Ditka visits with Panthers
Mike Ditka and Da Panthers?
It's not as synonymous as Ditka and Da Bears, but the former Pitt great spoke to the team before practice Wednesday and urged the No. 17 Panthers to make the most of their season in the spotlight.
"I just told them to have fun," Ditka said, "that they're going through the best times of their life and to enjoy it, to respect the game, respect their opponents, respect their teammates and have fun doing it."
Ditka was a unanimous All-America tight end in 1960 before becoming a Chicago Bears first-round draft choice. He won an NFL championship with the Bears, a Super Bowl as a player with the Dallas Cowboys and, later, as head coach of the Bears. He's in the college and pro football halls of fame and is one of eight Pitt players to have his jersey (No. 89) retired.
"I constantly talk about tradition at Pitt, and that's what separates us from most of the other ones," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "You can't say the words 'Pitt tradition' without saying 'Mike Ditka.' For him to come back and spend some time with the players, I think it's a neat thing."
Wannstedt took advantage of the moment to introduce Ditka, an Aliquippa native, to a pair of Panthers from his hometown in redshirt freshman linebacker Brandon Lindsey and freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
"The kids that came to Pitt made a wise choice, and they're going to get a great education," said Ditka, who was in Pittsburgh for today's grand opening of a Ditka's Restaurant in Robinson. "Football only continues on with a very few of us. I was fortunate that I could carry on to pro ball. But most of these guys the education is going to take you the rest of the way."
Road to revenge
Pitt suffered close losses to Navy, Rutgers and Louisville last season and is seeking to avenge those defeats this season.
The Panthers beat Navy, 42-21. They play Rutgers on Saturday and Louisville on Nov. 8.
"We did what we wanted to do last week against Navy. Now, we're coming back with Rutgers," receiver Oderick Turner said. "We've lost to them the last three years, so it's really revenge that we're seeking right now."
Wannstedt said he won't use it as a motivational tactic but hopes his players reverse the outcomes.
"I think our players need to feel that and understand that Rutgers has been a thorn in our side the last few years," said Wannstedt, who's 0-3 against the Scarlet Knights. "We've got an opportunity to go out this year and do something about it, and we need to do it."
Turner said he took last season's 20-16 loss to Rutgers "personal," in part because he's from New Jersey and had a potential game-winning touchdown reception reversed by a controversial offensive pass-interference penalty.
"Just knowing that maybe if that one game could have went the other way, we could have gone to a bowl game," Turner said. "It weighs heavy on my shoulders."
Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh pointed to "probably consistency more than anything" in sophomore Pat Bostick beating out redshirt sophomore Kevan Smith for the backup quarterback job.
Cavanaugh also admitted that the timing of playing Bostick late in the fourth quarter was "probably not" perfect. But he believed it was important because starter Bill Stull has been "banged around a little" this season with hip and shoulder injuries, and "you never know when he's going to come out."
"Obviously, it would have maybe been better if we'd stuck him at the beginning of the fourth quarter and given him a lot more work, but we're a little slow to feel comfortable with a lead," Cavanaugh said. "We didn't think it would be fair to just throw (Pat) on the field.
"It could have been a better situation, the timing could have been better, but we accomplished what we wanted to. We wanted to get him some reps. Hopefully, we can continue that and have him ready if he has to play."