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Area 4-1-Zoo: Bloggers Debate Pitt at Syracuse

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The Big East Conference schedule start Saturday for Pitt, meaning the most important games of the year are upon us.

Despite the Panthers’ disappointing start, they still have as good a chance as any other team at winning the Big East. This week Chas from Pitt Blather, The Fighting Wannstaches and Bryan from Pitt Script join me to figure out what has gone wrong so far and what will happen Saturday in the Carrier Dome.

Question #1: In your opinion, what was the No. 1 reason for Pitt’s loss at Notre Dame?

Pitt Blather: The red zone incompetence. I’ll make that a group effort, the players and the coaches just did their best to miss opportunities. Bad mistakes, bad execution, less than outstanding play-calling once inside the 20. Missed FG. Forced to settle for another. That was just the first half.

As poorly as Pitt’s defense played in the first half, they did well in the second half and ND did their best to blow the game. If ND had lost, their fans would have been just as right as Pitt fans are today about how they could/should have won the game.

The Fighting Wannstaches: While there were many contributing factors in the loss to Notre Dame this past weekend [cough] special teams [cough], the #1 reason has to be the red zone offense. For the first time all season, we saw the offense NOT start out slow. In fact, they moved the ball with ease and reached the red zone on 3 of the first 4 drives. However, due to a combination of poor execution, questionable play calls, and poor choice of footwear, the Panthers scored only 3 points on those drives. When you leave 18 points on the field in a 6 point loss, what else can you blame? Well maybe Brian Kelly’s “Andrew Janocko Voodoo Doll” he seems to have…

Pitt Script: Oh let us count the ways. Inability to score in the redzone has to be reason numero uno. Notre Dame came away with 17 points in their first three trips while Pitt came away with 3. In essence, Pitt spotted Notre Dame 14 points on the road. But let’s not single-out the redzone — there’s also special teams, the cleats and Dave Wannstedt. All were terrible and a change of any one could probably have changed the outcome of the game.

4-1-Zoo: As I wrote right after the game, you can blame coaching all day, but if there’s poor execution by the players you just can’t win. Especially when that lack of execution comes in the redzone. Pitt had mental and physical breakdowns in scoring position in the first half on three different drives. You’re never going to win when you average a point per redzone trip like Pitt did in the first half.

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Question #2: At 2-3, do you believe this is a Pitt team that can win the Big East?

Pitt Blather: Can they? Yes. The Big East is just that bad that even this Pitt team that lacks cohesion can still win it. It is still the team that on paper has the most talent.

Do I “believe?” No. There is nothing about the way Pitt is playing that inspires me to believe that they will win enough games. The preparation, the production, the competence just have not been there.

The Fighting Wannstaches: You would be hard pressed to find a team in the 2010 Big East that would have a different record against Pitt’s non-conference schedule. So can they win this conference, definitely…we know the talent is there, we’ve seen the glimpses of hope all season and if they bring it all together, the Big East is winnable. Will they…that’s a different story. We have yet to see the Panthers play a complete game, and in a game such as the Backyard Brawl, that’s what it is going to take to beat WVU, a complete game. With the way teams like Rutgers, UConn, and Syracuse are starting to play, and with the slow starts and gaffes we are getting accustomed to seeing, a stumble here or there is not out of the question. Maybe we should answer this question each week.

Pitt Script: Sure, but that’s more a reflection on the poor play of the rest of the conference rather than Pitt’s ability. This season has 2004 Fiesta Bowl written all over it for whoever has the dubious honor of representing the conference. Looking back, it really makes last season’s collapse against Cincinnati all the more frustrating. Could last year’s team have beaten Florida? Doubtful. But they’d certainly be at least even money to beat Georgia Tech.

4-1-Zoo: I firmly believe that Pitt is still the most talented team in the Big East this year. The Panthers, UConn, Cincinnati and West Virginia all looked like teams that could be nationally ranked at the end of the year. Only the latter is currently ranked, and barely at that (No. 25).

Pitt has five very winnable games before hitting the toughest two at the end of the year — WVU at home and at Cincinnati. I still believe the Backyard Brawl will determine the conference champion.

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Question #3: What must you see from Pitt this weekend at Syracuse?

Pitt Blather: Fire. Energy. Something from the players. Look, at this point “progress” isn’t enough. This team should be better and as much anger and frustration I direct at the Head Coach and staff for their part, the players also bear responsibility.

They need to show that they care about this team and this season. They have to be ready to play at the start of the game, and not sag the minute something goes against them. They have to have their heads in the game.

The Fighting Wannstaches: A better showing on special teams. We’re not talking about just the missed field goals or the botched hold, we’re talking about field position. Ever since Cam Saddler’s fumble against Miami on a punt return, he has almost seemed gun shy to return or fair catch a punt if under pressure. There were a couple of punts, particularly on the last few drives against the Irish, where his decisions to not field the punts cost the team precious yardage. Red zone offense consistency is also a must see this weekend. Better execution is the key, from Tino making better 20 yard throws into the end zone, to the offensive line making better blocks for Graham and Lewis, to the plays being called by the coaches. Everyone needs to help bring this aspect of the game together.

Pitt Script: Tino played well against Notre Dame and repeat performance would be encouraging. I’d also like to see the defense attack more rather than sit back. I’ve been hesitant to call for more blitzing, even in wake of the Cincinnati loss, mainly because the back seven couldn’t handle being a man down. This season, however, I’d at least like to see how it goes now that Pitt’s secondary is looking much more competent.

4-1-Zoo: An outing that convinces me the Panthers are taking a step forward. Pitt has rebounded from losses with wins twice this season but looked lackluster in the process. Weaknesses were still very evident against New Hampshire and Florida International. I need to see a game that is over before the fourth quarter starts.

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Question #4: Wannstedt said he will continue to split time evenly between Lewis and Graham. Thoughts?

Pitt Blather: Okay, this is the one area where I have some sympathy for Wannstedt. Lewis was so good last year, and in the ND game really began to show some of his stuff once more. Graham, though, has been the better back for the season. It doesn’t seem fair to either to split the carries — and keep both from really finding a rhythm — or make one the primary back and make the other spend most of the time on the bench.

The Fighting Wannstaches: While the running game wasn’t used much this past week against Notre Dame, it seems like when it was, neither back was given much of a chance to get into a rhythm. This is exactly what we were afraid would happen by evenly splitting time and neither Graham nor Lewis seemed to get hot. Of the two, Graham still looked like the better back, hitting the holes better, quicker…so he still our choice to be the one to receive the bulk of the carries. However, since we all know that probably isn’t going to happen, why not give defenses something to really think about and get them both on the field at the same time…pony backfield!

Pitt Script: Hate it. As the Trib article points out, there is a rhythm to these things for running backs. Setting a “every-other-drive” rotation reeks of indecisiveness. I have no problem with each guy getting 10-15 carries, but doing so in such a methodical manner seems to be splitting the baby. I love Dion’s power running, but if Ray Graham is getting it done, he needs to get first crack on the field. The test will come if one back comes out and starts strong while another struggles and I’m not sure Wannstedt would make the adjustment.

4-1-Zoo: After seeing Lewis perform well at Notre Dame I have no problem with him running with Graham. At this point, though, one has to start and be the majority runner. There’s a lot to be said for rhythm with a running back and splitting carries down the middle doesn’t allow for much of that. Pick one guy and give him 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 series over the other.

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Question #5: Predictions…

Pitt Blather: I really don’t know. Syracuse has a Rutgers-esque soft 4-1 record with two 1-AA wins and a one over a MAC bottom feeder. The Syracuse defense has been rather good in their four wins, but got thrashed by Washington.

I expect this to be a low scoring game that Pitt just barely wins 20-16.

The Fighting Wannstaches: It’s tough to see that Pitt has fallen from a Top 15 team at the start of the season to being a 1pt underdog at Syracuse. While they beat South Florida, Syracuse’s victories over Colgate, Maine, and Akron do not justify this point spread. Pitt’s defense plays big and the running game takes over late, Pitt wins 31-17.

Pitt Script: As nice of a story as Syracuse has been lately and as bad as Pitt has been, I just can’t see how Pitt could possibly lose this game. Yes, Pitt has three loses, but I just don’t think Syracuse has the horses to match up with Pitt. The Panthers may be struggling, but they’re (hopefully) in a different league than Akron and maybe even USF. I see a close first half followed by a big passing play and a long, methodical drive to put the game away in the fourth. Pitt, 31-16. 

4-1-Zoo: Like I said, Pitt has more individual talent than any other team in the Big East. I think it starts to show at Syracuse. The talent, combined with bruised pride in being an underdog against the Orange, will give Pitt its first convincing showing of the year.

Pitt wins 31-14. Tino keeps improving and Lewis earns majority carries for the rest of the year.

(Follow the panelists on Twitter >> @ChasRich27 @FearTheStache @PittScript)

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog
Twitter.com/Chris_Gates
Chris.Gates@cbsradio.com

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