PITTSBURGH -- Just when it looked like the University of Pittsburgh football program had turned the corner and was ready to take another step forward in its development under second-year coach Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers took a step backward in a loss to Michigan State.
But don't expect Pitt (2-1) to make any drastic changes this week as it prepares for The Citadel (0-2), a Division I-AA team from the Southern Conference that was off last week, Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
"I think we need to be consistent,'' Wannstedt said during his weekly press conference Monday at the UPMC Sports Complex. "That's the main thing. Correct what we need to correct, but don't change much.
"There are certain things that we'll emphasize more than others, but the practice time and the meeting time and everything we do during the week won't change. We've got to go out there and get better. We've got to practice hard. We've got a long way to go, but we definitely want to be playing our best football the last week of the season.''
There is some concern that the Panthers will go into a tailspin like they did last season after getting crushed on opening night by Notre Dame. Pitt went 1-4 before it turned things around. That can't happen this season, one wouldn't think, with the likes of The Citadel, Toledo, Syracuse and Central Florida as the next four teams on the schedule.
But one never knows with a team as young, overall, as Pitt.
"I think sometimes it works the opposite with young kids,'' Wannstedt said. "They're just excited about playing and they're trying to figure it all out. Just from the response so far from the guys being around here lifting weights and coming in and getting treatment, stopping by in between class, I like the response from what I've seen initially.
"The older guys on our team are fine. We've got plenty of great leaders. Tyler (Palko), (Joe) Villani, (John) Simonitis, H.B. (Blades), Clint (Session) (Darrelle) Revis, all those guys were calling and were concerned, wanting to see not necessarily what went wrong but what can we do to make it right. And what can we do to get back on track.''
While the Panthers had not yet had a practice for The Citadel, Palko believed their postgame attitude was an indicator to this week's preparation.
"The guys didn't come into the locker room (depressed),'' Palko said. "You know, saying: 'man, we've got a lot of work to do. We really aren't that good.' We didn't say that. The guys were upset because we knew that we squandered some opportunities, and we knew we that if we had played better we could have beaten that team.
"That was frustrating part about it. It wasn't like we just got our tails kicked. Don't get me wrong. They capitalized on some things and beat us on the scoreboard, but that game kind of got out of control. And the attitude from our guys was that we were upset at ourselves for squandering some opportunities and not making plays.''
Palko believed there would be no problem rebounding this week.
"We're not sitting here questioning whether or not we belong on the football field,'' Palko said. "We have no choice, but to bounce back. I don't think it does anything for us mentally except to put things in perspective and tell us how we need to play as a team to win football games this year.''
One thing Pitt needs to do is stay healthy. The Panthers have had several players suffering from nagging injuries, while others have missed some time. But Wannstedt believed everyone would be ready for The Citadel.
Tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling (ankle) and fullback Conredge Collins (hamstring) are healthier this week, and the two should split the carries in the running game with both staying fresh. Collins is expected to be used more in one-back and third-down situations as he gains more experience.
"Because we weren't sure if LaRod was 100 percent,'' Wannstedt said, "leading up to the game we had Conredge get a lot more work than what he normally might, just as an insurance policy. Kevin Collier didn't get into the game, Shane Brooks did. We'll continue to rotate all those backs, but it's difficult trying to get them all work.
"Conredge is one guy, other than LaRod, that has some experience. Even though he's just a sophomore he's the most experienced (fullback) we've got from a playing time standpoint. In certain situations, he's the guy we want to give the football. Yes, we expect to get him some more carries. That will be a week-to-week thing depending on what we're trying to do.'' Palko hopes to continue to use him more each week.
"Conredge is someone that we were counting on a lot coming into this season and has had a few injuries that slowed him down in camp,'' Palko said. "But I think he's slowly, but surely, coming back. And when he's healthy he brings a multidimensional aspect to what he can do for us offensively.
"He can run, and he's not going to just sit back and play fullback. He's going to lower his head and make blocks for our tailbacks, but he's also in our one-back package. And he's a third-down back as well, so Conredge definitely helps us offensively and can do a lot of things. Hopefully, he'll keep getting healthy and get more comfortable in the offense.''
There has been no decision, yet, on whether or not Dorin Dickerson will be added to the mix to help the running game. He and other freshmen have been used little or not at all, so decisions must be made soon.
"That's a little bit frustrating,'' Wannstedt said. "Last week, we weren't able to get (tight end) Nate Byham much playing time. We didn't get Kevin Collier any. We just have to be careful because we want to try to get those guys playing time, but at the same time we need to win the game.
"Then we have a group of players like (Dorin) Dickerson, (Lineman Jason) Pinkston who haven't gotten any (time). We'd love to redshirt them if possible. Dorin, the only reason he's not in there, is he's behind because of his injuries. He missed almost the entire training camp, so he's behind.
"It's tough when (other) guys stay healthy,'' Wannstedt added. "We can only practice so long. So, I just told the guys that no decisions will be made. Let's just play it out. We have a lot of time left, and we're trying to work all these kids and keep their attitude right. Once we get (a few more games), I think we can be a little more specific as to the possibilities of a redshirt.''
Sophomore quarterback Bill Stull played sparingly last fall and probably will play just as little this season, as long as Palko stays healthy, but Pitt must make sure he's ready if Palko goes down. So, he won't redshirt.
"Any time you can get your backup quarterback playing time,'' Wannstedt said, "it's going to help your football team. We'd like to get him playing time. We just haven't had the luxury to have a lead (large enough to play Stull). We're not good enough to have that luxury to play these guys.''
Senior offensive guard John Simonitis (ankle) was injured for the second straight week, but Wannstedt said he came in Monday for treatment and should be ready to practice some this week. Wannstedt expected him to start as well. If not, frosh Joe Thomas played well enough to earn more time.
"Joe Thomas did pretty well,'' Wannstedt said. "Joe played over half the game. That was good to get Joe some playing time. He jumped in and got his feet wet against good competition, and he should be even better this week.''
Safety Mike Phillips is another story. He had an Achilles problem in training camp that was slow to heal, and he twisted his ankle against Michigan State. It's always been something for the junior, who broke an ankle a few games into last season, but Wannstedt believed he would play this week.
"After coming off that broken ankle from a year ago,'' Wannstedt said, "I think he's very mentally cautious of every (ankle) he tweaks. He's still working through the mental challenge of coming back from a broken ankle.''
Wannstedt said the most positive aspect to the Michigan State game was the special teams for Pitt. With walk-on Michael Toerper and freshman cornerback Aaron Berry added to coverage teams, they improved greatly.
"(Kick returner) T.J. Porter made a great play,'' Wannstedt said. "He was gone. Both he and Lowell Robinson both showed that they have big-time ability to break one. So I'm pleased where we're at with special teams, but obviously we need to keep getting better.''
Pitt is 5-0 against Division I-AA teams, including a 41-0 thrashing of Youngstown State last season. The Citadel is from the Southern Conference along with Furman, which Pitt played several seasons ago, Wofford College, Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Elon College.
A win against The Citadel would give Pitt a 3-1 start for the third time in the last five years. The Panthers also opened 2002 and 2003 at 3-1 and advanced to bowl games each of those years.
The Sept. 30 home game against Toledo is scheduled for a noon kickoff and will be broadcast on ESPNU just like the Virginia game.