Wannstedt Reviews Pitt's Season

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt spoke to Joe Bendel on his radio show this week on Fox Sports 970, and Panther Digest summarizes the interview.

Wannstedt discussed his team's progress, as well as the Pittsburgh football program's future, during a 20-minute session. And Wannstedt noted that despite a win in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, he still is affected by tough regular season-ending losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati.

"Even after the (bowl) game, I was still devastated,'' Wannstedt said. "And to some degree, I'm still ... I might never get over it. But I was on the recruiting trail about two days after that Cincinnati game, and the coaches' poll came out. And we go up in the coaches' poll.

"I don't know if anybody loses a game and goes up in a rating. I thought that was kinda strange, but it just tells you what the coaches out there think about our football team. Then, I'm on the road two days later recruiting in Texas, and a couple coaches came up to me and started talking about our program.

"I didn't hear that back in Western Pa.,'' Wannstedt added, "but I heard it from other people around the country. They do know that we're capable of lining up against anybody anywhere and playing. So, I guess you can read into it as much as you want. Is it 13 wins? No, but is it a step forward toward where we're trying to get to? Yes, most definitely.''

It's been well-documented that Pitt's 10-3 record was the program's best since 1981 when quarterback Dan Marion led the Panthers to their third straight 11-1 season. Under Wannstedt, Pitt recorded a second straight nine-win regular season, but after the two losses the Panthers were focused on getting 10 wins.

"We obviously came up short against West Virginia, as they scored with no time on the clock,'' Wannstedt said. "We lost by one point with 35 seconds left against Cincinnati, and I just thought it was unfair for our kids if our football team was unable to go out and play one more time (after two tough losses).

"So, that was kind of the theme. You can talk about it all day long and put up all the motivational quotes that you want, but if you don't have a senior group of kids that it really means something to them. And they really are prepared to put in the time, focus and get ready to win a game, then it (won't) happen.

"But it was real important to our guys,'' Wannstedt added. "Our seniors felt that they were different from some teams in the past. And the only way to go out there and make that real was to prove it. And, fortunately, we were able to get it done. ... We were able to accomplish our goal and get that 10th win.''

For a while there, it didn't appear possible, as the Panthers missed a field goal and fumbled at the goal line through the end zone for a touchback. Pitt trailed 17-16 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter and misfired several times in an attempt to regain the lead. Finally, Wannstedt new what to do.

After rushing for more than 100 yards in the first half, but getting only three third-quarter touches, Pitt put the ball in Dion Lewis' hands once again. With Lewis involved in nearly every play, the Panthers drove 79 yards in 17 plays and 8:47 to get in range for place-kicker Dan Hutchins' game-winning field goal from 33 yards with 52 seconds left.

"When you're in a critical situation like we were, you have to go back to your foundation,'' Wannstedt said. "So, there we were, our backs were against the wall, the clock was running. We knew we weren't going to get many opportunities, and that was the foundation for our football team.

"So, that's what we did. ... The amazing thing is that it's tough enough going 10 plays in a row and not screw something up, but for our guys to go 17 plays and go for it on a fourth-and-inches. Then, we got them to jump offsides on the field goal to give ourselves a little better position.

"All those things, with the 18- and 19-year-old kids that we had in there, you'd think that somebody would screw something up,'' Wannstedt added. "So, that's a real credit to these kids, on the road, with all the noise and everything going on down there, to be able to execute (during a 17-play drive).''

Along with Lewis' plowing through North Carolina's sixth-rated defense, Pitt converted a fourth-down play from deep inside its own territory. And the Panthers also drew the Tar Hills offsides to make it easier on Hutchins.

According to Wannstedt, Pitt left offensive tackle Jason Pinkston noted that North Carolina's defensive linemen were jumping the count, and he suggested the Panthers attempt to draw them offsides. So, long-snapper John Fieger gave a little head-bob, and the Tar Heels took the bait.

"We worked on that all year, but really didn't have an opportunity to use it,'' Wannstedt said. "But Jason thought that we might be able to get them. The gamble there is that if you play around with that thing, you could jump offsides and take yourself out of field-goal range. (And) you probably would cost yourself the ball game.''

The additional five yards moved Pitt closer to the end zone, allowed it to run a few more plays and the clock as well. Then, came Hutchins' kick. But unless one watched closely, holder Andrew Janocko's heroics would have been missed. The player who many believe cost Pitt the Cincinnati game due to a muffed hold, snagged a high snap and got the ball down in time for Hutchins to nail it.

"It's kind of like an offensive lineman, nobody talks about the snapper or the holder until something bad happens,'' Wannstedt said. "We probably should replay that last snap a few times for our fans just to show what a great job Andrew did to get the ball down.''

It was the final heroic play for Pitt in a season filled with them.

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