Pitt’s 28-21 loss to Cincinnati Saturday night was a frustrating night for Panthers fans no doubt but it probably is most disappointing considering the amount of time the team had to prepare for that game and the fact that for at least three quarters it appeared as if the Bearcats were far hungrier and far more focused than Pitt. In fact, for two quarters in the middle of the game, the Panthers played with so little passion and so little fire that I began to wonder if they understood there was a championship on the line. Seriously, the final quarter it finally hit them – but by then it was too late. Cincinnati outplayed them and Tony Pike had a great game, but the Panthers spent far too much of the game standing around and watching and didn’t seem overly motivated to try and win until it was, well, just too late.
So with that, here is the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the Cincinnati game…..
The Good: LeSean McCoy averaged nearly 5 yards per carry and he was also the team’s leading receiver with six catches . He is a special player, one who fans should appreciate, a legitimate game-changing back.
The Special Teams were excellent on Saturday. The Panthers blocked two kicks, limited the Bearcats return game and thus won the field position battle, especially early, and Dave Brytus, outside of one shank, was great punting the football all night. Pitt also forced a fumble on a kick-off return. You’d think the kind of effort that the special teams gave would have been enough to give Pitt an edge, but for the most part, the Panthers squandered field position (like letting a 99-yard drive happen after a great pooch punt to the 1 by Brytus).
T.J. Porter is the most underrated and under utilized player on the roster. He makes very nice catches and he isn’t afraid to get hit and he can run after the catch as well. There is no question he should be on the field more and he should also have the ball thrown his way more.
Scott McKillop was credited with 17 tackles. I actually think he had more. He was all over the field and he made some key tackles. He did a great job of trying to keep Pitt’s defense in the game and did so without a lot of help.
Dorin Dickerson – Remember him? Yeah, he’s a pretty good player, a great athlete and it only took ten games but the Panthers finally figured out he could be a dangerous threat down the middle on a seam route or something similar. His touchdown reception was an example of how he can be a major weapon --- and how those of us who watched Kris Wilson play assumed he’d be used. Hopefully it is a sign of big things to come for him.
I have been a very big defender of Aaron Berry. I still maintain he is a good player and a good cover corner. But his head is somewhere else and he has become the dreaded "good player who is playing very poorly." He just hasn’t had a good year, by any measure, and he needs to get his head back into it before the season is over. If he was entertaining thoughts about the NFL, he should forget about it and worry about re-establishing himself as a top-flight cover corner because the way he’s played this year has been very much disappointing. Saturday he didn’t even really seem interested in trying to get inside his guy on a few post patterns, in routes, etc. – he just has lost his technique or something.
The defensive line – as good as this unit has been, this was certainly not their finest hour. In fact, it might have been the worst performance by this unit to date and here is why – at some point you’d think that when a guy continues to step up in the pocket and move out of the pocket and make you guys miss, the light would go on and the linemen would begin to take different angles, be more sound in what they do in terms of containing a guy and stop running past him, as if he is a bullfighter waving a towel at them. I thought Rashaad Duncan and Gus Mustakas did some good things in stopping the run, but the two rush ends especially seemed lost the entire night and never adjusted to what Tony Pike was doing. Again, you have to tip your cap to Pike because he made some great plays, but one has to wonder why the defensive line didn’t do anything to adjust to make sure they kept him in the pocket.
The offensive line – This unit had been pretty good and pretty solid but again, fell apart some. Both tackles struggled to stop pass rushes off the end, Dom Williams was a non-factor for the most part and the team didn’t protect Bill Stull, either. Then there were a few penalties – it was not a very good outing for the offensive linemen, that’s for sure. The dead-ball personal foul penalty that John Malecki got was a close call, but a mistake that Malecki – who has been one of the best and most consistent players on this team by the way – can’t make at that point in the game. I think he was probably still thinking the play was going and thus he was blocking down the field so it is understandable how it could happen, but it is just one of those penalties that really wasn’t very smart and really was a killer.
Bill Stull, like Berry, I’ve defended the guy and still think he is a good player. But he didn’t have a good game and even Dave Wannstedt admitted that many of the seven sacks Pitt gave up were because Stull was doing his Ben Roethlisberger imitation and holding the ball far too long in the pocket. Stull also wasn’t terribly accurate with his passes.
The outside linebackers on this team are really struggling. Austin Ranson has a lot of heart, tries hard and is a hard nosed kid but it is clear he isn’t good enough to do some of the things they are asking him to do and Greg Williams and Elijah Fields are both clearly still learning.
The Panthers were also out hit, out-hustled, out-physicalled and beat up by a far hungrier and far more intense team that simply seemed like they wanted it more. Cincinnati’s receivers were laying it on the line to make catches, even when they knew they’d get hit or had to lay out to do it. Can you say the same about Pitt’s receivers? I know it is fashionable to blame all of the problems Pitt had on Pitt, but the Bearcats deserve credit because they are responsible for some of what went wrong for Pitt, they played a great game and deserved to win. Tony Pike played a great game, the Bearcats receivers were great. There is something to be said for good players making plays – but there is no excuse for getting out-hustled and out hit and this is the first time this year I can say that the Panthers effort was not what it needed to be.
While Aaron Berry is simply playing bad, the rest of the secondary, has been this team’s Achilles heel because of (choose one, or more than one) (a) youth (b) inexperience (c) miscommunications and (d) certain players just are not good enough. I mean, how many more touchdowns is this unit going to give up where there is nobody in the same area code of the receiver? Cincinnati had three of them and of course the same reasons are given – Elijah Fields fell down on one, Dom DeCicco made a rookie mistake on one and the safety/corner combination didn’t communicate well on one – but my goodness, we are ten games into this thing and this unit hasn’t gotten better. And the number of big plays it gives up is scary and astonishing. Again, in Berry’s case, he’s not playing well and he is playing like a guy who is not focused – but at least there is hope that for the last two games, he could pull himself together and play like he is capable. The rest of this unit – especially the corner spot opposite Berry – is killing this team. There are far too many busted coverages and far too many big plays given up, after which one or more guys are shrugging their shoulders and pointing to others as if to say "I thought you had that guy" I don’t know if Antwuan Reed is the answer, but he cannot possibly be worse than what we’ve seen.
The receiving corps had its worse game, and I include the tight ends in that. Bill Stull wasn’t great, but he also hit these guys on the hands (by my count) five times and they dropped it. Jonathan Baldwin, for all of his talent, had a couple of chance to make big plays but didn’t seem overly interested in laying it on the line to make them. It is one of these things a freshman has to learn – you have to go hard on every single play to become a great player. The other receivers just had an off night and didn’t make catches you’d hope they’d make.
Once again, the offensive game plan, particularly early in the game and on first down, didn’t seem to play to the team’s strengths. The fact that LeSean McCoy only carried the ball 17 times – in a road game that is a must win with a championship on the line – is ridiculous. I know the company line "we had bad down and distances" but you know why there was bad down and distances? Because someone thought running a reverse to Cedrick McGee on first-and-10 (as opposed to you know, handing it to McCoy or running a reverse to someone with game-breaking speed like Aundre Wright) was a good idea – that is until it became second-and-18 or because someone thought taking a ten-step drop and three-different play actions on first-and-ten instead of handing to YOUR BEST PLAYER was a good idea and that turned into second-and-20 when it became a sack. Look, I get it, your trying to keep defenses off balanced but guess what – you still have to ride the horse that got you here. It is as if the extra week to prepare was a bad thing because it gave the staff too long to start trying to think up ways to get clever – when in fact, this team plays its best ball when it keeps it simple (i.e. hands it to McCoy a bunch) and just lines up and beats teams physically. I mean, even if you give a great player like the ball ten times in a row, they might stop it nine but the tenth he could take it to the endzone. That’s what great players do and championship teams put the ball in the hands of their franchise players. Some of the sacks Bill Stull took were his fault, some were a result of him being put in harms way on a night when it was clear they were struggling to block the other team.
McCoy, for as great as he is and well as he played, made one of the biggest gaffe’s I have seen a player make in a long, long time and it may have cost the Panthers a chance to get the game into overtime. On that final lateral play, when Derek Kinder pitched it back to McCoy, he had the entire sideline with no Bearcats defenders in front of him. He probably could have scored but instead he stopped playing, as if he though the play was over. Then he just sort of chucked the ball backwards once it was clear the play wasn’t over. Again, the sense of urgency on that play was just not there – it seemed like Pitt sort of just gave up on it when in fact, it looked like it had a chance to work – and that is ridiculous considering it was do or die. McCoy should have ran until someone tackled him or some official grabbed him and said the play was over. He said he stopped because he thought he heard a whistle – if he just thought he heard a whistle, that is even more reason to take off running to the endzone until someone confirms to you that the play was actually over.
Speaking of that lateral play – what the heck were the officials thinking? Why in the world was Cincinnati’s fans allowed to run on the field not once, but twice, before the game was over. This should have been a 15-yard penalty – just like at the end of the Texas-Texas Tech game when Big 12 officials had the courage to enforce the rule and penalize the home team. I have no problem with fans coming on the field to celebrate a big win – but wait until the game is over. And officials need to make this call far more often than they do.