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Panthers fighting through fatigue

| Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

The Pitt Panthers had just completed a series of before-sunrise sprints up Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park and were walking back down when Buddy Morris decided to put their resolve to the test.

The Pitt strength and conditioning coach called an audible, telling the Panthers that the drill was going into overtime. He made them run the hill again, forcing them to find a way to fight through fatigue.

"I wanted to see their response when put in a chaotic situation. I wanted to see what would happen if, all of a sudden, things weren't going their way, if they faced some adversity," Morris said. "Last year, we put ourselves in position to win. We just didn't finish. We didn't know how. Now, we understand how to win, and we're finishing."

Pitt players profess that the offseason conditioning program instilled a mental toughness in a team that lost four games by a combined 17 points last season. This year, the No. 23 Panthers (8-3, 4-2), who visit Connecticut (7-4, 3-3) at noon Saturday in the Big East Conference finale at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, have won five games with fourth-quarter comebacks.

Better late
A look at Pitt's fourth-quarter scoring compared to its opponents in the Panthers' four seasons under coach Dave Wannstedt:
Season Record PF PA
2008 8-3 115 47
2007 5-7 90 67
2006 6-6 64 70
2005 5-6 54 37

"Last year, there were so many games that we lost that were close in the fourth quarter but we just couldn't finish," junior tight end Nate Byham said. "This year, we're winning those games. We believe in each other and believe that we can come back in the end."

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt points to the 46-45 double-overtime loss at Connecticut in 2006 as a turning point for the program. He blamed blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead on a lack of stamina and made major changes to both the practice schedule and strength and conditioning program.

Wannstedt fired strength coaches Mike Kent and Darren Honeycutt and replaced them with Morris and assistant James Smith, who have worked to change both the attitudes and physiques of their charges.

"After that game is when I made up my mind that the way we were preparing for the week was not the best," said Wannstedt, who now gives players Mondays off instead of Sundays. "After doing some research and looking back on it, I felt that our guys were tired. I also changed up our routine with strength and conditioning, too. Before, we were physically worn down and mentally tired. I don't see that being the case now."

Pitt has outscored opponents, 115-47, in the fourth quarter this season. In fact, the Panthers have only been outscored twice in the fourth quarter - against Bowling Green (7-0) and Rutgers (6-3) - and lost both games. Pitt also defeated Notre Dame, 36-33, in four overtimes this year after losing games that went beyond regulation in each of the past three seasons (Navy in 2007, Connecticut in '06 and Ohio in '05).

"People may not think it's that big of a deal, but when you have to face a challenge every day and you have to rely on your teammates to get through it, when it's time for the game to come, it's a little bit easier to do that," senior center C.J. Davis said. "It's all about how we face challenges. Back in '06 and '05, when I came here, we didn't face adversity well. Now we do. We're used to doing it all the time. Now, when it comes to the fourth quarter, we just do what we have to do and face a challenge."

That was evident in Pitt's 19-15 victory over West Virginia in the 101st Backyard Brawl last Friday, when tailback LeSean McCoy rushed for 83 of his career-high 183 yards and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Panthers ran the ball every down on their game-winning, 10-play drive, and McCoy's fourth-quarter production is a sign of Pitt's increased stamina. He has rushed for 426 of his 1,308 yards (32.4 percent) in the final period.

"There's a great quote from Vince Lombardi: 'Fatigue makes cowards of us all.' When players are tired, they don't chase the ball as hard, they don't block as well, and they don't make big runs," Wannstedt said. "I believe that we're in better shape than anybody we play, and our kids believe that. When they're not tired out there at the end of the game, they can generate the energy that's needed to go out there and play and perform like we have."

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