Commentary: Changes Need To Be Made

There were several things that just drove me crazy during Pitt's 27-17 fizzle against Bowling Green Saturday to open a season that began with so much sizzle, and after some time I still don't know which was more frustrating.

The Pittsburgh players clearly do not know how to win games. After season's of losing, that can happen. (Re: The Pirates the past 16 years). However, it's more evident now than ever that it all permeates from the top. There's an old saying here that fits about stuff rolling downhill, but you get the idea.

Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt does not have a glorious history as a head coach. While there was some success early with the NFL's Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears, Wannstedt is 84-90 overall as an NFL head coach and 16-20 now with the Pitt program in his first college stint.

Wannstedt coaches tentatively. Sure, when push comes to shove, he goes for it. The Navy game comes to mind last year when Pitt went for it on fourth-and-short a couple times. But there's no consistency in the play-calling. Punting twice from inside Bowling Green's 40-yard line when the Panthers had a chance to bury them was painful to watch. If the defense was playing so well, you go for it and then expect them to hold after that.

After punting from the BGSU 34- and 35-yard lines on successive series, that took a lot out of the offense. Quarterback Bill Stull's confidence slowly faded with every possession. He was aiming the ball and appeared unsure, not wanting to make a mistake. And the receivers' routes were just not as crisp.

The offense was completely emasculated later in the first half when Wannstedt took the "slide'' play a step further and didn't even run a third-down play. He let the clock run down to kick a field goal on third down, listing all the negative things that could have happened if a pass play to the end zone would have been called. The reasoning, to feel good about getting some points on the board.

That still could have happened on fourth down, but Pitt also could have scored a touchdown and really felt good about itself going into halftime despite all the previous calls and plays that helped Bowling Green tie the score in the first place. Sure, hindsight is "50-50,'' like Walt used to say, but if Wannstedt and his staff don't believe in their players -- in this case, the offense -- then how can they believe in themselves. And confidence certainly is lacking at this point.

Defensively, I understand that the line was neutralized by BGSU's short passing game after the first quarter, but either adjustments were not made or the Panthers just "did not do what they were coached to do,'' to quote a former Pitt coach again. For some reason, it was difficult to recognize when the Falcons made personnel changes. The changing quarterbacks worked nearly every time, and the fullback was never picked up despite three big catches and two touchdowns. The first one is a gimme, but the others are unforgivable.

There also were some baffling personnel issues. Surely, Elijah Fields, even if he is not the best technician for Pitt at safety, could have done at least as well as some other players in there against Bowling Green. Fields has the speed and athleticism needed against the Falcons, and he certainly could have run around as well as Dom DeCicco, who missed several tackles that led to big plays.

With the problems the Panthers had on the offensive line (re: Joe Thomas getting shoved back into Stull often), wouldn't it have been more prudent to use fullback Conredge Collins in a blocking role and then maybe get a dump-off to him in the flat if possible after he released. LaRod Stephens-Howling actually did an admirable job when he was in there, but more bulk was needed.

Freshman Lucas Nix never got in the game, either, and as it was with Fields it's hard to believe he could have been any worse. The most glaring personnel issue concerned freshman wideout Jonathan Baldwin. The two passes thrown his way, and I believe he was only on the field 3-4 times, were out of bounds. He was double-covered in the end zone and had the corner beat on a long pass at the end, but Stull couldn't connect.

Baldwin is the team's biggest receiver and among the fastest players, a PIAA sprint champion. The top receivers, Derek Kinder, Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee, didn't make enough plays to keep Baldwin on the bench. And when the passing package was used at the end, T.J. Porter and Aaron Smith made cameo appearances. Smith let his first playing opportunity probably be his last after an on-target pass hit him in the helmet.

I don't even want to get into the return game, which produced little to nothing on punts and kickoffs. I still don't like using Aaron Berry on punt returns, but Kinder is the backup. "It is what it is,'' to quote another former head coach from Pittsburgh. There's no confidence in the younger players even though there's certainly more of an up-side.

It's just one game. The season isn't over, but the status quo can't be maintained or nothing will be gained. Some chances have to be taken. Rigid coaching decisions, concerning plays and personnel, will not get it done.

The Pitt coaching staff has to prove it as much as the players. Inexperience can't be used as an excuse any more. Let the players get experience in every situation. That's how they mature. Don't bring them along slowly or that's how the program will continue to progress.

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