Pitt Sees Red In Red Zone

Pitt football fans everywhere have dissected this season from the start, but the bottom line is that in four losses the Panthers were inside an opponent's 10-yard line in the waning minutes and couldn't finish the job.

This happened three times in the past month with Pittsburgh losing at home to Navy in double-overtime, at Louisville and last week at Rutgers.

"Four ... if we're keeping track, which I am,'' Wannstedt said. "We've had three in the last couple weeks. If you throw the Michigan State game in, that's four games where we've been first-and-goal at the 9 (or closer) -- and we don't get touchdowns in any of them. You'd like to think that if you're 50 percent, that's two more wins.''

Either way, Pitt (4-6 overall, 2-3 in the Big East) could be bowl-eligible if not for its inefficiency inside the 10 in these games. The Panthers can turn things around against South Florida (8-3, 3-3) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field, but it won't be easy to put those four tough losses in the past.

In the 17-13 loss at Michigan State, the Panthers had a first-and-goal at the 8 when fifth-year senior center Chris Vangas was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty during freshman tailback LeSean McCoy's four-yard run. Pitt settled for a 23-yard Conor Lee field goal to cut MSU's lead to 14-13 with 7:47 remaining, but would not score again.

In the 48-45 double-overtime loss to Navy, Pitt had a first-and-goal at the 9 in the second overtime. McCoy gained seven yards on two carries, but frosh quarterback Pat Bostick threw incomplete on third- and fourth-down passes. The final was an ill-conceived fade pattern to senior tight end Darrell Strong.

In the 24-17 loss at Louisville, after redshirt sophomore wideout Oderick Turner was ruled down at the 1 on a 19-yard catch, Bostick and McCoy botched a handoff and lost a fumble with 1:10 remaining. Both took blame for the miscue, but the Panthers certainly appeared to be poised to score the tying touchdown there.

And in the 20-16 loss at Rutgers, Turner was called for pass interference against cornerback Devin McCourty on a jump ball for a fade pass. The 15-yard penalty nullified Turner's apparent winning touchdown catch and pushed the Panthers back to the 21. McCourty intercepted Bostick's next pass in the end zone with 11 seconds left, as he attempted to hit a bewildered Strong, who never looked for the ball.

"We definitely have had our chances in some games this season where we could have won the game or at least tied the score, but for whatever reason we just couldn't get the job done,'' fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn said. "And that's something that has to change right now.''

When looking more closely at Pitt's red-zone statistics, it appears that the Panthers have not been totally inept. Pitt has scored on 34 of 40 chances from inside an opponent's 20-yard line (85 percent). However, only 20 scores have been touchdowns (50 percent). Clearly, it needs to reach the end zone more often to be successful on offense.

Here's the breakdown in Big East games. Against Connecticut, the Panthers scored a touchdown on their only red-zone trip. In the Cincinnati game, Pitt was 4-for-4 with two touchdowns and two field goals. At Louisville, Pitt kicked a field goal and scored a touchdown in three series that went inside the Cardinals' 20.

The Panthers were 4-for-5 in the win against Syracuse with two field goal sand two touchdowns. And last week at Rutgers, Pitt advanced or was handed by the defense six red-zone opportunities, but came away with points just four times. The Panthers reached the end zone only once and had to kick three short field goals.

The numbers look a lot worse from inside the 10-yard line against Big East opponents. Pitt has scored eight times in 11 chances with five touchdowns. However, on three occasions, the Panthers didn't get any points even though it had first-and-goal situations. Pitt wasn't even that successful against the Conference's worst red-zone team, Syracuse, which kept Pitt out of the end zone on three tries from the 1-yard line in the first quarter.

The Orange also stuffed McCoy on fourth-and-one at the Syracuse 30 with 43 seconds left. In the game at Rutgers, which the Scarlet Knights did their best to lose, it took the Panthers five times to score from the 1. Sure, two of those involved Rutgers penalties, but Bostick stumbled for a 3-yard loss and McCoy was stopped for no gain on third down before Bostick finally threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Strong.

"Let's not stick our head in the sand,'' Wannstedt said. "We have to get better at this. We have to address this. I'm just being very honest with you. I talked to our offensive coaches and our offensive players, and we have to get better. We (beat Syracuse), but if we score (again) who knows what the end result is. It gives our defense a chance to play with a lead.

"And that changes the whole complexion of the game. (So), that's an area that we have to get a lot better at. You'd like to be balanced down (near the goal line). We've probably been a little heavy with the run, primarily because of the change and inexperience at quarterback.

"But we're trying to be smart and not throw interceptions down there either,'' Wannstedt added. "We're not doing everything that we'd like to do schematically, but we just have to keep working at it and get better.''

Wannstedt noted that the Panthers have placed an emphasis on their red-zone and two-minute offense twice a week. They practice both every Sunday and Thursday, and he believes it's just a matter of time before everything clicks on offense.

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