Pitt Breaks For Holidays

The Pitt football program appears to have turned the corner in Dave Wannstedt's fourth season as the head coach at his alma mater, and he reflected a bit as the Panthers prepare for their first bowl game since 2004.

No. 18 Pittsburgh (9-3) faces 24th-ranked Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th annual Sun Bowl Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas.

"Our pre-season expectation was that somehow we've got to find a way to get to a bowl game,'' Wannstedt said. "That was the first thing. The number of wins, I felt like a year ago if we wouldn't have lost Bill Stull we would have gone to a bowl game and probably won seven games.

"So, you want to go to a bowl game and compete, and you want to win the Big East championship. But I never really put a number on it. That's every team's goals, but realistically, only 3-4 teams can accomplish that. At the end of the season, we were one of the teams that legitimately could have done it.''

Wannstedt also recalled his first game as a head coach at Pitt against Notre Dame at a sold-out Heinz Field Sept. 3, 2005. Despite all the hype surrounding the program and Wannstedt's return, and especially since the Panthers were coming off a BCS bowl appearance (the team's fifth straight post-season trip), Pitt was pounded, 42-21, by the Fighting Irish.

"In looking back at that game ... the (recruits) that we brought in were,'' Wannstedt said, "in some cases, better looking than the guys that we had. ... I remember looking at Notre Dame and saying, physically, it's not even close.

"Sure, we have to coach them and play them, but on any Saturday now we're not going to walk into any stadium or walk off any bus and look out of place. We're going to look as good physically and run as well as anybody we play.''

When asked what Pitt needed to do to get back in a game at West Virginia during his first season, Wannstedt said the Panthers needed to run faster. Now, he believes the combination of team speed, strength, size and depth were the biggest improvements in the program since that time.

"Being able to bring Mick Williams off the bench as a third tackle, or Gus Mustakas, or Tony Tucker as your third end,'' Wannstedt said, referring to the team's depth. "To be able to play guys like that, it gives you a chance to win games down the road because of injuries or whatever. That's compared to having guys on the depth chart who have never played.''

Bowl Schedule
The Panthers came in at 6:30 a.m. Monday to watch some Oregon State video, and the staff then put them through some conditioning work before letting them go for the holidays. The team will reassemble Friday morning to leave for El Paso, Texas. While there, Pitt will practice at the Socorro Independent School District Athletic Complex for several days before the game.

"You try to do something that works for you,'' Wannstedt said when asked about Pitt's bowl schedule. "Oregon State, they're not even sending their kids home for Christmas. They're working right through (this week). I just felt like our kids needed a couple days off. We needed a little break.

"They were done two weeks prior to us, but this is new territory for me, too. So, we'll see. I was a little concerned about the contact, because we didn't do much scrimmaging (last week). But it's only been a couple weeks since we had our last contact work, so we'll be all right. If it were two more weeks on top of that, like Oregon State, I might have done it all differently.''

Wannstedt had Pitt football operations director Chris LaSala poll 8-10 schools around the country to discuss their bowl practice schedules. That way, the Panthers could compare practice, time off and meeting time since this basically is a new experience for everybody on the staff except for LaSala.

Playoff Or Bust
Wannstedt said instead of the current formula used to get a BCS title matchup, he'd like to see a playoff system used to determine the NCAA champ.

"I would think that they could do something to at least get a plus-one type of game,'' Wannstedt said. "Then, maybe you could get more teams involved initially and have to play two games. But I think it would just add to it. I think you can have all the bowls you have right now and don't change anything.

"Rather than one and two, maybe you're taking the top four or top six. And I guarantee it would be a big splash in TV and viewing audience and coverage. I don't think anything would suffer. As long as we kept playing football and having teams playing each other with a national championship as the end result, you're going to have great viewership and great support, I think.''

Paul Rhoads to Iowa State
"I think it's a great opportunity for Paul,'' Wannstedt said. "I'm happy for him. He called me the morning that he got the job, and Paul had coached there in the past. His hometown is about 20 minutes from there. So I think there were some ties there, and I think the timing of it was right.

"They had someone walk out on them, but they got someone who's a heckuva football coach. I think they know he's a guy that's from the area and a guy that's committed to being there. So, I'm happy for Paul. He's in the process of trying to put a staff together, and we had some conversations about that.''

Personnel Moves
Wannstedt said that freshman cornerback Ronald Hobby was the only player who will not make the Sun Bowl trip. He is academically ineligible, and his future in the program is in doubt as well. ... Senior running back LaRod Stephens-Howling will be used on the punt-return team for the bowl game and now is on all four special teams. ... Wannstedt said he'd give LaRod a shot right now if he was coaching in the NFL.

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