November 22, 2010

Good enough?

The reaction to Pitt's 17-10 win over South Florida on Saturday is really a matter of perspective.

On one hand, the Panthers (6-4, 4-1) overcame a series of mistakes, often in succession, to re-strengthen their position atop the Big East conference with two games remaining. Or the team showed more vulnerabilities that could, against better competition be exposed and lead to defeat.

It all depends on perspective.

"We want to play better, but if we come out with a win, then that's all that matters," sophomore running back Ray Graham said after the game. "That's what we got and we're satisfied with it."

Pitt's record unquestionably improved with the win over South Florida, as did the team's chances of winning the Big East and earning the league's automatic BCS bowl bid. But if the Panthers want to take that step, they won't be able to repeat the mistakes they made on Saturday when they face West Virginia this Friday and Cincinnati a week later.

For starters, Pitt's interaction with the officials on Saturday was punitive, to say the least. The Panthers were charged with 11 penalties , including three pass interference calls on third down that extended South Florida drives and a special teams penalty that turned a USF fourth down punt situation into a fresh set of downs for the Bulls.

"All we did was extend their drives and keep letting them get chances," redshirt junior linebacker Max Gruder said. "If we were penalty-free, it would have been a different outcome."

The mistakes went beyond the penalties. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri was off the mark in the first half of Saturday's game, completing just 3-of-7 for 31 yards before halftime. And Pitt missed on a big play when Andrew Taglianetti blocked a South Florida punt on the first drive of the third quarter; Nate Nix recovered the block and attempted to run for the end zone, but he was stripped and South Florida recovered the fumble to regain possession.

And with Pitt leading 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, kicker Dan Hutchins missed an opportunity to put the game away when he was wide left on a 43-yard field goal after a 12-play drive that took six minutes off the clock.

"Think of the possessions we gave up today," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We might have given up 40 plays or taken 40 plays away from our offense just because of mishaps out there. The great thing was - and I mean great - our guys, as they have all year, never wavered. Everybody just hung together and just kept giving a little more and we found a way to win the game.

"When you find a way to win games like we did today and overcome those things, average teams can't do that. I think that speaks a little bit about the guys in that lockerroom."

The problem is, Pitt hasn't always been able to overcome mistakes like it did on Saturday. The Panthers couldn't get out of their own way when they lost to Connecticut on November 11th, with two interceptions, a fumble on a kickoff return, and a Connecticut kickoff return that went for a touchdown.

If Pitt had made one fewer mistake against Connecticut, chances are that the Panthers would have won that game. On Saturday in Tampa, they made quite a few mistakes, but not enough to sink the chances of victory.

It's impossible to predict what number of mistakes will be acceptable in the next two games as Wannstedt looks for his first BCS bid. But the threshold can be rendered moot if the team could find a way to minimize those issues in the eleventh and twelfth games of the season.

"I think you can look at those miscues…and those things are all correctable," Wannstedt said. "And the encouraging thing is, we're going to put together a complete game."

Pitt would be well-advised to look for that complete game in the final two weeks of the season. West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) is currently in second place in the conference and is holding Big East opponents to 10.6 points per game. And while the debut season for Butch Jones has been rocky at Cincinnati (4-6, 2-3), the Bearcats scored 69 points against Rutgers on Saturday. If Cincinnati can win at Connecticut this weekend, the Bearcats will have a two-game winning streak and some dangerous momentum heading into the season finale against Pitt.


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