Third Down No Charm

There were many positives for Pitt in its 21-20 win against Iowa this past Saturday at Heinz Field, but there was a glaring negative.

Pittsburgh converted just 3 of 15 third-down attempts (20 percent) against the Hawkeyes and are just slightly better overall, 17-for-48 (35.42 percent) through three games. Of course, a positive off-shoot is that the Panthers were 3-for-3 on fourth down against Iowa, but went three-and-out for six straight possessions and seven times in eight consecutive series.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt noted that third-down situations would be emphasized as the Panthers (2-1) prepare to visit Syracuse (1-3) in their Big East Conference opener Saturday at noon in the Carrier Dome.

"On a couple possessions, we had some guys open and missed a couple easy throws,'' Wannstedt said. "If (fullback) Conredge (Collins) catches that ball in the flat, he's probably still running. A couple times we turned some guys loose, so it was more of us not executing whether it was mental or physical.

"(Iowa) came out in the third quarter, and they brought pressure, which they had not done this year. They weren't getting any with four (down linemen), so they had to find a way to get some pressure. And that had an effect on us as far as adjusting to that. So that was a difference for us.''

What was frustrating for Wannstedt and the Panthers is that the situations were not difficult. More times than not, the yardage was short for a first down.

"We've just got to be more efficient,'' Wannstedt said. "The thing that made that difficult was that our third downs were makable. ... From a head coach's perspective, it is no fun going for it on fourth down. That's a decision that you don't want to make, especially going for three of them in a game.

"So, we've got to convert on third down. You try to get yourself in manageable third downs, and we were in plenty manageable third downs. And we just didn't execute the way we should have. So, third down will be a point of emphasis this week. I can guarantee you that. ... You don't want to get to fourth down.''

Wannstedt recalled several instances where he believed the correct play was called, but the execution was less than stellar by the Panthers.

"The first third-down-and-two (situation) that we don't make, we have a new play in and the quarterback opens the wrong way and runs into the fullback, and we fall down,'' Wannstedt said. "The next one, we've got (Collins) open in the flat, and we overthrow him.

"It was a great call. There was nobody within 20 yards of him. He would have run down the sidelines a long way and maybe scored. But that's just the execution part of it. ... But it's going to happen.

"The other third down, we tried to throw a little bubble screen out there,'' Wannstedt added. "Depending on the coverage, we throw that or hand off, but we throw it and it hits the dirt. It kind of short-hopped him. So, there's some high-percentage plays where we have to execute better.''

Despite pointing out several instances where Bill Stull missed opportunities to make plays, Wannstedt did not castigate his redshirt junior quarterback. Instead, he noted that Stull was progressing, albeit slowly "in basically just his third start'' and was doing a good job avoiding sacks and bouncing back after some big hits.

Still, there are those who wonder why Pitt has averaged less than 22 points per game despite an apparent wealth of firepower on offense. Fifth-year senior wideout Derek Kinder believed it was only a matter of time before the Panthers light up the scoreboard.

"We definitely have the personnel where we should be able to put more points on the board, and I feel like we're close to breaking it open on offense,'' Kinder said. "We just left a couple plays on the field, but we're getting closer and I hope we can get there soon. We just need to keep working at it.

"Billy is getting more confident every week, and he's hanging in there in the pocket a little longer to make some plays. He's even taken some hits and hung in there. So, he's getting better each week, and I'm looking forward to him progressing toward the end of the season.''

And Kinder noted that it wasn't poor play-calling, rather a lack of execution holding Pitt back right now on offense. However, he believed that since the coaching staff showed faith in the offense by going for it on several fourth downs and when the offense repaid them by making it that things should open more for the offense.

"I think when you go for it on fourth down, it's tough because you didn't make it on third,'' Kinder said. "But you also can take some comfort in the fact that the coaches are confident that we can make it on fourth. So, that's the way we look at it, and we want to go out and prove we can do it.

"And I think we proved that when it came down to it, we could get the job done. We were able to move the sticks all three times we went for it on fourth down. So, that opens up the playbook for us a little bit more. We can get the ball downfield more and take some more chances, and that's what we need.''

Kinder has been a solid third-down receiver for Pitt and leads with 11 catches for 105 yards and the only score via the pass this season.

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