I'm going to steal a line from a very good friend and colleague of mine, Tom Lucci of the Star-Ledger, who has somehow kept his sanity despite having to cover Rutgers football for the better part of the past two or three decades.
At one point a few years back when Rutgers was still trying to climb into the ranks of respectability they went through a stretch of about three or four games when Greg Schiano insisted they were just "one or two plays away" from winning games and that there were some moral victories to be found even in some tough losses.
After Pitt handed Rutgers another moral victory loss that year - it was a game Pitt led by like 100 points at half-time, fell asleep and the Scarlet Knights came back to win the second half and make it somewhat interesting - and Schiano waxed poetic about how great it was to win the second half, Lucci wrote something like (and this is a paraphrase) "great, another moral victory, which makes at least four on the season. Two more moral victories and Rutgers will have enough to be bowl eligible for the moral victory bowl.
I laughed out loud when I read it, unfortunately I have found that it is a line which I could use often in covering the Dave Wannstedt era of Pitt football.
Which brings me to today's game in which Pitt's head coach was again talking about all of the positives that took place in the second half of a 23-17 loss to Notre Dame. In fact, if you count the two wins and the Utah and Notre Dame losses as moral victories, well, Pitt is only two wins away from being bowl-eligible......
"Hey who cares that we lost another game we should have won. Who cares that Notre Dame really tried hard to give us the game and couldn't take it. Hey, who cares that our dream season is officially over and now we just are hoping the Big East is as putrid as it appears -- we played well in the second half and nearly came back and won the game......"
At some point, you just have to win games and this team clearly has no idea how to.
Why is it in these games there always seems to be stuff like - the missed field goal, the dropped snap, the players slipping all over the place, the wasted time-out, the penalties at inopportune times, the inability to field a punt, the inability to catch up to an offense until it is too late, etc., etc.....The only difference between this loss and the Utah loss is, well, the color of the other team's uniforms.
At any rate here is the bottom line dose of reality -- The Panthers are 1-5 (losses to ND, Miami, Utah, Cincy and WVU and a win over North Carolina) in their last six games against opponents of substance (in other words Florida International and New Hampshire don't count).
Let me repeat that - they are 1-5.
It doesn't matter how close those games were and how many ways the ball bounced the opponent's way and why it happened and who did what and what player got hurt and what player missed what assignment - the bottom line is 1-5 and it is a funk and a tailspin that Dave Wannstedt and company need to figure out how to negotiate their way out of or this could go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in Pitt history - and that is saying a helluva lot considering some of the years this program has had.
Here are some notes from the game:
** All was not lost, there were some very good things that took place in this game. Tino Sunseri played his best game of the year. It is clear he is making progress. Is he there yet? Nope. He still needs to work on the deep throws and that is something every new quarterback struggles with, there is just a feel to it. He'll get there, though, the big thing in this game was that he made good decisions. He made some really good throws under pressure, he hit Mike Shanahan on some intermediate routes and he did a good job of throwing the ball quickly. Overall he was 27-of-39 for 272 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The one interception he threw was not his fault, by the way, as Mike Shanahan slipped and fell down - see note below about the silliness involving cleats - and the ball was thrown to the right spot. Sunseri did miss an easy touchdown pass to Shanahan and he missed Baldwin on the sidelines with what should have been an easy first down throw. He also, on the last play of the game (or on Pitt's last play) made the wrong read and tried to force one to Baldwin instead of throwing to either Mike Cruz or Shanahan on the other side of the field. But he admitted as much and said it is all part of the process of learning. And for the record the deep throw on the final series which appeard to be picked off - I put that more on a terrible play call given the circumstances than anything else. This was a good step forward for Sunseri, now he needs to start finishing drives.
** After watching this game, I'm now in agreement with those who say that the coaches need to settle in on one tailback or the other. And Ray Graham is clearly right now running better than Dion Lewis. That doesn't mean Lewis shouldn't play, he should, but it was clear both guys had a hard time getting into a rythym because they kept flipping them in and out of the game. Coahces need to decide who is going to be the featured runner and let that guy take the bulk of the snaps. Graham looked like he hit the holes quicker than Lewis today but Lewis had his best game and ran as well as he has all year.It is still a good problem to have, but both players do better when they know they are going to be able to warm up and get into the flow of the game.
** Dan Hutchins the punter is having a great year. Dan Hutchins the kicker is really, really struggling and that is not a good thing because this team needs to score as many points as it can in as many ways. And leaving those six points - though the second field goal was Andrew Janocko's fault because he couldn't hold onto the ball - obviously would have come in handy late in the game. Hutchins needs to pull it together, and fast.
** Although Jordan Gibbs nearly got Tino Sunseri killed twice because he couldn't handle a pass rusher off the edge - he actually played very well and that is good news because it means I think the Pitt offensive line is going to be solid. Gibbs held up well, Chris Jacobson played well and Lucas Nix played well at guard. The line actually played well for the most part today. If it can continue to improve in its current form, the Panthers offense will have a chance to be good.
** Pitt's defense played well in the second half. Unfortunately football is a two-half sport and the Panthers were abysmal in the first. And I think the excuse that they weren't used to the tempo of Notre Dame was a little hard to buy because (a) they had played three of four games against spread teams and two of them were tempo offenses, so Pitt should be used to it and (b) Pitt has played Brian Kelly's offense for how many years now? Pitt's defense played soft in the first half and looked unprepared. I will say this about personnel moves - Tristan Roberts got some opportunities to play in place of Greg Williams and did a great job. It was his best game. Ditto for K'Wuan Williams when he was in the game as a nickleback and ditto for Buddy Jackson when he was playing in place of Ricky Gary. The pieces are in place for this to be a very good defense, now it just has to put two halves together.
** One last thing for now (I'll have a lot more when I get back to my hotel room and have a chance to digest some of this stuff a little bit) -- the fact that it took Pitt an entire half of having guys slipping and falling all over the field to change cleats is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. What exactly was going on in pregame warmups? Isn't that what you are supposed to do on a new field or playing surface? Aren't guys supposed to run around, see if they can make cuts, see how the shoes they are wearing feel, see the slick spots and rough spots on a field? I can't quite figure this one out. Tino Sunseri and Max Gruder both said a lot of players changed cleats at half-time and once they got the right cleats, they were fine. This may seem like a small thing, but it isn't. There is something to be said for getting it right the first time.