Pitt's Offensive Outlook

If anything has been learned through four seasons from Dave Wannstedt head-coaching tenure with the Pitt football team, as well as his year-ending press briefing, it's that he's extremely loyal to his coaching staff and veteran players.

Wannstedt backed embattled offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and even scoffed when asked if a separate coach was needed just for quarterbacks, and he was not harsh in critiquing signal-caller Bill Stull. However, his support for the redshirt junior quarterback apparently has waned.

It won't be known for sure until spring practice gets going in a couple months, but the Pittsburgh offense -- and in particular, the quarterback situation and passing game, if not the coordinator -- should be shaken up a bit.

"I haven't talked to Billy since the season has been over, but ... I think he was about (through three quarters against Rutgers) 16-for-22 for 279 yards,'' Wannstedt noted. "And, then, I think he got hurt and missed the Notre Dame game. And I don't think he's been the same since.

"Why? I don't know, but we did not make progress at that position during the last four weeks. I thought from Week 1 and leading up to the Rutgers game, I saw some improvement being made. But not after that.''

Wannstedt wouldn't go as far as saying that Stull has lost confidence in himself or that his teammates have, either, but there clearly were communication problems during the Sun Bowl. Stull was inconsistent at best and horrendous at worst with a 7-for-24 passing performance for 52 yards and one interception before being pulled for sophomore Pat Bostick in the fourth quarter.

Even though Oregon State was shredded for 640 total yards in a 65-38 loss to rival Oregon in its final regular-season game, Pitt produced just 178 -- with 89 passing -- in its 3-0 loss to the Beavers in the Sun Bowl. The reasons are myriad, but primarily center around Cavanaugh's play-calling and Stull's play.

The Panthers handed off only once in the first quarter to tailback LeSean McCoy, even though OSU was susceptible to the run all year, while Stull continued to throw deep passes on a windy day. None connected.

"I believe in my heart that we're better at that position than we played the last four weeks,'' Wannstedt said about the quarterback spot. "We have to be. ... Until I sit down with Billy, and we have a good talk now that all the emotion is out of it, (but) right after the game wasn't the time to do that.

"So, we let things calm down a bit. Something was missing (in the passing game), and something got it out of sync. And we just never reclaimed it.''

Wannstedt reiterated that Pitt's offense wanted to take shots downfield with the wind at its back, and that the play-calling was varied with screens, shovel passes, belly pitches, waggles and bootlegs missed with deep throws.

"We just didn't execute it very good,'' Wannstedt said. "We should have and could have done some better things as coaches, and we sure as heck could have done some things better as players on offense. There was constant pressure on Billy. They covered us tighter and (our receivers) didn't get open clean on some things, and when we got open we didn't hit them.

"So, it was a combination of things. I wish I knew why, because how can two phases of our football team play so well? Our defense played as well as it has all year, with the emotion and execution, and special teams were good. But one phase was not (offense). I did learn some lessons, and we'll make a few adjustments as a staff in our preparation for next year's bowl game.''

For the Panthers to get that far, and most assuredly to win the Big East and secure a BCS bid to the post-season, the quarterback's play must be upgraded. That doesn't mean that Stull, who Wannstedt said will be the starter during Day 1 in the spring because he ended the season there, won't be the guy again. But by all accounts the quarterback position will be hotly-contested this spring.

Stull will get serious competition from Bostick, who started eight games as a freshman and one this past season, and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri, who led Central Catholic to the 2007 PIAA Class Quad-A title. Bostick was 3-5 as a starter in 2007, including a win against a ranked Cincinnati team and on the road against then No. 2 West Virginia. This past season, he started during the Panthers' win at Notre Dame.

"Unless something happens between now and then, (Stull) deserves the opportunity to be the starter on Day 1,'' Wannstedt said. "But it's going to be as competitive as ever with Pat Bostick, Tino Sunseri and, depending on which direction we go with Greg Cross. (But) Tino Sunseri is going to get a hard, hard look this spring, and so is Pat Bostick and so will Billy.

"We're going to be more demanding at that position than we've ever been (at Pitt) because I think we all know that for us to take the next step, we've got to be more productive there. And it's going to take a bigger commitment on my part, a bigger commitment on Matt Cavanaugh's part and a bigger commitment on our players' part for that to happen.''

Through it all, though, Wannstedt staunchly supported Cavanaugh and pointed out that "there's an awful lot to be excited about and an awful lot to look forward to'' for the upcoming season. Sure, Pitt's offense was inept in the Sun Bowl, but that shouldn't diminish what was accomplished during the season.

The Panthers were 9-4 overall with more regular-season wins than the program has had since 1982 and led the Big East in several categories like fourth-down conversions, point-after tries and fewest penalty yards. Pitt also was second in kick coverage, field goals, red-zone offense and sacks. McCoy surpassed 1,000 yards for the second straight season, and the Panthers' offense led the Conference in scoring during the regular season.

"I think it would be a mistake to try let one performance by one aspect of our football team be a reflection on what our football team has done moving forward and what our football team has accomplished,'' Wannstedt said.

"Sometimes, when you hit a bump in the road, it just reiterates and re-enforces a reminder and brings to light the things where we are not as good as we need to be and the areas of improvement that we will address and have to be addressed for us to be a championship team.''

How much actually has been addressed will become evident this spring.

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