By Dale Grdnic
PantherDigest.com Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH -- Pitt ended spring football practice with a different attitude and renewed enthusiasm for the upcoming season, and second-year coach Dave Wannstedt believed that was justified after the Panthers' performance in the annual Blue-Gold game Saturday at Heinz Field.
"I think the guys can walk off the field and feel good about themselves today,'' Wannstedt said. "They can say, 'hey, I made a few plays.' So, the players, and we have had enough guys doing good things, can feel like they have taken a step forward with their performance this spring.
"We feel good about where we're at today, but we know we're not where we want to be. We have a long way to go to get there, but this is just the first step. So, we have a lot to be happy about right now.''
Pitt didn't have too much to be proud about after Wannstedt's first season back at his alma mater ended with a 5-6 record and no bowl game after five straight trips before that. Quarterback Tyler Palko, whose inconsistent performance mirrored his teammates' last fall, believed the Panthers took baby steps this spring but consistently moved forward.
And that's reason enough for an attitude change after last season.
"It better change,'' Palko said. "We were 5-6 last year, so it better change. Sometimes, people expect quick results, but it doesn't always happen that way. We were 5-6 last year for a reason, but the way you evaluate your team is how you react to adversity like that.
"And we came out with a different attitude this spring. I think this group is a little closer. We made some progress this spring, but it's up to the players now, because we don't have the coaches in the summer. It's just us, so we'll see where our maturity level is for camp.''
Palko was harassed throughout the final intrasquad scrimmage and was sacked four times, although the quarterbacks weren't allowed to be hit. Palko still completed 17 of 27 passes for 172 yards and one touchdown to Derek Kinder into the back of the end zone from the 1.
Backup quarterback Bill Stull was 11-for-16 for 183 yards and two touchdowns, but he was sacked seven times. Stull connected for a 12-yard score to Marcel Pestano and 60-yarder to Oderick Turner. Stull also hit Turner for 30 yards, as the redshirt freshman got twisted around and still made the catch. However, he twisted an ankle on the play and did not return.
"The one frustrating thing was Oderick Turner, because we've been waiting on this for two weeks,'' Wannstedt said. "As a receiver, he's got that big-play ability, and he made two great plays.''
Pitt completed 63 percent of its passes for 371 yards, including six pass plays for 20 or more yards, but the defense sacked the quarterbacks 12 times overall. Charles Sallet led the way from his end spot with six sacks for 29 yards in losses. Craig Bokor added three sacks his tackle position.
"I'm having a great time,'' Sallet said. "So, spring practice ended too early, if you ask me. ... I guess I had a good day, but if I could've had 3-4 more, it would've been better. So, I'm not satisfied with that, and we can do a lot better as a defense.''
Most observers would have to believe that Pitt's defense had nowhere to go but up after last season's performance, and few have picked it to be any better than it was before. Blades grudgingly agreed.
"You can always surprise people, but you can't always listen to what they say because you'll have doubters throughout your life,'' Blades said. "You just have to go out and prove them wrong. But we deserve to be voted the worst defense in the Big East after last year.
"We gave up almost 500 yards rushing to West Virginia in the last game alone. So, that's fine if they have that mindset about us, but it's our job to go out there in September and prove them wrong.''
After the strides they made this spring, all of the Panthers appear ready to make that happen this fall.
Notes: Pitt didn't run the ball too well after FB Conredge Collins ran 39 yards around left end on the first play. He finished with 46 yards. ... LaRod Stephens-Howling added 15 yards on 10 carries, but had two short scoring runs. ... David Abdul kicked a 24-yard field goal, while Conor Lee boomed one from 49 late in the scrimmage. ... The annual Ed Conway Award winners as most-improved players this spring were C.J. Davis (OG), Clint Session (LB) and Kennard Cox (special teams). ... DL Chris McKillop (knee), DL Nick Williams (leg), DL Mick Williams (shoulder), DL Gus Mustakas (shoulder) and DL Joe Clermond (knee), WR Branden Ballard (wrist), DB Mike Phillips (ankle), DB Jemeel Brady (knee), TE John Pelusi (knee), OL Chris Vangas (knee) and OL Dave Weber (knee) did not participate in the scrimmage.