No. 20 Pittsburgh (7-2, 3-1), which plays at No. 19 Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1) with the Big East title on the line Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, has converted at a Conference-best 76.5 percent on fourth down (13 of 17). That figure ranks sixth nationally.
The Panthers were 3-for-3 on third down at home to Iowa and at Notre Dame. All six drives eventually reached the end zone. Conversely, Pitt converts at a 39.55 percent rate on third down (53 of 134).
"It's just a matter of wanting it more,'' sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy said. "That's all. We want to move the ball downfield and score, and if we have to go for it on fourth down we'll do it. And we've been pretty good at making it.
"(And) a game like this, there's only so much the coaches can say to us. The players, we know what's at stake, and we know what it's going to take to get the job done. All we need to do now is to do it against Cincinnati.''
While many might believe that McCoy is the No. 1 option for Pitt in any short-yardage situation, Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh actually have used various play-calls and players to move the sticks.
"If you're one-dimensional, people will figure out how to stop you,'' Cavanaugh said. "So, we've got confidence in a lot of different guys to move the sticks, and that's on every down. Not just on fourth, but ... we want to get the ball in somebody's hands who can do what they do best and take advantage of it.
"We don't want to take the ball out of Shady's hands, especially on fourth down, but people probably look for him even more in those short-yardage situations. So, it has helped our offense that we have some other people step up to make plays and get the yards we need.
"Since we had a couple opportunities earlier in the season and were successful, I think Coach Wannstedt has gotten more confident in letting us go for it,'' Cavanaugh added. "But you have to be judicious when you do it and how you do it, but it's nice to know when you need two yards after two downs that you probably have two downs to do it. That makes it a lot easier to convert.''
Senior fullback Conredge Collins has been a popular choice by Wannstedt and Cavanaugh, but not as a hammer. Instead, the versatile Collins has caught a pass in the flat several times to keep a drive alive.
"We know that Coach Cavanaugh has confidence in the O on any play call that we can get the job done,'' Collins said. "So, we're looking to get a first down every time we get a chance, on whatever down, but when it's fourth down it's our last chance. And that makes it even more special.
"I guess I would like to run the ball a little more than I have, especially on fourth down, getting the tough yards when we need them. This is my fourth year in the offense, and since we've been around for a long time Coach knows that we can make plays. So, he has confidence that we can make plays.
"If you can be successful on third and fourth down, those are the tough downs, the most important downs,'' Collins added. "We try to score on every down, so if we don't get it on third down we definitely want to go for it on fourth down. That's the only way to keep the offense on the field and score.''
Redshirt junior quarterback Bill Stull's return against Louisville two weeks ago helped the Pitt offense be diverse, even though the running game -- primarily with McCoy -- stalled. Not only has Stull kept the sticks moving on fourth down, but when the Panthers get into the red zone they score more often than not.
Pitt has scored an outstanding 35 of 37 times it reached the 20-yard line or deeper into an opponent's territory (94.59 percent), which is first in the Big East and tied for the top spot nationally. A Stull interception in the end zone at Navy ended the Panthers' 19-for-19 start, and he also was picked off against Rutgers. Pitt has reached the end zone 23 times (65.71 percent) and kicked 12 field goals.
"We're 110-percent confident in being able to get it done on fourth down, and it's awesome to have a head coach and offensive coaches that believe in us,'' Stull said. "When they tell us that we're in four-down territory, they say that if we're going to go, we better get it. So, that makes us want to get it even more.
"The stats show that we've been successful at making them, and the coaches are getting more confident in us as the year goes on. It's up to the big guy, but we expect it. And the offense always wants to stay on the field and get the first down, even if it means going for it on fourth down and especially in the red zone. We've had some good numbers there and have gotten six a lot of times.''
Wannstedt actually was hesitant to go for it in Pitt's opening-game loss to Bowling Green. He punted from the 34- and 35-yard lines in that game, and that hampered the Panthers' ability to secure a victory.
"I think that every time we get in a fourth-down situation our players want to go for it,'' Wannstedt said. "That's a normal reaction. They're like the fans and the media. I think you have to look at the defense and what we feel we can execute, and then you have to try to make a sound decision as to what your chances are of making it.
"You don't want to do something just to do it. ... But when you look at the times when our defense has stopped people on fourth down and our offense has made it, if you put those things together, that's (like) a turnover of possession. Then you look at the number of blocked kicks, we have seven blocks in nine games, that's a turnover of possession, too.''
But when Pitt goes for it on fourth down, the only thing that gets turned over is the down marker.
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