Don't look at how bad the Orange appears to be. Pittsburgh (3-1) opened Big East play with a victory going into a matchup against South Florida Thursday night in Tampa. The Panthers have three wins in a row, and it doesn't matter who they played to get to this point.
And it's going to be a wild ride the rest of the way for Pitt. That's for sure, as the Panthers have the talent and ability to beat every team remaining on its schedule. So, it should be a lot of fun.
Pitt beat Syracuse the way Coach Dave Wannstedt wanted to win it, with a strong running game (nearly 250 yards rushing, more than 400 total), solid offensive performance -- especially in the second half -- and pretty good defense. Throw out the kickoff return, not out, but don't put it on the defense -- and Pitt's performance wasn't bad.
"Anybody who thought it was gonna be different than what it was (Saturday) afternoon has no clue about young athletes and coaches and trying to win,'' Wannstedt said. "Everybody was 0-0 in the conference, and it started (here).
"Early on, we missed some throws. They were bringing a lot of pressure. ... (On the kickoff return), they blocked us, and it put us a little bit on our heels. (But) I thought our kids did a great job at halftime.''
The coaches did a good job as well. They made adjustments, something sorely lacking in previous games, previous years, for that matter. Pitt stuck to the ground game and wore down Syracuse. The Panthers' passing game was decent in the first half, but did not stretch the field enough to help the running game.
Pitt's receivers just are not consistent in catching the football, mostly Oderick Turner, although he consistently drops 1-2 per game. Quarterback Bill Stull has been inconsistent as well. Maybe it's just a matter of going with the throws he can make and not trying to make him into something he's not. He can't throw the ball consistently accurate more than 30 yards downfield.
Now, for the obvious. Shane Murray was sorely missed during the opening 3.5 games. When he got in the game during the second half, Pitt's defense improved markedly. I like Austin Ransom, but he has been a work in progress that the Panthers couldn't afford. Greg Williams is getting better, but if Murray and Adam Gunn are in the game against Bowling Green in the second half the outcome would have been different. I truly believe that.
While it was difficult to watch the defensive line get knocked off the ball in the first half, that was corrected for the second half. With improved linebacker play, i.e. Murray tightening things up, the defense stuffed the Syracuse running game and forced the Orange to play Pitt's game.
The Panthers still give up too many big plays. Three against Iowa and a few more against Syracuse. If they do that against South Florida, it will be a long night. It might be anyway, but I believe Pitt has a good chance to win down there. After three straight wins, the Panthers are on a little roll and basically are as healthy as they've been since the preseason.
There's still some question about Joe Thomas at right offensive tackle, his health and his play, but Wannstedt said he was all right after the game. His injury appeared to be a little more serious than the coach let on, but I guess we'll find out this week.
The O-line continues to show improvement. Sure, there are lapses, but they are fewer and farther between now. The wideouts are still inconsistent and need to help out Stull, but the quarterback would be well advised to help them out as well. He nearly got Cedric McGee decapitated on one crossing route and threw behind guys several times.
The running game performed well against a poor run defense, but that does not diminish -- at least not too much -- what LaRod Stephens-Howling did. He provided a shot in the arm to the running game and got a game ball from Pitt's coaching staff as well. He was a good change-of-pace from LeSean McCoy, and they made a tough combo for Syracuse to stop.
I still would have used quarterback Greg Cross at least one series. A change was needed in the first half, for sure, as Stull would have been better served by watching a series from the sideline. But it didn't happen. Not sure why, but to his credit Stull bounced back in the second half and was not picked off.
Maybe he deserved to be intercepted a couple times, but he was not. And Pitt had NO turnovers. NONE. And the Panthers forced one. That was huge, but they need more. Pitt DC Phil Bennett has preached getting turnovers from the outset, but there have been too few. The Panthers need more.
To summarize, I believe Pitt can beat South Florida -- and any other team on its schedule the rest of this season -- but it also could lose any of the games, too. While that might sound like flimsy reasoning, it's the truth. When the Panthers play well, they are as good as any team in the Big East, even better. That's not an indictment of the Conference or Pitt. Just a fact.
Sure, the Big East might not be among the elite leagues in the country from top to bottom, but few conferences are loaded throughout. And the Big East might be as balanced as any league in the nation. That makes it ripe for the taking for Pitt, South Florida, Connecticut and who knows which other team.
So, for Panthers fans, there's still a lot of hope, more than there was several weeks ago. The test Pitt has against USF Thursday night might be the biggest it faces all season. The Panthers have 16 days between that game and their next one at Navy, and a big win would make that time go a lot easier.
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