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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

In precisely 13 days, Pitt will improve to 4-1 and rekindle talk of how much better they are this season.

Never mind that their latest victories will have come against The Citadel and Toledo.

Two weeks after that, the Panthers could be 6-1, perhaps prompting the same 11 souls who voted for them in the latest Associated Press poll to do it again.

All it'll take is victories over Syracuse and Central Florida.

We know better, though. We know Pitt could win 20 consecutive games against mediocre competition and not escape the truth that was so graphically revealed Saturday in a 38-23 loss to Michigan State.

That truth, in fact, will stalk these Panthers until they play another high-quality team (not that we're positive Michigan State is such a team).

That truth is this: Pitt still isn't ready to play with the big boys.

What's more, the Panthers might not be any better than they were last season, no matter the record.

"We didn't make a play today, plain and simple," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We didn't make a catch. We didn't make a block. We didn't make a sack."

Actually, they did make a sack. But not much else. The numbers evoked the humiliating losses to Notre Dame and West Virginia last season -- games in which Pitt's run defense offered all the resistance of a wet paper towel.

Michigan State piled up 335 yards on the ground and 533 yards overall. Its offensive line outweighed Pitt's front by 45 pounds per man, and it showed.

So did the pronounced difference in quarterback play. Michigan State's Drew Stanton was by far the best player on the field, torturing Pitt on option runs, scrambles and pin-point passes. If not for a couple of drops, he would have had an even bigger day than 16-for-25 passing and 105 yards rushing would suggest.

Pitt's Tyler Palko, meanwhile, struggled to a 28-for-47 showing with two interceptions and a lost fumble. He also was victimized by drops, including three by Darrell Strong.

The misguided among us will point to a play late in the first quarter as the turning point. Pitt had just taken a 10-0 lead when Wannstedt shockingly called for an onside kick.

Pitt recovered but went backward, punted and never stopped the Spartans again.

"It changed the game in a bad way for us because we didn't keep on pounding at Michigan State," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "I think a lot of people just got distracted and thought we were going to win because we were up 10-0. Guys relaxed and took plays off."

I loved the call. Wannstedt obviously knew he was outmanned and was shooting for as fast and large a lead as possible.

Fact is, Strong dropped a pass on Pitt's first play after the kick.

Fact is, Pitt's defense couldn't get off the field. It allowed Michigan State to convert 11-of-15 third-down chances and produce scoring drives of 13, 11, seven, eight, 11 and 10 plays. The last of those covered 99 yards late in the third quarter.

The field could have been 800 yards long, and Michigan State would have covered it in about 70 plays.

All option plays, of course.

By the way, where is Pitt's much-publicized freshman class• Maybe it's time to get some of those guys -- safety Elijah Fields, tight end Nate Byham, multi-purpose back Dorin Dickerson and cornerback Aaron Berry come to mind -- on the field.

Senior linebacker H.B. Blades was asked if he still believes this team is better than last year's.

"I'm still convinced," Blades said. "We just have to pick up the pieces and go out and prove it next week."

Problem is, nothing that happens next week will matter.

You can't prove anything against The Citadel.

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