Pitt ranks high in terms of numbers in a lot of special teams areas, but the unit has cost them opportunities this year. On paper, the special teams units look to be productive. The mistakes, however, overshadow what comes up in the stat sheet.
One area of special teams that Pitt has been consistent with is punt coverage. Though Dan Hutchins' punting has been hit or miss--evidenced by last week where he had three punts of 50 or more yards, then two more traveling each for 29 and 15 yards. Still, Pitt leads the conference in net punting (41.2), and Buddy Jackson has excelled as a gunner this year, getting down field to make the tackle. Pitt hasn't been giving up too many big plays in punt returns.
Head coach Dave Wannstedt feels in Hutchins' case--whether it's a missed field goal or shanked punt--it's a case where Hutchins puts a lot of pressure on himself. Hutchins is perfect on all his extra point attempts this season.
"Dan is having a great year, and we're leading the Big East in punting right now," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I think (the shanked punts at UConn) is a situation where he's trying to be too perfect. We're pooch punting, trying to position the ball in the back corner. He just missed it."
It's the kick return game--on both sides--that have hurt Pitt in certain situations this year. Take for example the opener at Utah where Jason Douglas fumbled a kickoff return in a 7-7 game. Utah recovers the fumble, and scores a touchdown two plays later, to go up 14-7.
At Notre Dame, Cameron Saddler let two kickoffs drop inside the 10. Pitt started both of its final offensive series inside the 10, which changes the play calling. Being pinned so deep in its own territory changes the play calling. Instead of being at the 20, where there's more breathing room, the staff is forced to play it safe with a couple of runs, which wastes plays and wastes time. Pitt trailed 20-3 at halftime, rallied back to make it a one score game, but could not get a drive going. Poor field position contributed.
Also in that game, Pitt went for it on a fourth down on a fake punt. The fake called for Hutchins to roll out--as he often does on his punts--then make a read to see if he has an open receivers. He thought he had the opening, only one person missed on a blocking assignment.
Against Rutgers, as Pitt was trying to run the first half out, Dan Hutchins had a punt blocked that was recovered in the end zone by Brandon Bing. The Scarlet Knights took the momentum into the locker room, as they tied the game at 14-14. This was the one game where Pitt gave up a big special teams play, yet was able to overcome it in a 41-21 win over Rutgers. Still, instead of being up 14-7 at the half, the game was tied, giving Rutgers momentum.
Against Louisville, though Pitt win, they gave the momentum to Louisville heading into halftime. Hutchins missed a 26-yard field goal with just under a minute left in the first half. Instead of a 9-3 lead--nearly a touchdown lead--Pitt clinged to just a field goal lead at 6-3. Still, Pitt won 20-3.
Pitt's karma ran out at UConn. After getting an early 7-0 lead, Pitt trailed 10-7 at halftime, and 13-7 early in the third quarter. Pitt answered with touchdown runs on consecutive drives in the third quarter to go up 21-13. The ensuing kickoff off that second touchdown run was returned 95 yards for a touchdown by Nick Williams, as time expired in the third quarter.
If Williams' kickoff return wasn't enough, Ray Graham's fumble on a kick return attempt later in the fourth quarter set up UConn with the short field. The Huskies--who were coming off a go-ahead-field goal, up 23-21--put the game out of reach, driving 21 yards on two plays, connecting on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Zach Frazer to Isiah Moore.
Pitt needs to turn its special teams errors around in a hurry. Yes, Hutchins has boomed a few significant punts, and he has been perfect on his extra point attempts. Cameron Saddler has improved from the Notre Dame gaffe. In his last four games with returns, he is averaging 20.9 yards a kickoff return, and 11.8 yards a punt return. The key--like everything else--is just making plays, and making tackles. Had Jason Douglas not fumbled at Utah, Pitt could have at least started on offense, instead of handing the ball to Utah deep in its own territory. That game was decided by a field goal. Without that extra Utah touchdown, Pitt wins. It was the same thing this past week at UConn. Had someone from Pitt's kickoff coverage unit made a tackle, or even made contact to force Nick Williams into being tackled, Pitt ends the quarter with a 21-13 lead, and possibly pressures UConn into throwing the ball more to start the fourth quarter, to play catch up.
"They (UConn) didn't do anything different on that return (that went for a touchdown) than what they did on the one that we tackled them inside the 20," Wannstedt said. "The only difference being that we didn't have the urgency that we did when we hit them inside the 20.
"Being able to keep our focus and not get caught up in the emotion of the game is a big part of this game on any level. It's a maturity thing. We score a touchdown, we go up, everything is happening fast. Then we get in there, out of position, and we don't get off a block and that's the end result. It wasn't anything overly sophisticated."
Though these are all hypothetical situations, there is enough evidence to suggest Pitt needs its special teams units to make plays and play flawless. The offense has struggled at times, and the defense struggled last week in stopping Jordan Todman. All year, however, special teams has created easy points for the opposition.
Pitt cannot afford any special teams breakdowns this week, as they get set to deal with South Florida's Lamar Lindsey, who has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. The Bulls also have two punts returned for touchdowns by two separate players. Just as Pitt has seen leads change and evaporate via special teams mistakes, the Bulls got back the game last week thanks to a 100-yard kickoff return by Lindsey Lamar. USF trailed 14-3 prior to that return, and won 24-21 in overtime.
"The mistakes are definitely correctable," Wannstedt said. "What's interesting is that you can only play this game successfully when you play with a high level of intensity. If you lose that edge, just a little bit, you can be 90% correct, but that 10% can mean the difference in giving up a big play or making a big play. ‘Did we watch it? Did we correct it? Did we watch the kickoff return for a touchdown by South Florida?' Yes, multiple times."