A thing of beauty it wasn't, but style points are secondary when a football team is desperately seeking bowl eligibility. The only thing that matters is finding a way to win.
That's exactly the approach the Pitt Panthers took yesterday after their 20-17 win against punchless Syracuse (2-7, 1-3) before 31,374 at Heinz Field.
"I have a variety of emotions after this game, of which getting a win is the most important one," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Coming into this game it is easy for people, be it players, coaches and maybe fans to fall into a trap that any game is easy. But every week is different and you have to find a way to win any way you possibly can."
Pitt and Syracuse combined for 139 offensive plays that yielded only 559 total yards and though both defenses played reasonably well, the lack of total yards was more about how much both offenses struggled than anything else.
The Panthers (4-5, 2-2 Big East) did have one bright spot on offense. Freshman tailback LeSean McCoy rushed 31 times for 140 yards and a touchdown and now has 1,065 yards for the season. He became the first Pitt freshman to surpass 1,000 yards for the season since Curvin Richards in 1988.
It was also McCoy's sixth 100-yard rushing game and his touchdown -- a 1-yard run in the third quarter that gave the Panthers a 17-10 lead -- was his 11th rushing touchdown of the season. Both of those totals rank second behind Tony Dorsett among freshmen running backs at Pitt. He needs only one touchdown to tie Dorsett's regular-season record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman.
Still, McCoy wasn't interested in talking about his place in history because he was just happy the Panthers won. He said getting to a bowl game -- Pitt needs two wins in its final three games to become bowl-eligible -- is his focus and the team's.
"Today, it felt good to get a win. This was a team victory," McCoy said. "I thought I'd eventually get 1,000 yards but I didn't think I'd get it in my first season. I didn't know I'd get this much playing time so I am excited, but again, this is about the team. It hasn't hit me yet that I hit the 1,000-yard mark. Eventually when it hits me, I'll be excited but it really hasn't hit me yet."
Although McCoy ran for more than 100 yards, the Panthers struggled several times in short-yardage situations. That nearly cost them.
The first came on the Panthers' second drive. They moved to the Orange 1 where they faced a second-and-goal. Pitt then ran the ball three times -- once by fullback Conredge Collins and twice by McCoy -- but failed to get the yard and turned the ball over on downs.
Then at the end of the game, the Panthers were clinging to a 20-17 lead and faced a fourth-and-1 at the Orange 30. A first down would have secured the win, but McCoy was stopped short and Syracuse got the ball one last time with a chance to win or tie.
Wannstedt said both sequences were frustrating, but short-yardage situations are a big part of every game and the Panthers will continue to work to improve in that area. He said he will continue to go for it on fourth-and-short.
"I've got confidence in our players," Wannstedt said. "I've got confidence that we will block them and make a yard. We've got to get better and get to a point where nothing is guaranteed, but we have to make those plays."
Pitt made two big special teams plays -- both returns -- that helped set up touchdowns. They were the difference in the game.
After Syracuse took a 3-0 lead, Lowell Robinson returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to the Orange 23. Three plays later, the Panthers took a 7-3 lead on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Pat Bostick to Oderick Turner with 8:23 left in the second quarter.
Then, with the score tied 10-10 late in the third quarter, Aaron Berry returned a punt 53 yards to the Orange 13. That set up McCoy's go-ahead touchdown with 13:51 to play. Conor Lee then tacked on a 32-yard field goal with 3:21 left, but the Orange pulled to within three on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Cameron Dantley to Mike Williams with 1:50 to play.
"I was really pleased with our special teams play," Wannstedt said. "I thought our kick returns, from a field position standpoint were important plays, and our punt return at the end was huge."
First Published November 4, 2007 4:00 AM