Well, here it is, and without further delay, the final edition of "The Good, Bad and Ugly" for the 2008 football season.
A 9-4 record was a nice first step for Pitt’s program getting on track so it is hard to get too wrapped up in the season-ending loss from a big picture perspective. It was a season that brought a lot of joy to Pitt fans, some exciting wins and really helped establish the program as one on the rise in the Big East and one which is one the verge of becoming an annual contender for the conference title. There were far more positives this year than negatives and now the Panthers must fill some holes in order to take the next step.
By the same token, there is no doubt these Panthers left us with the “could have been more” feeling, particularly considering all four losses were to teams who did not have better players than Pitt. There is no disgrace in losing to Cincinnati and Rutgers, two bowl teams who played better than the Panthers, but the losses to Bowling Green and Oregon State MINUS its two best offensive players are disappointing in many ways.
Getting upset is a part of football but if Pitt is ever truly going to get to where it thinks it should be it clearly has to get better in a few areas and it needs to become far more creative on offense. This offense once again in the Sun Bowl proved it is not very good at adjusting from week to week to what the defense gives it. Yes, it is tough to call plays when the quarterback play isn’t very good - but that’s especially true when you continue to call the same plays week after week even after said quarterback has demonstrated he can’t make the throws necessary for those plays to work (for instance, can Pitt please take the deep fade patterns out of the play book until there is quarterback under center who is actually capable of throwing that pass……).
That being said – let’s look at the Good, Bad and Ugly from the Sun Bowl, which was a 3-0 yawner won by Oregon State over your Pitt Panthers and a disappointing end to a very good season……
THE GOOD: Pitt’s defense played well, albeit against a crippled offense devoid of playmakers, and the Panthers defensive line did indeed beat up the Beavers offensive line and won the physical battle with the Beavers. Pitt also tackled well and the corners and safeties made a lot of good plays in pass coverage. Two seniors who had excellent games were Eric Thatcher and Austin Ransom who both actually had what might have been their best game of the season.
I believe that Pitt has found a punt returner for next year in T.J. Porter. He averaged 14.3 yards per return, he broke a couple of decent ones and he really gave Pitt a chance to have decent field position the entire game. He is becoming one of Pitt’s most reliable players and he really is a guy who needs to become a more prominent priority in the passing game as well.
Dorin Dickerson had two catches on the final drive. He is a also guy who needs to become a much bigger priority in the passing game because he has proven he can do something with the ball when they throw it to him.
THE BAD: I know it was tough sledding with the lack of the passing game but LeSean McCoy, particularly in the second half, went back to his dancing ways and trying to make too much happen on every play. There were a number of times he could have made three or four yards had he just followed the play instead of trying to dance around and make something bigger happen.
Yes, you have to live with his dancing some of the time because it leads occasionally to a big play or two. But the bottom line is moving forward and great running backs understand that three or four yards is a good thing more often than not, especially in a game when your offense can’t get going. This is an area he still needs to improve, though he is clearly going to face stacked defenses every week next year unless the passing game shows a pulse. He also gets a lot of credit for keeping his head up and keeping his head in the game when it was clear that Oregon State was selling out to stop the run and clogging all of the running lanes because they had no fear of Pitt’s passing game.
The offensive line, particularly at tackle, was clearly overmatched.
Chase Clowser made the defensive end he was playing against from Oregon State – Victor Butler, who was named the MVP of the game by the way – look like DeMarcus Ware from the Cowboys and Joe Thomas looked like a guy who decided to take the month of December off. It didn’t help that instead of stepping up into the pocket to make throws Pitt quarterback Bill Stull continually retreated into the danger zone, but the protection breakdowns were a part of the offensive problems.
Pitt’s receivers this year have impressed me with their resiliency, their grit, their hard-nosed attitude – but against Oregon State they played soft and seemingly uninspired. Like Joe Thomas, they looked like a group who took a month off and viewed the trip as a vacation. They weren’t crisp with their routes and they didn’t do very well getting off the Beavers’ press coverage.
Greg Williams became a much better player this year, one of the most improved on the team. He also had Pitt’s best chance to score – and dropped an easy pick six. I know, I know, defensive players are on defense because they can’t catch – that’s a cop out.
Great defenses make big interceptions and turn games around by making big plays and this defense, as good as it was this season, had far too many opportunities to make big turnovers and dropped the ball.
That is one reason I am not jumping for joy about the “tremendous” defensive effort Pitt had – stopping a team with a very average quarterback that is missing its two best players is something any defense worth a grain of salt should do. What separates the great defenses from the good are they are able to make game-changing plays and Pitt’s defense made very few – and there a number of others to be made and the Panthers failed to make them.
THE UGLY: It would be easy to sit here and write a three-volume novel about Bill Stull’s performance but what good would that do? He didn’t play well by any measure, he knows it, he said as much and there isn’t much else to say about it. We know his limitations as a quarterback and he clearly his worst day, which is not a good combination and that’s about all that needs to be said about it. Pitt needs to get better play at quarterback if the Panthers really want to get to the top of the Big East next year and that is something that everyone, including the coaches, knows and acknowledges.
However – as I wrote at the start of all this – as bad as Stull was --- I have to also point the finger at (a) whoever drew up the offensive game plan and (b) whoever made the decision to keep Stull in the game as long as he did.
In fact, as bad of a day at the office as Stull had at the office, I think it is fair to ask – who had a worse day – him, Clowser or the play callers and decision makers who left them in the game and did little to change things up in order to help them out?
For instance, I’ve been a critic of fans who are always crying for Greg Cross to get in the game – but if ever there was a game that cried out for something different, and if ever the team had enough time to put together a few packages for a guy with his talents, this was it. Particularly when you consider that the Beavers defense in their last game gave up 65 points and like 400 yards rushing TO A SPREAD OFFENSE TEAM.
Let me state that again – a team gets ripped by a spread offense running the ball. Pitt has a quarterback who you recruited to run similar spread schemes. Pitt had almost ONE MONTH to prepare said quarterback and offense for a few packages like that.
And the best Pitt could come up with to try and take advantage of some of the holes in the Beavers defense is throwing up their hands and throwing deep fade patterns which have no chance of hitting their mark? And at what point would Pitt’s coaches acknowledge that not only was Stull struggling, he just wasn’t comfortable in the pocket, was flinching every time he was getting a rush and it wasn’t his day? What would it take? A change should have been made in the third quarter – and heck if the only play Pitt worked on for a month was a deep fade (and that is what it looked like) – why not put Kevan Smith in since he at least has the strongest arm of the quarterbacks…..
I mean, seriously, I’ve written this before – this team has to be about 3-for-3,456 in connecting on fade patterns and deep fade patterns, yet fans all want to blame the guy throwing them – why not blame the guy who keeps calling for them? Or better yet, the guy who has the power to veto those play calls and for whatever reason continues to let them happen? Where are the shorter passes, the slants, the quick outs, heck even the bubble screens we all love so much, the tight end routes, the bootlegs, the waggles, the throws out of the backfield to Conredge Collins --- how about anything at all different than chucking and ducking deep fades which have no chance of connecting.
Did we see one reverse? One attempt at a trick play of some sort one attempt to switch things up on Oregon State’s defense? It was almost like the coaching staff said ‘well the game plan didn’t go well, our quarterback is struggling so let’s throw up our arms and start throwing deep fades and run up the middle so we can go home.’
You watch bowl games – 34 of them to be exact -- and every team except Pitt clearly (a) looked at film of the defense they were going to be facing and (b) put in some very specific plays that they know would work against that defense and most of the time for big plays. You want to talk about certain players taking a month off that’s fair but I’m wondering what the offensive coaching staff did for a month because the utter lack of creativity, imagination and inability to adjust to a struggling quarterback on a windy day was really scary. In other words, where was plan B?
Further – when you have a mediocre quarterback playing poorly, which Stull was for the final month of the season, why do you only hand the ball to your best player, LeSean McCoy, three times in the first 15 offensive plays? Why is McCoy off the field on the third series and every third series after? Why does Pitt take its best player out of the game so often?
THE REALLY UGLY: And finally – on the drive when Pitt finally got something going – the second drive of the second quarter – the Panthers did it by running the football. Pitt went from its own 16 to Oregon State’s 37 – a drive of 47 yards. The Panthers ran the ball seven times on that drive for 36 yards, which by my math is more than five yards per carry – and the only pass was the 11-yard wounded duck from Stull to Cedric McGee on the sidelines.
So let’s review – seven rushes for 36 yards (5.1 yards per rush) – to get to position where Pitt could start thinking about scoring some points. And that of course begs this question -- why did Pitt on third-and-3 decide to throw one of those deep fades and follow it with another pass on fourth-and-3?
If the Panthers coaches knew they were going to go for it on fourth (which we based on comments about how those decisions are made, we can assume they did) – is it against the law to run the ball twice and keep the drive and momentum alive? I mean what was the problem – was running the ball working too well?
I was amazed watching the USC-Penn State game that down and distances like third-and-three and third-and-two can actually still be running downs these days because after watching Pitt for a season I thought they had become mandatory passing downs…..
The same can be said about the offensive line – yes Chase Clowser struggled and Joe Thomas was not very good at blocking for both the run and the pass. But exactly whose decision was it to continue to watch two bullfighters allow defensive ends to run right past them instead of trying something else?
I mean, why did Pitt recruit Lucas Nix, then decide to burn his redshirt for like 15 or 20 mostly meaningless plays and then not play him in this game when not just one but BOTH of the tackles were awful.
Same thing with Chris Jacobson – why not move Bachman to tackle and throw him in there after John Malecki got hurt or try some other combination once it became clear the line was in trouble? You mean to tell me that either of those guys would have done worse than the debacle we witnessed? Once again – if ever there was a game that cried out for giving Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson a chance to show whether they can be the guys of the future this was one.
And one other thing – I can’t kill the 58-yard field goal attempt because at that point it was out of desperation but it really made no sense. And the clock management and game management in those final minutes was very bad and cost the Panthers one more legitimate chance to score – and in a 3-0 game it only one takes one scoring drive to win.
Consider, Pitt had all three of time-outs and a third-and-9, Pat Bostick in the game at the Beavers 41 and about 2:35 left. The Panthers also had all three of their time-outs – which meant if they passed the ball on third down even if it was incomplete the clock would be stopped with about 2:28 to play. Pitt could then pooch punt and try to pin Oregon State down inside the 20 or maybe even 10 and with three time-outs have a chance to force the Beavers to punt from the shadow of their own goal line (or depending how good the punt was, perhaps even from in the end zone).
And because Pitt could stop the clock after first, second and third down, the Panthers would have been able to take possession at about midfield or better (especially given the way TJ Porter returned punts) and there’d still be about 1:55 or so to play. Then all of the sudden, when Bostick hits Dorin Dickerson with one of those passes in the middle of the field, the Panthers are back in legitimate field goal range – not 40 yards away from it.
Again, there is no guarantee Pitt would have stopped them (though they did) but with three time-outs, the ineptitude of the Beavers offense and the way Pitt’s defense was playing – I’d take my chances with the defense forcing a punt and giving the offense one more chance. That’s especially when the other option is throwing a virtual “Hail Mary” and kicking a field goal from a distance that even the best kickers in the world are probably, what, oh I don’t know, say 25 percent or so from, especially since it is also a distance that is realistically out of Conor Lee’s range.
This is meant to be no disrespect to Conor Lee, he is a great kicker and I believe he’ll kick for an NFL team some day, but a 58-yard field goal when there is actually some game left to be played reeks of utter desperation, panic. It should have been an absolute last resort – but it wasn’t, it was basically the Panthers throwing their hands up and giving up, something this team hadn’t done all season long.
Think about it -- Instead of fighting for the entire 60 minutes and trying to extend the game as long as possible, Pitt ran the ball up the middle on third-and-9, got one yard, then let about 20 seconds run off the clock before wasting a time-out to set up the long field goal. Then the Panthers stopped the Beavers on three consecutive plays – but after third down Oregon State was able to let the full 40 seconds run off the play clock before they called a time-out then punted – but they were punting from the 40 instead of say, their own 10 – and thus Pitt took over at their own 11 with only 53 seconds and no time-outs.
All in all it was just not a good day at the office for Pitt but good teams can find a way to win a game like that when everything isn’t clicking. But not only did the Panthers not win, I’m not sure they were given the best opportunity to win by the offensive coaching staff who should share some of the blame for not being able to come up with even one point for the first time in 149 games…..