It was kind of a surprise when one of the players brought out for the postgame media interviews was Kevin Harper. Then, I looked back at what Harper did on kickoffs. On Friday, we had an article about how special teams needed to step up. There were still some mistakes, but all things considered Harper was a big help booming two of his four kickoffs in the end zone for kickoffs. He averaged 68.2 yards on four kickoffs, and more importantly his coverage teams allowed 51.5 net yards on the kickoff.
The special teams unit got some major relief when the first kickoff of the day was returned by Lindsey Lamar for 69 yards to the Pitt 31. Thankfully for Pitt's sake, that return was negated due to a holding call. Even so, Harper made his impact on that play, getting in front of Lamar and at least holding him and making contact with him, before Dom DeCicco caught up and made the tackle.
"After the (69-yard) return (by Lamar), we just decided to kick it directionally, kick it as hard as I can, get some good hang time," Harper said.
Special teams came up with another big play as Andrew Taglianetti broke through and blocked a punt in the third quarter. It was the 24th blocked kick under Dave Wannstedt, just the second one of the year. It's Taglianetti's fourth blocked punt of his career.
Unfortunately for Pitt, Nate Nix recovered it, then fumbled it back to USF, who took over on their own 10 yard-line.
Though the kickoff coverage units fared better, Dan Hutchins was averaging 34.5 net yards a kick, and this includes a 42-yarder that was downed in the end zone for a touchback. The only other special teams mistake was a missed 43-yard field goal by Hutchins, that left the score at 17-10 with 1:31 left in the game, and enough time for USF to make one last attempt at tying the game.
In addition to the fumbled punt block return, Pitt whiffed on two other opportunities to recover fumbles. Though the Panthers didn't turn the ball over, the only turnover created was the interception by Antwuan Reed.
Neither of USF's fumbles were forced by Pitt defenders. One was a mishandled handoff by running back Moise Plancher. Though there was Myles Caragein and Brandon Lindsey in the vicinity, both didn't react to it right away. Daniels fell on the play. Daniels had the other fumble, just losing a handle on the ball, but he recovered it on his own.
PASS INTERFERENCE CALLS
Five of Pitt's 11 penalties for pass interference calls. Four were called on Antwuan Reed, while the other was on Ricky Gary. The first one was pretty clear, where Reed held his man up, slowing the progress of the receiver to get to where the ball was thrown.
Interestingly, two of the other ones called on Reed weren't as clear cut, even though there was some contact on the play. It was a matter of the intended pass not being in the vicinity of the receiver. Wannstedt wouldn't go as far as criticizing the officials, but he did say that he was going to take another look at the film to see why--according to rule--pass interference was called in the two cases.
"I'm not going to get into any of them, but they're all discretionary calls," Wannstedt said after the game. "Somebody jumps offsides, he jumps offsides. Pass interference is judgment calls. We'll see. I'll be curious to watch the tape.
"I'll be real curious because we haven't had five (pass interference calls) all year. Maybe not. What's different? We didn't play a different defense today."
The interception by Reed at the end of the game put a footnote on what was an otherwise miserable game for the junior corner. USF quarterback B.J. Daniels didn't have the best afternoon, completing 15-of-29 passes, but he did a good job of picking on Reed all day. Daniels threw for 174 yards, and got another 75 yards courtesy of the five pass interference calls.
Wannstedt stuck with Reed the whole game. When asked how he felt about Reed getting the interception at the end of the game, Wannstedt was less than enthused.
"It's good for Antwuan," Wannstedt said.
Despite his struggles on Saturday, Reed has the support of his teammates.
"We all have total confidence in Antwuan," linebacker Max Gruder said. "Cornerback, I think in my opinion, is the hardest position on defense. You're on an island on every single play. The pass interference calls--I didn't see any because I was on the field--those are things you have to fight through. Antwuan is a very good player and we have complete confidence in him. I think there was no need to pull him. He ended up making an interception on the last play of the game, which is great to see."
Reed's interception was his first of the season, and just the second interception by a Pitt cornerback this season. Ricky Gary had the other against Syracuse. Reed's last interception came against USF last year.
LINDSEY, CARAGEIN HAVE BIG GAMES
One of the more overlooked storylines for this season, is the type of season Brandon Lindsey is having at defensive end. When Romeus was on the field last week at UConn, there was a need to keep Lindsey involved, and he showed that when he came up with the lone sack for Pitt against the Huskies. He added his tenth sack of the season on Saturday, taking over the team lead. Lindsey also leads the team with 14 tackles for losses.
It was good to see Myles Caragein have a productive game. Myles is Myles' biggest critic. He's very hard on himself, and he has said so in some interviews this year. Six tackles, a sack and a tackle for a loss is a pretty good game from a defensive tackle. I can understand Myle's frustration. Mick Williams was an explosive player. Caragein has all the skills; the strength, the leverage to be a good defensive tackle. He's not that explosive player blowing people off the ball like Williams was, not yet. Saturday he took a big step towards becoming a disruptive force.
The only thing standing in Myles' way is the same thing that stood in the way of the defense having more productive game, and that's finishing plays. One play was USF's first play of the second half. Both Caragein and Lindsey broke through the line, and missed getting to Daniels. Instead, Dom DeCicco got him, but was flagged for a personal foul, leading with the helmet. Had they gotten to Daniels first, they would have set up USF with a 2nd-and-long situation to start the half, but also would have avoided the penalty. Instead of a 2nd-and-20 at their own 10, USF had a 1st-and-10 at their own 35.
It was similar to the blocked punt, that Pitt fumbled away. Instead of a 1st-and-goal at the 10 for Pitt, with a chance to really clamp down on USF, Pitt gave the Bulls a new set of downs. Anytime Pitt came up with a big play, or had an opportunity to make a play (like recovering a fumble), they couldn't capitalize on anything. When they didn't capitalize, they fed USF another opportunity, or saved USF another possession.
OFFENSIVE LINE STRUGGLES?
Though Pitt produced two sacks, USF produced four. Entering the game, the Bulls were barely averaging two sacks a game. Only two of the sacks were the fault of the offensive line. The first one came from Terrell McClain, as he blew right past center Alex Karabin. Sunseri had no time to react.
Sunseri took too much time with the ball on the other two; sacked by Julius Forte in the second quarter, and a combination sack by Demetri Murray and DeDe Lattimore. The only sack the Panthers gave up in the second half, was when Ryne Giddins blew past Jason Pinkston to drop Sunseri for an eight-yard loss.
LEWIS, GRAHAM SCORE ALL TOUCHDOWNS
Of the eight touchdowns Pitt has scored in its last three games, seven of them belong to either Dion Lewis or Ray Graham. Lewis has rushed for four touchdowns in the last three games, while Graham has three touchdown runs to go with his touchdown reception from Saturday.