but I'm not sure the third quarter of a game you are only winning 24-7 and you are taking possession inside your own 25 is the right time to do it. That's especially true given how well Bill Stull was playing at the time. It just didn't make sense and led to a very strange sequence of play calls, a punt (which was shanked as we just discussed) and a 24-14 game. That meant Stull had to go back into the game and it also meant the Panthers had to sweat out a win. Dave Wannstedt said he wanted to and still wants to get Tino into some games - but given how well Bill Stull has played, can we shelf the Tino experiment until the spring?
* The decision to kick a field goal from the 1 when you have a 24-14 lead with five minutes to play - There was nothing to be gained by kicking a field goal here if you looked at the big picture. Yes, you make it so Navy needed two touchdowns to win the game - but they needed two touchdowns to win it as it was because a touchdown and a field goal would only tie the game at 24-14. So you really didn't change much EXCEPT you gave Navy field position and you left them in the game. If you go for it and make it (and the way Henry Hynoski had finished a couple of runs late in the game, you might as well have given him a shot) the game is over so kicking off and giving up field position doesn't matter. But even if you don't score (and provided your play call doesn't involve a sack or something outrageous), Navy has to go 99 yards against a defense which, to that point, had dominated the game. And even if they do go 99 yards -- an offense like that would likely require plenty of time and it would still leave them three points shy of tying the game. It is basic game management and while I'm not one to often question decisions, because I don't get paid to coach, this one felt a lot like a team that was playing scared and playing not to lose.
* The PA system playing music during Navy's alma mater - A number of Navy fans e-mailed me and said that this was the ultimate disrespect of our armed services, as was the booing of Navy by Pitt fans when the Midshipmen came out of the tunnel. To this first part - give a lot of credit to Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson, a stand-up guy who is refreshingly honest about most subjects, who admitted it was just a mistake and that the music wasn't supposed to play at the end of the game during the alma mater. He reached out to Navy's athletic director and he made it clear that Pitt really values Navy as an opponent and hopes to keep this series going. So while it was a clumsy mistake, there was no malice intended and it should be filed under the "no harm, no foul" category. Now, about the second part - the booing of Navy being unpatriotic - give me a break, please. I know, I get it - those Navy players will some day defend our freedoms, but you know what, on Saturday they were trying to beat Pitt on Pitt's home turf and that makes them just another football team, at least for a few hours. And I don't know that I've been to a stadium or arena in ten years of doing this that the home fans didn't boo the opposing team. I'm quite sure all of the Pitt fans who booed Navy are patriotic and respect the armed forces and what they do and I think this is an example of how at some point the pseudo-patriotism that has become part of our culture ever since 9/11 has gone too far. Nobody was disrespecting soldiers or armed forces or the sacrifices they all make (by their own choice, I might add), fans were simply booing an opposing football team. Nothing more and nothing less.