Loss gives Pitt more questions than answers
EL PASO, Texas — The perception upon Pitt's arrival at the 75th Brut Sun Bowl was that it could duplicate the feats of the 1975 Panthers, who used the game as a springboard to a national championship run.
The reality following Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Oregon State — the lowest-scoring major-college football bowl game in a half-century — is that Pitt enters the off-season with more questions than answers.
After finishing 9-4, the Panthers now wonder whether they can contend for the Big East crown next fall without making dramatic improvements in their passing game. Pitt averaged 29.3 points and 356.2 total yards per game before the Sun Bowl. But the Panthers were held scoreless for the first time in 149 games and produced season-lows of 89 passing yards and 178 total yards.
Where the returns of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and redshirt junior quarterback Bill Stull were once considered signs of stability, there are grumblings that neither should count on his job security. Cavanaugh's play-calling against Oregon State left a lot to be desired, and Stull completed only 29.2 percent of his passes and had two turnovers.
"I'm not really looking that far ahead," Stull said, when asked if he thought there would be an open quarterback competition in spring drills. "I'm confident in my abilities but, obviously, (Wednesday) I just didn't show it."
The Panthers, however, have clearly lost confidence in Stull. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt showed how little faith he had left in the passing game when he allowed Conor Lee to attempt a 58-yard field goal rather than call a pass play on fourth-and-8 at the OSU 40 with 2:08 left in the game.
Wannstedt didn't put the blame squarely on Stull — and with good reason. Pitt played without starting left tackle Jason Pinkston, who suffered a right shoulder injury in practice this week. His replacement, fifth-year senior Chase Clowser, was overmatched against defensive end Victor Butler, who won MVP honors after recording 11 tackles and four sacks.
Wannstedt also gave an indication of his dissatisfaction with first-year wide receivers coach Brian Bossard because of sloppy play.
"We didn't protect well enough," Wannstedt said. "We got knocked around at the line of scrimmage. They pressed us, and our routes were not clean. When we did have an opportunity to make some throws and catches, particularly on deep balls, our accuracy was not where we needed to be."
Stull got the hook late in the fourth quarter in favor of sophomore Pat Bostick. It's likely Stull will have to win back his job this spring. But Bostick might not be considered the frontrunner to unseat Stull, as dual-threat freshman Tino Sunseri has impressed the staff.
Regardless of who is calling signals, the Panthers have to resolve the issues in their passing game for the sake of standout sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy, who faced stacked defenses at the line of scrimmage.
"I thought we ran the ball well," senior center C.J. Davis said. "But we could have run the ball better if we'd had a more balanced offense. It's tough to try to run every play if you can't pass."
After five consecutive 100-yard games earlier in the season, McCoy had only one in the final five games. He accounted for 85 of Pitt's 89 net rushing yards against Oregon State, which had given up 385 rushing yards in a loss to Oregon in its regular-season finale.
"We couldn't get anything going offensively," McCoy said. "Some of the stuff we practiced the whole week, we didn't execute at all."
Cavanaugh's play-calling deserves some blame. McCoy had only three touches in Pitt's first 15 offensive plays. He was replaced on several series by backup LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had a 31-yard run but also six other carries that amounted to minus-2 yards. McCoy wasn't on the field on Pitt's most pivotal play, a fourth-and-3 pass at the OSU 37 in the second quarter.
And, despite a whipping wind and Stull's struggles throwing deep sideline passes, Cavanaugh called for eight such throws to freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin. Six came in the second half, when comeback routes and the middle of the field were open, as evidenced by tight end Dorin Dickerson's two catches for 37 yards in the final minute.
"We had the wind in the first quarter and wanted to take some shots," Wannstedt said. "When you have the wind at your back, you need to make some plays and we didn't. That was the difference in the game, from a passing standpoint."
Pitt's defense was impressive, but the Panthers lose a three-year starter in nose tackle Rashaad Duncan, an All-America player in middle linebacker Scott McKillop and starters in outside linebacker Austin Ransom and safety Eric Thatcher. Also, coordinator Phil Bennett may not be back.
If nothing else, the Sun Bowl loss gave Pitt players a lot to think about.
"It's just more motivation for us in the offseason," sophomore defensive end Greg Romeus said. "It's definitely a tough loss because the game was so close, but we're going to bounce back."