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Panthers ready to start, finish

Kevin Gorman
| Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007

Pitt's football camp, let alone its season, had yet to start, and Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt already was talking about finishing.

Not just in reference to Pitt's five-game skid to end last season that cost it a bowl bid, but also in an attempt to add mental toughness to his team by constantly demanding maximum effort.

" Finish ," Wannstedt said Monday morning at Pitt's Media Day, "is going to be a big word you're going to hear me talk about."

After going 6-6 last season - Pitt was picked to place sixth in the Big East in a media preseason poll - the Panthers have been hearing the word so much that it has become a prevalent theme.

"Whether it's talking about finishing every single rep in the weight room or on the field, every single run or time spent watching film," junior quarterback Bill Stull said, "the word finish has been embedded in our mind."

Wannstedt cited the home losses to Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville as games where Pitt was within seven points at halftime but came up lame in the second half. (He didn't even have to mention blowing a 14-point lead in the double-overtime loss at Connecticut). In all three games against ranked opponents, Pitt failed to maintain its first-half form.

"They're all winnable games at that point," Wannstedt said. "We've got to make plays and find a way to finish those games. It's there to be had in the fourth quarter. We've got to make a play; they made a play, and we didn't."

In fact, the Panthers were outscored, 55-6, in the third quarter and 89-32 in the fourth quarter of their final five games. This season, Pitt has road trips to Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia.

That's why Wannstedt believes the hiring of strength and conditioning coaches Buddy Morris and James Smith has made a dramatic difference, noting that the offseason program "can be worth one or two wins down the road."

Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads explained the rationale: "If you're not finishing a drill, then you're not going to finish a play. If you're not finishing a play, you can't finish a half or a game. If you can't finish a game, you're not going to finish the season, so I think it's an overriding theme that carries over to everything you do."

Wannstedt admitted that he has to do a better job of preparing the Panthers for those types of games. After consulting with friends in the NFL and college coaching ranks, Wannstedt said he will use more "situational" plays during training camp.

The rigorous offseason conditioning program has Pitt poised for a training camp that promises to be challenging, as the team will be split for two-a-days this week to give every player more repetitions.

Instead of dreading it, the Panthers are prepared.

"You can just tell ... how excited everyone looks for the first time," Stull said. "As a team, we're really pumped about going to camp. We're actually ready, physically and mentally, for the upcoming season."

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