No Fourth-Quarter Fade

Pitt strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris has an Army Drill Sergeant mentality, shouting out instructions to the Panthers football team to lead them through various drills with military precision on a daily basis.

The program's players apparently have embraced the Morris methodology, because Pittsburgh is 8-3 going into its regular-season finale with Connecticut (7-4) Saturday at noon at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. with a chance to achieve nine wins before the bowl game for the first time since 1982. And five victories have come on fourth-quarter comebacks.

"Going into the fourth quarter, we're a team that believes in each other, and we believe we're going to win the game,'' Pitt junior offensive guard John Malecki said. "We trust each other and believe in each other. That really helps us. We go out there with the idea that we're in great condition. We don't doubt ourselves. We are more physical than ever.

"And everything we've done since the offseason gives us a big advantage. And there's a big difference between now and where we were two years ago when we played at Connecticut. Buddy's whole mindset, last summer he called it the introduction for a whole month. The second month, he called it destruction, and he came out there and tried to punish us.

"Most of the team took it positively and stepped up to the plate and did what they could to perform,'' Malecki added. "The whole (Flagstaff) Hill aspect of it, waking up before the sun and running a hill together really enforces teamwork. In the fourth quarter, we can look back and say that since we've done so much together that we can do this and keep going forward.''

Pitt has more than doubled its fourth-quarter score in relation to its opponents this season, and even last year scored more in the fourth quarter than it gave up. But that wasn't the case during his opening two seasons, and Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt points to the game at UConn in 2006 as the reason.

Pitt lost 46-45 in double overtime the last time it visited Rentschler Field, blowing a two-touchdown lead during the fourth quarter in the process. After that Wannstedt took another look at the program's strength and conditioning. He fired assistant coach Mike Kent and his staff and brought in Morris for his third stint with the Pitt football program.

Wannstedt also changed his game-week preparation, bringing the players in on Sundays for meetings, video watching and even a light workout and then giving them off on Mondays. The Panthers were worn down in that double-overtime loss to UConn, but that really hasn't happened since then.

"Last year, we got a glimpse of how much our improved strength and conditioning has helped us,'' fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "But this year, there's a big difference. We got over the hump and have been able to finish games. We have five fourth-quarter comebacks, so we're a better-conditioned team in the fourth quarter.

"With how close the Big East teams are this season, you have to play four quarters to win the games. And that's to our benefit. Against Notre Dame, we went four overtimes. Buddy and James have worked us hard all year, but they've told us that there's going to be certain times when our body will want to quit. But our minds are stronger, and ... we help each other through it.''

Pitt's play in the trenches has been a perfect example. The Panthers don't get pushed around any more, and against rival West Virginia last week scored twice in the fourth quarter to win the game. Pitt held onto the ball on offense, primarily with runs by LeSean McCoy that led to his two scores, and kept WVU out of the end zone on defense.

Senior center C.J. Davis believed there was a noticeable different in the fourth quarter. The Panthers can "out-muscle'' a team if they need to, especially in close games. Junior tight end Nate Byham noted that Pitt has made "monumental strides'' in strength and conditioning since he arrived.

"Everybody has been training harder, and we're in great shape,'' Byham said. "Also, our leadership and the camaraderie we have, it's like a family, and we never get down on ourselves. Last year, there were so many games that we lost that were close in the fourth quarter, but we just couldn't finish.

"This year, we're winning those games. We believe in each other and believe that we can come back in the end. We have some players we rely on, but we're not just a one-person team by any means. We have 11 guys working together, and when that happens nobody is going to be able to hold us back.''

And it's what could lead the Pitt football program to its best record in decades.

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