Football: Miscues, run defense cost Panthers in loss at Connecticut

By Ben Livingston

Pitt knew exactly what they would be up against Thursday night in Connecticut.

The Panthers… Pitt knew exactly what they would be up against Thursday night in Connecticut.

The Panthers knew that they’d be facing a raucous crowd, but they had two tough road games under their belts and simulated crowd noise in practice.

They knew that Connecticut running back Jordan Todman, the nation’s fourth leading rusher, would be a challenge.

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Yet they had shut down identically-ranked Louisville running back Bilal Powell the week before without Greg Romeus, who would be returning for the Connecticut game.

They had to deal with the pressure of a Thursday night, nationally televised showdown, though they already had experienced it in a 31-3 home loss to Miami.

But when they took the field, the Panthers seemed to have lost a step. They fell to the Huskies (5-4, 2-2 Big East) by a score of 30-28, but Pitt (5-4, 3-1 Big East) had an abundant number of chances to gain a stranglehold on the contest.

Virtually nobody could explain why this happened. Even Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt was at a loss for words.

“Our guys gave effort every minute until the last whistle,” he said. “It was just disappointing because of how we practiced. I thought our guys showed up ready to go, but we didn’t handle it well in any area.”

Pitt’s loss in the game and Wannstedt’s subsequent loss of words were best captured by Dan Hutchins’ botched third quarter punt. Hutchins, who is one of the 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy award given to the nation’s best punter, kicked the ball off the side of his foot, and the ball carried just 15 yards before going out of bounds.

Pitt’s special teams went far beyond the botched punt, which was hardly as significant as Connecticut’s Nick Williams’ 95-yard kick return for a touchdown to end the third quarter. Williams broke through a tight pack of Panther defenders and was home free just a few seconds after catching the kick.

Williams’ score got UConn within a point after Ray Graham racked up 45 combined yards on three consecutive plays to give Pitt a touchdown and a 21-13 lead.

The Rentschler Field crowd erupted following the return, just one of many instances in which the Panthers had a stranglehold on momentum but couldn’t hold it for more than a few minutes. Every time they got the crowd out of the game, they made a miscue that ignited the 35,391 in attendance.

Wannstedt thought his team had already learned its lesson when it came to tough road games.

“After everything we went through with Utah and Notre Dame, some tough road games with crowds and stuff, I thought that we’d handle it better than we did,” he said.

Wannstedt also had trouble explaining Tino Sunseri’s struggles. Sunseri was 20 for 28 with 220 yards, but the eight misses were very significant. Many came on crucial plays, and two led to interceptions.

“Early on, Tino was not himself,” Wannstedt said. “He has been playing so well over the past several weeks, and not only did the turnovers give points away, but it was also a momentum killer. He came back and made some plays, but our maturity in big games needs to improve.”

Sunseri thinks Pitt’s need for maturation revolves around him.

“We’re a young team, and we’re just going to keep learning each and every week,” he said. “I’m in charge of the offense and I need to take control, and I made too many mistakes tonight. I need to go back and look at it, and fix it and make those corrections.”

Though Pitt’s offense could have played better, the most glaring issue for Pitt came on the defensive side of the ball. Their defense had allowed just 93.3 rushing yards per game entering Thursday’s contest, but they were completely unable to stop Todman.

Todman managed to put up six yards per carry despite being given the ball 37 times. He ended up with a career high of 222 yards. This was the first time that Pitt had allowed a 200-yard rusher since West Virginia’s Pat White and Steve Slaton posted 220 and 215 yards respectively against the Panthers in 2006.

The Panthers hadn’t even allowed a 100-yard rusher since West Virginia’s Noel Devine racked up 123 rushing yards against them last season.

Todman’s success led to Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall making the risky decision to run the ball on 4th and 1 from Huskies’ own 19-yard line with his squad leading just 30-28 and 2:50 left in the game. Todman gained four yards on the play, preventing a disastrous turnover and all but sealing the game for Pitt.

Edsall said he didn’t think twice before making the decision to give the ball to Todman.

“I knew exactly what down it was,” Edsall said. “I looked in the eyes of the offensive linemen and in the eyes of [Todman], and I knew they would find a way to get a first down.”

Pitt will try to rebound next Saturday at South Florida beginning at noon.