Pitt Needs Fast Start Against Navy

Many Pitt fans lament the football program's success rate the past few decades, and when the Panthers won nine regular-season games last fall it was the top total since 1982.

That team dropped its final regular-season game at Penn State and lost the bowl game as well to finish 9-3. Pittsburgh was 11-1 the three previous seasons, but the Panthers won nine games just once and eight five times since then. In 2002, Pitt was 9-4, but dropped its final regular-season games at Miami and to West Virginia after an 8-2 start. Pitt won its bowl game that year.

However, the Panthers (2-0) attempt to do something today against Navy (1-1) that they have not done since 2000, open the season at 3-0. Pitt has had a three-game winning streak to open a season just three times in the past 26 years. The kickoff is 6 p.m. at Heinz Field.

"I was not aware of that,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said when told about it. "And I think this will be a challenge for us, so we've got our work cut out for us (to get to 3-0). But you have to just try to take them one at a time, and we can't look ahead or worry about this stuff.''

Coach Walt Harris led the 2000 Panthers to a 4-0 start, Pitt's third since going 3-0 in 1989 and 5-0 in 1991. A string of losses that season were a harbinger to a 3-9 record the following year, and wins have been hard to come by since then. On a side note, Navy has been 3-0 to start the season twice since 2004.

While the Pitt football program has not approached the national prominence of those teams in the early 1980s, Wannstedt appears to have gotten the Panthers on the right track. They aren't there just yet, but with recruiting on an up-swing the future appears to be bright.

"The one thing I will say about this football team is that the players have come out of the gate (this season) and understood the importance of each game and that game only,'' Wannstedt said. "But now that the level of competition is going up a notch, I think that is even more (important) this week.''

Pitt's going to have a tough time against Navy, although the Panthers handled the Midshipmen pretty well last year in Annapolis, Md. Wannstedt noted that Navy usually has about 40 minutes for its time of possession each game to control the ball and the game.

It's a lot tougher for the Midshipmen if they get behind, like they did against Ohio State this season, but quarterback Ricky Dobbs can pass with success if necessary. The Panthers want to put Navy in that situation.

"You've got to have a mindset when you play Navy to look at the big picture,'' Wannstedt said. "You need to understand that every possession counts. If you go out there and go three and out a couple times in a row, it's going to come back to haunt you.''

So, it will be Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti's job to make sure the Panthers hold onto the ball as long as possible before scoring.

"You'd love to control the time of possession against Navy, but they have a very good defense,'' Cignetti said. "They present some problems up front because they jump into some different defenses, so we're facing a very good football team.

"When you play an option team, you would like to control the ball and keep them off the field. Does it put any more pressure on you? I'm not so sure, because we have to take care of our own issues. So, that's what we'll work on to get ready for Navy.''

A win would help Pitt get off to a quick start this fall, but that really doesn't guarantee anything. Remember the falloff after a successful start in 1991.

Wannstedt points to 2006 where the Panthers beat Virginia at home and won at Cincinnati. They came from ahead to lose to Michigan State at home, but reeled off home wins against The Citadel and Toledo and also won at Syracuse and Central Florida to open at 6-1. Things basically fell apart after that.

The Panthers lost five straight to end the regular season, and once again there was no bowl game. That's why this game against Navy is so pivotal. Pitt has to win these games that it's supposed to win, and make no mistake. This is a game that the Panthers should win when everything is considered, and they are favored by a touchdown or so against the Midshipmen.

Another thing, a win could boost Pitt into the various Top 25 rankings. The Panthers are ranked 27th by the Associated Press writers and 29th by the USA Today coaches, but ironically are No. 1 by Colley Matrix. Still, none of this matters to Wannstedt.

"It really is about just taking them one at a time for us,'' Wannstedt said. "And it is way too early to worry about (rankings). We're just going to go out there and see if we can kick a field goal with no time left. You know, find a way to win the game, as they say.''

Pitt is 21-13-3 all-time against Navy with a 5-1 mark in the past six games in a series that began in 1912.

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