Tony Pike, the Bearcats starter, made the difference in the game. He was elusive and sharp, clearly among the best players on the field. Pike made play after play, got Cincinnati out of trouble when the Pittsburgh defense actually made a play and made the Panthers pay when they couldn't make a play.
Conversely, Pitt quarterback Bill Stull, while an upgrade on last year's play at the position, was not a difference-maker this year more often than not. The quarterback is the most significant position on the field. And the Panthers need to upgrade here if they are to reach the next level, winning a Big East title and competing even more on a national level.
The secondary play has been inconsistent at best and horrendous at worst with the majority of its play coming somewhere in between. While I believe that Pitt's recruiting has been excellent the past couple years, the play at these two spots must be upgraded the most. That could come from changing players or coaching up the ones on the roster to improve their play.
Officiating was another reason that Pitt struggled against Cincinnati, but I do not believe it was any conspiracy or anything like that. The Big East officials, like other Conferences, have some bad refs in their group. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they seem to surface when Pitt can be affected he most.
The penalties on Ricky Gary and John Malecki were silly, ticky-tacky BS calls that should not have been made. Two others, which apparently would have gone against the Bearcats, were nullified when the flags were picked up. I'm not saying they were good calls in the first place, but why were the flags thrown if the ref didn't see something?
And where was the flag at the end of the game. That was an absurd ending to a close game. Neither team deserved that to happen, but the officials needed to do a better job there. Pitt could have ended up with better field position, not much time to do anything, but a better chance nonetheless.
The bottom line is that Pitt did not play well enough to win the game. It's defense gave up too many big plays, and it's offense did not create enough. The special teams were the most positive aspect of the game for the Panthers. The coverage units contained Cincy's dangerous returners, and punter Dave Brytus had a solid day. The only downside was that they did not recover the onside kick at the end. But those are the breaks, I guess.
Now, Pitt must quickly regroup to get ready for West Virginia. A 9-3 record, much more respectable than anything the Panthers could have believed possible when the season began, and the No. 2 bowl bid to the Gator Bowl are within reach. This will tell as much about Pitt as the previous 10 games.
Coach Dave Wannstedt has preached all year about the strong leadership among the upperclassmen, and that will have to show itself more this week than it has all season. Sure, one goal has disintegrated, but others are still alive and can be reached.
Adjustments need to be made by the coaching staff, and the players need to upgrade their performances across the board.
It won't be easy, but it can be done. So, stick with these Panthers until the end. It might not be as bitter as some previously believed, and it certainly can be better than it's been in years.
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