Pitt is 0-1 after losing a 27-24 overtime heart breaker at Utah which means the Panthers have to bounce back and get on the winning track next week against New Hampshire. Pitt should win that game but there won’t be much more we know about the Panthers than we do now, which is not much.
At any rate, it is time to do our weekly look at the past game – we call it The Good, The Bad and The Ugly -- before we put the game to bed and begin to look ahead.
*** Tino Sunseri was 16-of-28 for 184 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Now, don’t get me wrong and let me be clear – I’m not saying he was great or even good for most of the game. The reason I put his performance in this good category is this – it is a good sign that he got better as the game wore on and by the end, he looked like he was much more comfortable as the game wore on and I really expect he will be one of those players who will just get better and better as the games wore on. He made some big-league throws down the stretch. Again, I’m not saying he was great, but I am saying it is a very good sign that he got better as the game wore on. It was a difficult spot for a guy to make his first start and he handled it well once he settled down.
*** The same can be said about the secondary and the offensive line. I think both have a long, long way to go but both did get better as the game wore on and in the case of the secondary it wasn’t the best of circumstances given injuries to both Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti. Once DeCicco got hurt, Jason Hendricks played safety – which meant there was no nickleback as Taglianetti is still not ready to play that as he is still a little bit banged up. And the only big play the secondary gave up in the second half was the 61-yard touchdown pass and that is because Hendricks --- who was in his first game and doesn’t have any experience making calls and making sure (like a veteran would) everyone hears it and is on the same page, didn’t communicate to Antwuan Reed what the coverage was and Reed played the wrong coverage and his man was wide open. That was the only play they gave up in the second half. Again, I’m not saying the secondary was great, I thought it was OK, Hendricks, Jarred Holley (who had a nice interception to save a touchdown and keep Pitt in the game before the half), Reed and Ricky Gary all played reasonably well and I’m not saying the offensive line was great, either. I am saying it was a good sign that both improved as the game wore on as that should bode well for the future.
*** Dan Hutchins was a little shaky in missing his first field goal and he certainly had a little case of the nerves when he lined up for his last. But his punting was very good and he did make three-of-four field goals, including the one to tie the game. Hutchins is a good steady kicker and punter and that is good because this is a team which is going to play a lot of close games. I expect him to have a big year.
*** The receivers, and in particular Cam Saddler and Mike Shanahan, had a really good game – and you can throw Mike Cruz in there, at least as a receiver, as they made some tough catches in big spots. Shanahan is as reliable as they come, Saddler made two really difficult catches on third downs. Interestingly enough, the one receiver who didn’t have a great game was Jon Baldwin as I thought he was somewhat invisible – and some of that was not his fault – for parts of the game. He was open several times, however, and the ball went elsewhere.
*** One most common complaints I get from fans is "the coaches didn't make any adjustments." I happen to think that is often just one of those bad football cliches and is generally a silly criticism because for every adjustment there is a counter-adjustment from the other team which could be a bad trade for your team. And more importantly, we don't know everything that goes into a game plan so it is hard to know what is an adjustment and what is planned. But last night the "Wanny never makes adjustments" crowd had to be happy to see that once it became clear the "rush four and only four" stuff wasn't going to work against the Utes offense he started to send some blitzes and they worked well. In fact, the first six times the Panthers blitzed, they forced Jordan Wynn into five incompletions and Jarred Holley's interception. The Utes caught them the seventh time and got a 61-yard touchdown out of it but as I pointed out, that was a miscommunication between an inexperienced safety and inexperienced corner and thus a blown coverage. So Wannstedt did adjust and bring some blitzes and those adjustments really kept the Panthers in the game because for most of the first half it looked to me like Pitt would not be able to stop Utah. The Panthers, however, were limited in what subpackages they could use in the second half because of injuries but they still made the most of it by becoming more aggressive in their base defense.
*** Salt Lake City is a beautiful city, a town in a wonderful mountain setting with clean air, clean streets and an unbelievable abundance of “God’s country” surrounding it. I had a few extra hours and hit Antelope Island State Park and was amazed at the beauty of the mountains, the Great Salt Lake, the wildlife – I saw hundreds of Buffalo grazing – just an really scenic place to be.
**** Despite improving from start to finish, the offensive line didn’t play well by any measure and frankly there was nowhere to go but up after the first half so improvement is a relative term. I would expect that the right guard position will be open up again and if Ryan Turnley is healthy (he has had a shoulder issue) or Jack Lippert shows any signs of life this week one or the other or both will be given a long hard look Saturday against New Hampshire. Pitt has to get better at that position. Center Alex Karabin did some good things but has to get better as well. The same can be said about just about every player on the offensive line and make no mistake about this – the value of Nate Byham as a blocker cannot be underestimated as this unit clearly missed him Thursday. Byham was a dominant blocker while none of these tight ends on this team are (which is why we saw Jordan Gibbs line up at tight end in the goal line situation on Lewis’s touchdown) and there is no substitute for what he did. Mike Cruz made some nice catches but he still has some work to do in order to become the kind of physically dominant tight end this offense needs. There is just a long way to go for this group to become good enough to give the Panthers a chance to win, but you'd expect they'll improve with more experience.
**** Linebackers are not supposed to be able to cover wide receivers down the field and rarely are capable of it but linebackers still must be able to cover tight ends, running backs, fullbacks and occasionally receivers running underneath routes. This is especially true in Pitt’s scheme, which absolutely demands that linebackers be able to cover at least a little bit. That being said, this unit didn’t cover anyone Thursday night. Max Gruder had the best night of the bunch and made some plays but not enough and more troublesome was the number of times the linebackers either bit on play-action or let guys run free right in front of them. And even on plays when linebackers allow a guy to catch the ball they have to make a tackle.They didn’t do much of any of that so like the line there is a long, long way to go for this group.The most troublesome spot is the weakside spot which is where the most veteran player of the group plays and that is scary, though Dan Mason didn't have his best night either. Again, this group was hurt by the loss of Elijah Fields – but that was in the spring so there should've been a better plan in place by now.
**** The stars did not shine, or even flicker much for that matter. Take away a 3-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis and the 44-yard touchdown reception and 2-point conversion from Jon Baldwin - who made a great double move and burnt the corner who was watching him -- and the four guys on this team who are supposed to be difference makers – Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Baldwin and Lewis did very little to change the game. Now there were some circumstances obviously – Utah’s scheme makes it tough for a defensive line to create a lot of pressure, the Utah defense was stacked against the run and Baldwin didn’t get his number called enough. But Lewis missed a couple of runs which last year he broke for long ones and the two defensive ends didn’t sniff the quarterback and that can’t happen. And big-time players make big-time plays to change games and the Panthers have no chance if these four aren’t making big-time plays on both sides of the ball. They are difference makers. These guys are obviously the least of Pitt’s worries and I’d expect they will all bounce back in a big way and sooner rather than later but it certainly wasn’t a good start for the Panthers stars.
**** While most of the people in Salt Lake City were friendly and it is a beautiful town, the self-importance of the stadium security guards and some of the people who worked for the university running the press box was quite alarming. I wanted to quote Stripes and tell a number of them “lighten up, Francis it isn’t life or death.” There was also no place in town to get something to eat after about 11 p.m. as things shut down pretty early there.
*** The negative plays – 12 penalties, Jon Baldwin’s rightfully overturned touchdown, Sunseri’s pick in overtime, the failure to score touchdowns inside the 10 (Pitt took four or five redzone penalties), the missed field goal by Hutchins plus the missed field goal which was negated by the time-out, Jason Douglas’s fumble – they all spoke to a team with some inexperience playing on the road in an opener. But that excuse only goes so far – this was a really ugly display of football and poor execution in so many ways. This team has a lot to clean up.
*** The coaches watched the film and saw this – there were far too many plays out there to be made that Pitt’s players just didn’t make and that had little to do with the opponent. There were a number of times Baldwin, for instance, was open and Tino couldn’t connect with him and like I said, there were several runs Lewis could have made but he hesitated a little.
*** I think I’ve written it a few times so I won’t beat a dead horse but 17 plays inside the 20 and not one throw to Baldwin? There is something wrong with that equation. And I have had several people question whether Baldwin can catch jump balls and I can tell you he is very good at it because we’ve watched him do it at camp. It doesn’t have to be a high percentage play, either, in fact a great example was Notre Dame in 2008 – say what you want about Matt Cavanaugh but he had the guts to call it three times in a row before it was thrown right and Baldwin came down with it. After that game – Pat Bostick started it for an injured Bill Stull so the passing game was very limited – Wannstedt admitted that pretty much the only passes they felt good about completing that day were jump balls to Baldwin because he was the guy who could make a play so they called a heavy dose of them. I’m not saying you do it every play or a majority of plays, but to not even try one?
*** Along those lines, I hated the decision to play for the tie. If ever there was a time -- well, like last year at N.C. State in the waning seconds -- to try and let Baldwin make a play that third down -- when they ran a draw to Dion Lewis -- was it. There was no reason not to take a shot there - a sack still leaves you well in field goal range and if you throw the fade right only one guy has a chance to come down with it, plus Baldwin has shown he is very good at knocking the ball down if he isn't going to be able to catch it.
*** You can’t kill the guys for not scooping and scoring that blocked punt, but my goodness how does that not get picked up and run into the endzone? It was a great play by Antwuan Reed to block the thing and it looked like there were like six Pitt guys standing over top of it – how does that one not go for six?
*** Jason Douglas had a kick-off bounce off his chest and to the other team. Another mistake we’ll chalk up to youth and inexperience and hopefully now that he got that experience of playing in that hostile environment, he’ll be rid of his (redshirt) freshman jitters for good. And speaking of the hostile environment here is some more good news - Pitt won't play in another stadium that comes to close to as loud and hostile as Rice-Eccles Stadium was the other night and that includes Notre Dame even though there will be twice as many fans there. That stadium was loud and rocking and those Utah fans didn't let up from the start of the game to the finish. It was a great college football atmosphere and definitely worth at least the three points - and likely even more - that a home team is generally going to get from the guys in Vegas.