Football: Panthers end spring practice with Blue-Gold game

By Kelly Flanigan

Every Pitt football fan remembers how last season ended. It was a snowy day at Heinz Field in… Every Pitt football fan remembers how last season ended. It was a snowy day at Heinz Field in early December. The Panthers led the Cincinnati Bearcats by 21 points at halftime.

Then Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike led the Bearcats in a second-half rally ending in a 45-44 victory for his team. In an instant, hopes of a 2009 Big East Championship and an automatic BCS Bowl bid were out of sight for head coach Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers.

“We are working every day to find an edge and get back to winning championships, which this University and this program is equipped to do,” Wannstedt said. “We can’t just continue to knock on that door, we’ve got to win a championship.”

The Panthers finished 9-3 last season under Wannstedt, their best finish since 1981. He recently accepted a two-year extension on his contract, keeping him at Pitt until the 2014 season.

“They know that I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve said that from day one, and I haven’t wavered from that. My motive has not changed since first coming to the University of Pittsburgh. It may seem too simple, but it truly is to graduate every football player that comes to this University,” Wannstedt said.

The Panthers begin their bounce back after last year’s disappointment at Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, an intra-squad scrimmage that signals the end of spring practice. The event features three main sections: a coaches “Chalk Talk” and a kids clinic, both lasting from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., and then the actual scrimmage itself, which is set to begin at 2 p.m. at Heinz Field. Admission is free, and the gates open to the public at noon. It will be broadcast live to local and national TV audiences on Pittsburgh’s CW and the NFL Network.

So what should fans expect and watch for in Saturday’s scrimmage?

First and foremost, the quarterback battle will be evident. After losing veteran quarterback Bill Stull to graduation, contenders Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri will battle for the starting slot.

“I think both of those guys are more than qualified to lead this football team. Pat has the experience and knowledge. Tino probably has a little more arm strength and athletic ability. I feel good about both of them, both are working hard and getting better,” Wannstedt said.

A number of other question marks still linger from last season’s losses. How will the Panthers make up for the offensive production of tight ends Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson? The defensive prowess of Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas?

Losses such as these are enough to put serious doubt into the minds of fans everywhere, but Pitt has more than enough talent on the 2010 roster to compensate.

Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Shanahan combine for two reliable targets no matter who wins the quarterback battle. As a deep threat, Baldwin scored eight touchdowns on 57 receptions in 2009. Pitt expects big things from Shanahan this season, as he averaged 14.1 yards per catch as a freshman last season.

With the return of Dion Lewis and backup Ray Graham in the backfield, the Panthers are well covered at the running back position. Lewis ran for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Graham added another 349 yards and four touchdowns in 2009.

On defense, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus look to make an impact. Romeus, an undeniable leader of the Panthers and also the Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, passed on the NFL to return to Pitt for his senior season.

At defensive lineman, Shayne Hale and Brandon Lindsey, both Pittsburgh locals, will look to anchor the line. Hale, who took a redshirt last year, moved from the middle linebacker position to back up Romeus at defensive end. He is expected to see as many as 20 snaps per game.

Linebacker Dan Mason will replace the graduated Adam Gunn. Last season, as a freshman, Mason had 26 tackles and an interception.

“Having seen Adam Gunn, I watched his patience. Being a linebacker, you’ve got to be aggressive but also patient, wait for things to develop and then get to where you need to be,” said Mason.

Certainly the fans are anxious to see the progress the team has made after spring practice.

“This is the only time when you’re not worried about a game and you can really make fundamentals — blocking and tackling — a point of emphasis,” Wannstedt said.