The Pittsburgh coaching staff brought the Panthers (9-3) in Sunday for a meeting to set up a game plan for the weeks leading up to a matchup with Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th Sun Bowl Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas.
This is finals week for the Pitt players, so the team will take some time off this week before beginning practice sessions in earnest for bowl game. The Panthers will practice until Dec. 22, take a few days off for a Christmas break and return to campus for a Dec. 26 flight to El Paso where they will practice several times before the game.
"We'll pick up probably a half-dozen practices here before we go, and then we'll have 4-5 down there,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "So, this is a nice opportunity for our younger players.
"We'll get some good, basic fundamental work. I don't know how much break I'll give our seniors, but we'll have a few practices where the seniors won't be involved. So, we'll just work the younger kids, and that'll be great for them.''
And don't worry about Pitt taking too much time off or being unfocused. Fifth-year senior place-kicker Conor Lee believes that no matter how often the Panthers practice it's always an effective workout.
"Our team practices hard, and we have a lot of enthusiasm during practice,'' Lee said. "Even when we work out, ever since January, this team has been special and has really worked hard. Even when people have doubted us.
"Everybody comes here with the same mentality every day and really works hard. ... We know that we're a good football team, and when people doubt us we don't listen to that. We just go back to work and look to the next game.
"We know you're going to lose games in football,'' Lee added. "It's tough to go undefeated. So, we just stayed the course after some tough losses, and it worked out for us in the end. We got the job done and finished strong this season with a win against Connecticut to get nine wins and a good bowl bid.''
Wannstedt and his staff also must have an eye on the future, so recruiting will be at a premium this week. The assistants will be on the road this morning, and this weekend will be the final big visit session until after New Year's Day.
"We've got a good, solid foundation set now, and we'll have another great recruiting class coming in,'' Wannstedt said. "So, all we have to do is keep it going. We've got about 15 kids coming in this week, so it'll be good. We'll get that list finalized the next couple days.
"In recruiting, we're already a week behind. That started Dec. 1, but we really couldn't do anything due to the game last week. So, we were a little handicapped there. So, we've got some work to make up, but we'll make a real strong push over the next two weeks with our recruiting.
"(And) without a doubt, the bowl game will help,'' Wannstedt added. "When you're talking about national television and playing on New Year's Eve, our recruits will take notice. Everybody will take notice. We've been on national TV a lot. So, it's been great. And we've played fairly well, for the most part.''
Wannstedt's long and varied football career has provided a connection to Oregon State, Pitt's Sun Bowl foe. He's familiar with Beavers coach Mike Riley.
"He was coaching with the Chargers when I was with the Dolphins,'' Wannstedt said. "He's definitely an offensive guy. He was with New Orleans before he went there, and offense is his background.''
As soon as the Panthers beat UConn and Oregon State was believed to be their bowl opponent, Lee asked his brother, Sean, about the Beavers. Sean Lee is a Penn State linebacker out this year with a knee injury, but the Nittany Lions pummeled Oregon State 45-14 in the second game this season. That followed an OSU loss to Stanford, 36-28, in the opener.
After a win against Hawaii and a bye week, the Beavers bounced back big-time with a 27-21 win No. 1 Southern Cal. Sure, the Beavers lost 31-28 at Utah the following week, but the Utes are undefeated this season. Six straight wins followed before Oregon State was hammered, 65-38, in the annual Civil War with Oregon. That cost the Beavers a trip to the Rose Bowl.
"They've gotten better just about every week after that (PSU game),'' Conor Lee said. "They beat USC. They've got a good running back, and they're going to be a tough team to beat. So, we're going to have to work hard the next couple weeks to get after them.
"I guess they weren't playing their best when they played Penn State. My brother told me that they've totally changed as a team. He's been watching them, and they're a lot better now than they were when Penn State played them early in the season. They're a very good football team.''
The running back Lee talked about is freshman Jacquizz Rodgers, and he has 1,253 yards rushing (4.8 average) with 11 touchdowns in 11 games (10 as a starter). Also, his brother, sophomore James Rodgers has 408 yards rushing (8.9) and five scores. Junior quarterback Lyle Moevao has completed better than 60 percent of his passes for 2,341 yards and 19 TDs with 11 picks.
The top receiver is senior wideout Sammie Stroughter with 64 catches for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, while James Rodgers has 51 catches for 607 yards and four scores. Senior wideout Shane Morales has 49 for 664 yards and eight touchdowns, and Jacquizz Rodgers has 29 for 247 yards and one score. James Rodgers also has an 86-yard kickoff return.
Defensively, senior safety Greg Laybourn leads the way with 105 total tackles, including 60 solo stops, while the top pass-rushers are senior defensive ends Slade Norris (nine, 17) and Victor Butler (eight, 16.5) with a combined 17 sacks and 33.5 total stops behind the line.
Final Note: Wannstedt initially wasn't thrilled to be doused by Gatorade after the UConn win, especially since it was so cold in East Hartford, Conn. that day, but since it capped an amazing regular season he warmed up afterward.
"I knew Jason Pinkston was involved somehow,'' Wannstedt said. "He was somewhere around there, but ... he's one of my guys. He's from Baldwin.''
Wannstedt also graduated from Baldwin High School, albeit sometime earlier than Pinkston.
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