Pitt must have lost by 100 points at home last night to Florida International's JV squad judging from my e-mails, which range from everything from "this team won't win six games" to "the defensive line is pedestrian" to "Pitt's overrated and lost to a bad team".....
Now, the good news is many of the most over the top slobbering rants came from Penn State fans, you know the group of people who work very hard to try and convince themselves and everyone else who will listen to them that "they don't care about Pitt" yet fill up their message boards with rants about Pitt and send nasty e-mails by the dozens to anyone who writes anything positive regarding Pitt.
I've come to expect that from Penn State fans as they and their favorite program are sort of the Walter Mitty of college football and I suppose I should expect the reactionary responses many from the Pitt fan base based on experience but this has been even more extreme than usual especially since here is the bottom line of all of it - Pitt lost by a field goal in overtime on the road to a ranked team who is likely to win at least ten games this year.
It isn't Ohio, it isn't Bowling Green, it isn't N.C. State, it isn't Connecticut 2006 - Utah was one of the best 30 teams in the country in their home stadium where they haven't lost since 2007.
Now, we can - and will -- analyze why they lost and what it means but these knee-jerk "Pitt stinks" reactionary responses to this loss is ridiculous because I don't know anybody I talked to who expected Pitt to win every game and most had the Panthers losing two or three.
If there are two criticisms which are absolutely legitimate they are these:
1.) Dave Wannstedt absolutely played not to lose and played for the tie and that is almost always how you lose games on the road. The draw to Dion Lewis to set up the game-tying field goal was a very, very conservative call and the rationale I received when I asked the question of “we didn’t want to lose yards [if Sunseri took a sack]” is ridiculous because it was a 30-yard field goal and even if you take a sack (which if you call the right play you don’t) which means you were well within Dan Hutchins range. Once again the fear of what negative could happen trumped the idea of trying to win the game. Hutchins missed a field goal early he needs to make - it was a 42-yarder -- but overall he kicked the ball fairly well both as a kicker and punter.
2.) Pitt had 17 plays in the redzone according to my count going through the play-by-play. Out of 17 plays in the redzone, how many times do you think Pitt threw the ball into the endzone? Once, to Mike Shanahan in the back of the endzone and one other time. But worse than that how many times did they throw the ball to Jon Baldwin? How about zero. Yep, that’s right not one pass into the endzone to Jon Baldwin, who is only 6-foot-5 and has like a 42-inch vertical. That’s ridiculous. And after the game we were given the standard lines about “not having the right coverage” to throw the fade but again, playmakers make plays, unless you don’t give them the chance to. It is also telling that when we asked Baldwin about the “coverages” he said he wasn’t double teamed and had mostly man coverage, which begs the question – to sort of quote Vince Lombardi – What the heck is going on down there? And to sort of quote Keyshawn Johnson – throw him the darn ball. Look, I once watched Larry Fitzgerald catch 22 touchdown passes in a season and more than half of them were just “put it up there and let him make a play” and everyone in the stadium new it was coming, defenses were lined up to stop it and guess what, they still couldn’t. And they couldn’t because great players make big plays. Baldwin is bigger, faster, stronger, jumps higher and has better hands than just about every single player who will be asked to cover him this year. I know this, if you throw a ball up in the air to Baldwin even in traffic, I like his chances of coming down with it more often than not and the times he doesn’t, he’ll at least knock it down. Give the guy a chance to be a star, that is football 101.
Those two criticisms are absolutely valid but my overall message to Pitt fan is this - take a deep breath and relax and let the season play out before we fire all the coaches, bench Tino Sunseri, run Jon Baldwin out of town and declare this to be the worst Panthers team ever.
Now, onto last night's game:
** As we expected, only two freshmen - cornerback K'Wuan Williams and defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- played and both played well, though Williams saw limited snaps on defense. He did play a lot on special teams, though, and I'd expect if the injury to Dom DeCicco (his hamstring, which we will get too later) is going to keep him out for any extended period of time that Williams will have to play a greater role because it would mean Jason Hendricks - who I thought played an excellent game all things considered – would have to assume the safety role and he is currently their nickleback. Presumably Andrew Taglianetti, who didn’t play on defense but did on special teams, would become the nickleback but Williams would become more valuable in some of the subpackages. As for Donald, as I wrote here a few days ago, he clearly has passed Tyrone Ezell, who didn’t play on defense last night. Pitt also rotated only one – Brandon Lindsey – defensive end into the game.
** Dom DeCicco should not have been on the field last night as he has been slowed by a hamstring injury late in camp and it never really healed. He was a step slow and on the 24-yard pass which set up the Utes second touchdown – he reinjured it and pulled up lame and that was it for him for the night. The play was a simple crossing pattern and DeCicco saw it but couldn’t run with the receiver which is why he was wide open. The secondary as a whole actually played pretty well contrary to popular belief. There was that play, the first touchdown which was a blown coverage and the 61-yard touchdown in which Pitt blitzed but Antwuan Reed apparently didn’t hear the call and adjust to it and thus that was a blown coverage as well. Obviously you can’t give up touchdowns like that but both of those were a result of inexperience. Overall Reed played well, Ricky Gary played well, Hendricks played well and Jarred Holley played well. They will get better and they did get better in the game. Really, Utah made one big play in the passing game in the second half – the long touchdown – but for the most part the Panthers tightened some things up and did some good things in coverage.
** The linebackers are a disaster and I’m not sure there is an answer right now. Dan Mason was lost in pass coverage and really got spun around several times on those short crossing routes which turned into big plays. He also didn’t take great angles when he blitzed. You hope it is inexperience and he’ll get better as the season wears on and he’s going to have to because they are going to see these spread teams more often than not. Mason has shown he can be force against traditional offenses but there aren’t many of those around. Greg Williams, like Mason, looked lost in pass coverage and Tristan Roberts missed a big tackle while Max Gruder played just OK. It is a long season but this unit has a long, long way to go. We knew that to some extent before the season but nobody could have expected they’d be back to performing at the N.C. State-game level of last year.
** The offensive and defensive lines both had mixed performances. The offensive line got a little better as the game wore on and really did some good things late in the game. That was a very tough spot for the offensive line – their inexperience, not just individually but playing collectively, showed up as Utah did a lot of things to confuse them and also took advantage of conservative play-calling in the first half by stacking the line and attacking the run game without fear. Of the five, Greg Gaskins had the toughest night but again, this is a unit which should get better as the season wears on. As for the defensive line – it certainly didn’t distinguish itself but that is not an offensive scheme in which the “rush four and cover with seven” philosophy is going to work against. In fact, the Utes took advantage of the Panthers agressiveness several times with little screens and counter plays. That’s why it isn’t fair to judge the defensive line based on what happened last night – that offense is a bad matchup schematically for what the Panthers want to do. Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard both need to and will make bigger plays than they did but Pitt didn’t start slowing down that offense until it threw in some blitzes. Jordan Wynn was 0-for-6 with an interception when Pitt blitzed until he hit the 61-yard touchdown pass, which was just a miscommunication and a blown coverage.
** The offense was too conservative early – and late -- and while it is admirable to want to run the powers to death, it also makes the Panthers very easy to defend for a team with athletic linebackers and speed in the secondary. I don’t care how good Dion Lewis is, he isn’t going to carry the load against stacked defensive fronts and Utah was begging Pitt to try and beat them via the pass. I understand it was Tino Sunseri’s first start but he showed late in the game that if you take the handcuffs off him a little bit he’ll be good enough to make throws and make plays. Was he great? No. He got better as the game wore on and made some big throws in the final quarter. He will continue to improve as he gets more experience so as I said before the season, he’ll be fine.
** The receivers made some great catches last night – particularly Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler. Shanahan is a big target and has a great set of hands and Saddler made both a diving catch and a really tough catch on third downs when Pitt absolutely had to have them. This is a good unit – they need to be given a lot more work than they got last night.
** Here are some Pitt notes: Buddy Jackson and Antwuan Reed both recovered fumbles and in Jackson’s case it was the first of his career. Reed also blocked a punt, his first career blocked punt. Jarred Holley had his fourth career interception. Pitt has blocked 23 kicks under Dave Wannstedt. Sunseri hit Baldwin with a two-point conversion, the Panthers first since Bill Stull hit Cedric McGee against UConn on Oct. 10th, 2009. Pitt is now 6-7 in overtime games.
** Here are some Utah notes: The Utes have now won 18 games in a row at home. It is the second-longest home winning streak in school history. Utah is now 5-4 in overtime games. Utah now has 20 wins against BCS conference opponents since the BCS began in 1998 – that is the most by any non-BCS Conference team. Last night was Utah’s first win in an opener over a ranked opponent (1-5 all-time). Utah is 8-0 against teams from the Big East.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham – “I think everyone got their money’s worth. I’m proud of how our defense played in some bad situations. This team has a “never say die” attitude. That’s just the personality of this team. We made one more play than a good Pittsburgh team, who is ranked 15th in the nation and is still a top-25 program in my opinion.”
Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, of Poinsetta Bowl fame – “The defense bailed us out. Hopefully, we can help them out next time.”
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt – “We struggled early to throw. We knew we’d have to find some balance. Every week they make it tough on Dion (Lewis). We need some balance. We only had 43 yards passing in the first half, that’s tough.”
Pitt cornerback Antwuan Reed on his blocked punt and fumble recovery – “None of that matters because we lost the game. Winning is all that matters.”
Pitt wide receiver Jon Baldwin – “The coaches make the calls, I don’t question them. Frank Cignetti is a great offensive coordinator and will find ways to get me the ball.”
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri on the redzone strategy – “What we were hoping to do is try to establish the run in the redzone.”