Pitt football - Louisville press conference

The University of Pittsburgh football team (6-5) prepares to complete its final game of the season against eighth-ranked Louisville Saturday at Heinz Field. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic attended Head Coach Dave Wannstedt's press conference and he reports on the game. Read on.

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh has one more win than it had last year with just one game remaining in the regular season, but there's some question about how much the Panthers have improved under second-year coach Dave Wannstedt this fall.

That's why Pitt (6-5), which is on a four-game losing streak going into its matchup against eighth-ranked Louisville (9-1) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, might need an upset win to secure a bowl bid.

"The sense of urgency is trying to find a way to finish up the season with a win,'' Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference. "Whatever happens with the bowl game stuff will happen. Wannstedt has said several times that the Panthers have shown improvement this season, mostly describing it as taking baby steps forward, but he also noted that they have not been much better in the two areas he tried to improve the most and why the team has faded down the stretch.

"The two areas that are most disappointing are we need to improve running the football and stopping the run,'' Wannstedt noted. "Obviously, that hasn't happened with the degree of speed that anybody would like, for a lot of different reasons.''

Wannstedt mentioned that opposing quarterbacks have been more effective running the ball against Pitt than their fellow running backs with West Virginia's Pat White (220 yards), Connecticut's D.J. Hernandez (130) and Michigan State's Drew Stanton (105) doing the most damage. But it also must be noted that WVU's Steve Slaton put up 215 yards rushing against the Panthers, and UConn's Donald Brown ran for 205. Rutgers tailback Ray Rice netted 225 yards rushing, and MSU's Javon Ringer added 156.

Pitt has been without its starting defensive ends in the second half of this season, as redshirt frosh Doug Fulmer and redshirt junior Chris McKillop are out with knee injuries. Fulmer was lost early in the year. And the other defense linemen have alternated with sophomores Corey Davis, Rashaad Duncan and Gus Mustakas and freshmen John Malecki and McKenzie making a huge impact. So, the line will be stronger and more experienced next season.

The Panthers running game has been inconsistent as well, but sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling has been brilliant on occasion. He has 836 yards rushing (a five-yard average per carry) and eight touchdowns with a high of 221 at Syracuse. He did not score a rushing TD last fall and was not as durable as he has been this season.

"We can run the football,'' Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko said. "It's just that we haven't been consistent with it this season, and we haven't executed well enough for four quarters. But we're getting better.''

Several notable seniors like Palko, defensive end Vernon Botts and Charles Sallet, middle linebacker H.B. Blades, outside linebackers Brian Bennett and Clint Session, tight end Steve Buches, center Joe Villani, strong safety Sam Bryant, punter Adam Graessle will be playing their final game at Heinz Field and possible their last game for Pitt if a bowl bid isn't extended, but Palko hasn't thought much about that prospect.

"When you watch Louisville's defense on film, you don't have any time to worry about how many more games you've got left and all that stuff,'' Palko said. "They're pretty good, so I really haven't had a chance to think about that stuff to this point.

"And I'm really not going to think about that until it's over. I've always been the type of guy to focus more on the team, and I owe it to them to prepare the best that I can and not sit here and get all (sappy) because it's my last game.''

And Pitt could need a win to get a bowl bid.

Notes: Wannstedt said that junior TE Darrell Strong was reinstated and could play this week. ... Freshman Nate Byham is listed as fifth-year senior Steve Buches' backup at tight end. ... Fifth-year senior Vernon Botts is starting at DE ahead of frosh McKenzie Mathews for the second straight week. ... McKillop (knee) is out again this week.

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