One of the dangers of taking a week off--especially riding a three-game winning streak--is losing the momentum built up. Even though Pitt is off to a 3-0 start, Dave Wannstedt reiterated that the bye is coming at a good time.
In addition to getting an extra week for Greg Romeus--who is in a very favorable spot to return against Connecticut next week--other players like Henry Hynoski (mild concussion) could use an extra week to get back to full strength. For Romeus, Wannstedt said the plan is for Romeus to workout with the team today, then take it "day-by-day."
Aside from sending a few assistants out on the road recruiting, Wannstedt found more than a few areas he wants to spend the bye week focusing on.
"This is going to sound like a typical coaches response, but we need to get better in a lot of areas," Wannstedt said. "We're not running the ball the way we'd like to. We're making progress in the passing game. Defensively, we felt we missed a few tackles (against Louisville). Our kickoff return is disappointing--we're not blocking people like we should."
These are all legitimate concerns. It's not as if Wannstedt is just giving another "typical coaches response," as he says. It's not as if he's trying to downplay his team's success, and the fact they are winning games the way they are supposed to.
Wannstedt is not exaggerating by any means. On Saturday, Pitt rushed for 132 yards--just 29 more than they limited Louisville to. Dion Lewis rushed for 66, while Ray Graham rushed for 40. Though he's facing the challenge of distributing the ball evenly between these two running backs--both backs did well enough to win, but nothing over the top outside of a touchdown run for each of them.
The run game's problems were especially evident later in the game, up 20-3, with Pitt in the ideal state. While Wannstedt has been criticized for running the ball with lesser leads, this time he had a 17-point lead with 11:41 left. This is the ideal opportunity for his run game to impose its will and wear down an opponent with the lead, closing out the game.
Pitt's first-team offense had the ball three times in the fourth quarter, following Chris Philpott's 30-yard field goal that went wide right. Pitt ran 10 plays, and converted one first down. Among these three series, Pitt had the ball for a total of 5:59. Of the 10 plays, six were runs. Lewis carried twice for five yards, while Graham carried four times for five yards. Neither did anything to keep a drive going, which is what Wannstedt wants later in the game, especially with such a sizable lead.
Though the running game has closed other games out this season--such as the Florida International game, and the Rutgers game where Lewis ground it out on the first-team's final series--eventually breaking one off for a big touchdown to take the wind out of the defense--one problem that has been consistent throughout the season has been Pitt's red zone offense.
On paper, the numbers look pretty for the season. Pitt has scored 25 times in 30 red zone opportunities this season. The problem is that only 14 of those 25 scores have been touchdowns. Saturday, Pitt failed to produce a touchdown in the red zone.
"Frank Cignetti and I were talking (Monday) morning," Wannstedt said. "If you look at the first series, we get beat on a protection, and we got a third down and seven. They cover the first read. We have an opportunity to make a play for a touchdown on the second read, and we get pressure right away. We don't want to knock ourselves out of field goal range. We throw the check-down, and we come up short. We have to kick the field goal. The second snap, we fumble the snap from center. That knocks us back into a long-yardage situation. Now all of a sudden, rather than being in third down and makeable, now we're in a third down and twelve. The third one, we got a little screen called, and we miss a block. We just don't execute it the way we should have.
"One was a physical part, one was a mental, and then the third one was not an executed play by two or three guys. I guess when you look at it, it comes down to executing better. We need to keep practicing, working, fine tuning those little details that make a difference."