Wannstedt Pitt's weak link but players show encouraging signs

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Pitt's football team made good improvement here in a lot in areas, but the progress wasn't enough to overcome what is looking more and more like its weakest link.

Dave Wannstedt.

My apologies to former Pitt coach Walt Harris for writing numerous times that Wannstedt is a better coach. He is not. Repeat: He is not! Wannstedt has a better personality. He might be a better recruiter. But he's not a better coach.

Never was that more evident than in Pitt's 23-17 loss to Notre Dame on a spectacular autumn afternoon in the spectacular venue that is Notre Dame Stadium.

It's probably a bit too soon to write off Pitt's season even if the non-conference portion of its schedule couldn't have gone worse. The team is 2-3, but play in the weak Big East Conference is next, beginning with a game at Syracuse Saturday. There also were encouraging signs against Notre Dame. Quarterback Tino Sunseri did a better job reading coverages and throwing the ball. Running back Dion Lewis got back into the mix and ran hard after missing the Florida International game a week earlier. The rebuilt offensive line took a few baby strides. Wide receiver Jon Baldwin was more involved in the offense with nine catches for 111 yards and a 56-yard touchdown. The team was penalized just three times for 23 yards after taking seven pre-snap penalties against Florida International.

None of it was enough, though, to make up for Wannstedt's strange decisions.

His foolish decisions.

It's not the least bit too soon to wonder if Wannstedt will survive on the job after this season, his sixth at Pitt. I'm thinking his team has to save him by winning the Big East. Certainly, it would be hard to argue for him to stay after, say, a 7-5 or 6-6 season with another trip to an irrelevant bowl game.

Wannstedt didn't help himself Saturday.

It was one thing that he ordered a fake punt on fourth-and-3 from the Pitt 35 just two minutes into the third quarter with Notre Dame leading, 17-3. Sure, that seemed way too early to panic. It wasn't as if Pitt didn't move the ball in the first half. It had lost six points when kicker Dan Hutchins missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt and holder Andrew Janocko fumbled a snap on another 36-yard field-goal attempt.

But, hey, maybe Wannstedt and his staff saw something in their film study to make them take a shot with the fake. It didn't work. Punter Hutchins was tackled for a 1-yard loss. Notre Dame turned the short field into a 50-yard field goal for a 20-3 lead.

But that was nothing compared with Wannstedt's late-game mismanagement.

You remember the furor when Harris ordered quarterback Tyler Palko to slide at the end of the first half to set up a field goal at Connecticut in 2004, a decision that all but pushed Harris out of the door?

Wannstedt's strategy was every bit as bad, maybe worse.

Pitt took over at its 10, down 23-17 with 4:45 left and three timeouts. Lewis ran for 3 yards on first down and 2 on second down as Wannstedt, as usual, played things conservatively. I swear the man can't win a lot of days because he's so afraid to lose. What's the worse thing that could have happened there? A Sunseri interception? Heck, take a chance and live with the result.

Wannstedt's explanation? "We knew we were going to try to go for it on fourth down. And we were trying to get in a manageable fourth-down situation."

Apparently, fourth-and-5 wasn't manageable for Wannstedt after Sunseri's third-down pass was batted down. Nothing wrong there, except that there was massive confusion on the Pitt bench after the third-down play. Wannstedt ended up using a precious timeout to ...

Can you believe it?


Shouldn't that decision have been made before the third-down play in the event it was fourth-and-5? Isn't a head coach supposed to be better prepared than that?

"We weren't real comfortable with the plays we had and the situation," Wannstedt said of his decision to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-5.

What an amazing admission by a head coach. Exactly whose fault is it that he isn't comfortable with the plays? You got it. The head coach himself.

Pitt was lucky to get the ball back at its 7 with 1:37 left because Notre Dame tight end Mike Ragone dropped what would have been a third-down conversion pass. Pitt could have taken over at least 8 or 10 yards up the field, but return man Cam Saddler let the ball roll rather than catch it, something he is doing much too often. As it was, the Panthers had little chance to go 93 yards for the winning touchdown. Sunseri's pass for Baldwin on fourth-and-4 from the 13 was slapped away.

"We just aren't putting a full game of good football together," Wannstedt said.

That's true. A 2-3 record is no accident. Pitt deserves every bit of it.

It's nice to think the players will continue to get better.

Too bad I can't say the same thing about their coach.

Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. rcook@post-gazette.com .


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