Football: Panthers set to begin Big East play

By Lauren Kirschman

With the nonconference portion of its schedule over, the Pitt football team enters its Big East… With the nonconference portion of its schedule over, the Pitt football team enters its Big East opener against Syracuse tomorrow with the opportunity to put the past behind it, wipe the slate clean and act like it’s a new season.

But if head coach Dave Wannstedt has anything to say about the mindset of the Panthers, they won’t be forgetting the nonconference season anytime soon.

“I thought of wiping the slate clean,” Wannstedt said. “But I’m not sure where we’re at right now, how we’re trying to figure out who is doing what and how we’re trying to piece everything together, that we can just forget what cost us from winning the Notre Dame game and pretend like it didn’t happen.”

Entering the game against the Orange, Wannstedt said that the Panthers need to build off their struggles and continue to improve as a team.

“I think if you have a real mature team, you can just paint over it and say ‘Okay guys, that’s not us. Let’s move on,’” he said. “We’re not there right now … I think the minute we pretend something was okay or that something didn’t really happen, it may show up again.”

One of the biggest struggles plaguing the Panthers this season is their inability to put together four quarters of quality football. Against Notre Dame, Pitt improved drastically in the second half, but by then it proved too late for a comeback.

Putting together a complete game comes from practice and repetition, Wannstedt said.

“We need to practice hard and clean up some of the things that we addressed,” he said. “I think some of the things … you just have to go out and practice it. We have the best guys out there doing it. They’re working hard, and their attitude is good.”

Against Notre Dame, kicking-game mistakes proved especially costly. Dan Hutchins missed one field goal, and a mishandled snap cost Pitt another three points. The failed fake punt early in the third quarter illustrated another miscue.

“You look at the fake punt, and it was there,” Wannstedt said. “We had the look we wanted, but we didn’t execute. We go back, and we work on those things again and just keep working on them. We’re not going to shy away from doing things. We just have to do better.”

One of the most drastic improvements in the Notre Dame game came on the defensive side of the ball, where the Panthers showed a complete turnaround from the first to the second half. Wannstedt said once Pitt settled in and adjusted to the speed of the Fighting Irish offense, the team was able to make some plays.

Offensively, the theme of the game was missed opportunities. The Panthers failed to convert trips to the red zone into touchdowns more often than not, and Wannstedt said that the lack of touchdowns and missed three-point opportunities came back to haunt the team.

The Panthers will look to put together a complete game — offensively, defensively and on special teams — against the Syracuse Orange in the Carrier Dome this weekend. Syracuse, which has been the bottom dweller of the Big East for several years, is off to a surprisingly quick start this season.

“The foundation is just being built, and we have to keep building upon it,” Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone said. “

With this game coming up, it’s a challenging and physical game. You have to go back to the basics and make sure you understand what you have done to get to this point. You are going to have to play better in this Big East to be competitive.”

Wannstedt said the Orange are playing with confidence right now.

“Pitt-Syracuse games have always been very physical games,” he said. “They have always been very tough and tight games. We expect that between the noise, the dome and everything that goes into this rivalry, it’s going to be a battle — a 60-minute football game.”

Syracuse plays an aggressive run defense, and they haven’t given up many big plays this season, as opposed to last year, according to Wannstedt. Offensively, he said the Orange are similar to Pitt in that they run the ball and don’t utilize the shotgun often.

“Last year, they were more a read team,” he said. “They kind of abandoned that. They’re up on their center. They’re handing the ball off, they’re pounding the ball, they’re using two tight ends and utilizing the play-action pass.”

Marrone said he expects a physical game against the Panthers.

“We are moving forward to a Pitt team that’s a very physical team,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us to play physical, play up to their level of what they have been playing at the past couple years. They are a team that has been picked by the coaches to win this conference.”

He said that the main focus of his team is to limit turnovers. So far this season, he said the Orange have managed the game well, and they’ll have to continue taking care of the ball against Pitt’s physical style of play.

Syracuse defeated South Florida 13-9 in its Big East opener on Saturday. The Orange held South Florida to 219 total yards and tallied two interceptions and four sacks. Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for 129 yards and a touchdown, his fifth consecutive game with a touchdown pass. Running back Delone Carter rushed for 105 yards on 26 carries.

“That was a good win for us going down to South Florida,” Marrone said. “They are a fine football team. Our players played extremely hard. Defensively, we did a nice job. Offensively, we missed a lot of things out there.”

Marrone said the Syracuse offensive line performed well against South Florida, but he expects Pitt’s offensive line to create problems.

“They are very disciplined,” he said. “They know exactly where they need to be. They know how to read formations. They have great defensive coaches on their staff. Each week it’s a battle.”