Wannstedt Believes Future Bright For Pitt

Just when the Pitt football program finally appeared to turn the corner in Dave Wannstedt's fifth season, the Panthers discovered they were in a hexagon.

That doesn't mean Pittsburgh isn't on track for future success, and Wannstedt sounded more convinced than ever that the Panthers' would reach the lofty goals he talked about after returning to his alma mater.

"Right now, we're light years ahead of where we were when I arrived,'' Wannstedt said. "The foundation is built, and our program is clearly headed in the right direction. (And) it's been a long time since Pitt had back-to-back nine-win seasons. We lost our two Conference games by a total of four points to two ranked teams. We still have a chance to get win No. 10.

"And that hasn't been done here in a long, long time. And we're a lot better football team than we've been in a long time around here. Our players know that, and they believe that. (And) we're going to learn so much from this (Cincinnati) game. ... You've got to learn from (your mistakes) and turn those negatives into positives. (And) we've got some unfinished business.''

No. 17 Pitt (9-3) faces North Carolina (8-4) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. And if the Panthers are victorious, it would be the program's first 10-win season since three successive 11-1 campaigns from 1979-81 and first bowl victory since Walt Harris' 2002 squad beat Oregon State in the Insight Bowl to go 9-4.

"We've got a heckuva football team, and we're moving forward,'' Wannstedt said. "And when you feel good about yourself as a team, you want to get out there and play. So, our guys want to get out there and play. ... Our kids did everything that they could do to prepare themselves to win that game.

"When I looked at our goal boards, we can talk about being plus-one in turnovers. We can talk about rushing for 200 yards. We talk about creating turnovers and blocking a punt. We had a lot of positives, so in many respects a loss like that it tough for young kids to swallow. And, quite frankly, it's tough for the coaches and everyone else involved.

"Games like this are tough to figure out,'' Wannstedt added. "The easy ones are when you get beat by three touchdowns and you can't run the ball. You turn it over three times, and they don't turn it over at all. But, for the most part, I thought our guys played as hard as they could (and) did a lot of good things.''

Along with a second straight solid, nine-win season, the Panthers maintained a national ranking for the first time since that 2002 team and only the second time since 1989 in the season-ending Associated Press poll.

There were other team and individual accomplishments during the season:

Pitt led the Big East in rushing offense at 184.6 yards per game and defensive sacks with 44.

The Panthers were second in scoring offense (33.2 points per game), scoring defense (20 points per game), total offense (400 yards per game) and total defense (324 yards per game).

Individually, fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull was rated second in the Big East in passing efficiency with 205.8 yards per game, a 152.5 passer rating and 21 touchdown passes.

Freshman tailback Dion Lewis was the top rusher with 136.7 yards per game. He and redshirt junior place-kicker Dan Hutchins were tied for the scoring lead with 102 points (damn that last extra point against the Bearcats).

What's amazing is that many of Pitt's top performers will return to improve on their 2009 numbers like Lewis and his backup Ray Graham, sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin and redshirt freshman wideout Mike Shanahan. Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner, two fifth-year senior wideouts, can easily be replaced with a plethora of young players ready and able to add depth.

Pitt does lose three senior interior offensive linemen, but the key will be replacing center Robb Houser. It's not that Houser was an All-American, but there just isn't any discernible depth at the position at present. Also, while the future at tight end appears to be bright, there's no experience with Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson moving on.

Then, there's the quarterback situation with junior Pat Bostick and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri battling for Stull's vacant job this spring. After one season working with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, this position could be an upgrade in a short time.

Defensively, the Panthers will lose fifth-year senior tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, sixth-year middle linebacker Adam Gunn and senior cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. But a number of players who had critical roles this season as backups eventually should secure those spots.

One change with the defense could be if coordinator Phil Bennett leaves to return to his family in Texas. D-line coach Greg Gattuso, passed over for the job the last time -- but promoted to assistant head coach -- should move up if this occurs to maintain stability and consistency. Nothing's a guarantee on either front, though, and won't come to light until after the bowl game.

Other coaching moves could happen as well, as the Panthers continue to upgrade the staff as needed and improve recruiting in targeted areas. On that note, the incoming Class of 2010 should be Wannstedt's best. While it might not be the highest-rated now, it certainly could prove it on the field later.

The off-field issues have continued to strengthen for the program on a yearly basis, as graduation rates have increased, along with the season-ticket base, while run-ins with the law have decreased. And attendance is expected to be higher than ever next season.

The winter program is in the powerful hands of Buddy Morris, and it couldn't be stronger. The Panthers were never dominated on the field this season or the last one, for that matter, and that's something that couldn't be said in years prior to those.

So, as Pitt has begun preparation to face the Tar Heels, a 10th win is squarely in its sights. It's not a BCS bowl game or national-title tilt, but since when is tangible improvement a bad thing at this point.

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