Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has tried to toe the line between letting his players have fun during their trip to the Sun Bowl against Oregon State while getting them prepared to play their best game of the season.
• Game: Pitt (9-3) vs. Oregon State (8-4).
• When: 2 p.m. Dec. 31.
• Where: El Paso, Texas.
• TV: KDKA.
It sounds easy but it isn't, especially for Wannstedt, who is leading the Panthers to a bowl game for the first time since he arrived at the end of the 2004 season.
"Well, it's new for me too," Wannstedt said yesterday at a news conference. "I just hope I'm doing a good job and I say it sincerely because I want these kids to enjoy the experience, they've worked awful hard and deserve it but at the same time we've got to be prepared to go and win the game."
Pitt let all of its players go home for the holidays and the players aren't due back until Friday, when the team will fly to El Paso, Texas. Wannstedt said Oregon State, meanwhile, is not sending its players home and they will leave on Christmas day.
"I felt like our kids needed a couple days off to go home for Christmas and take a little break," Wannstedt said. "It has been a long year for us. Oregon State was done [one week] prior to us [during the regular season] so I don't know, like I said, it is new territory for me, too, and we'll see."
Wannstedt said his primary concern is whether the Panthers will be ready to play after having some time off. He said he doesn't think it will be that big of a deal because they played Connecticut Dec. 6 and had a good week of practice -- including some scrimmaging and live hitting -- last week.
"I've never had that much time off in-between, I was all nervous about that, about the contact," Wannstedt said. "But I think because our season was so long, we were able to hopefully get a little more carryover as compared to if we're off two weeks prior to that, I'd probably be a little concerned about being physical enough."
One other thing that has been new for Wannstedt is his recruiting schedule. This December, he has been trying to juggle his time between recruiting and coaching, and it has made for a lot of scrambling.
"I wouldn't trade [going to a bowl] for anything, but I was not prepared for this," Wannstedt said. "We got done what we had to get done but it was a lot. We got it done, but it was a lot. I was hitting schools in the morning then coming back here, having a staff meeting and getting ready for practice, having a team meeting, going to practice, then after practice I was in a car with a coach and we were heading out to see another recruit. That's a lot in one day."
NOTES -- Freshman defensive back Ronald Hobby is the only player who is out for the Sun Bowl. Wannstedt said Hobby's career is likely over due to his academic issues. ... Redshirt freshman walk-on lineman Josh Marks has been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons. ... One player who could still be left behind if he doesn't continue to toe a fine line is redshirt junior defensive tackle Tommie Duhart. Duhart has been suspended most of the second half of the season with various off-field issues. "As long as Tommie continues to do everything he's supposed to do, he'll get an opportunity to play," Wannstedt said. ... Longtime Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, a former Wannstedt assistant, was hired to be the head coach at Iowa State over the weekend. Wannstedt said Iowa State "got someone that is a heck of a football coach and a guy who is committed to being there." ... Wannstedt, who has been working hard to try and showcase senior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling's talents for NFL scouts, will add another duty to his already full plate -- returning punts. That means Stephens-Howling, who is 5 feet 7, 170 pounds, will be on all four of Pitt's special teams units as well as his regular duties as the backup to LeSean McCoy. "If I was coaching in the NFL still, I'd take him right now," Wannstedt said. ... Wannstedt was asked if he thinks there should be a playoff in college football or if he likes the bowl system. "I'd like to see a playoff for sure," he said. "I would think that they could probably come up with at least a plus-one type of game, maybe get more teams in it, involved initially. Then maybe you have to play two games, but I think it would just add to it."
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720