The head coach limped off the field Saturday night, looking old and tired despite a lopsided season-opening home win.
The reason had very little to do with Dave Wannstedt's bad Achilles' tendon.
"Unfortunately," Wannstedt said outside the Pitt locker room, "I've been through this before."
Go back to the 2002 season when he was coaching the Miami Dolphins.
"We beat Denver in Denver on a Sunday night to go to 5-1," Wannstedt said. "Jay Fiedler broke his thumb that night and missed six weeks."
Ray Lucas took over at quarterback and the Dolphins lost six of their final 10 games to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs for the first time in six years.
It's hard to imagine this sad Pitt story having a happier ending.
Quarterback Bill Stull, injured in the third quarter of the 27-3 win against Eastern Michigan, had surgery yesterday to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb and probably will miss six weeks. It's a cruel blow, not just for Stull, who waited patiently behind Tyler Palko for two years to get his chance as the Pitt starter, but for the Pitt team, which already had lost star wide receiver Derek Kinder for the season to a knee injury.
"It's sad because Billy would have been perfect for what we want to do as an offense," Wannstedt said. "You talk about a leader. The other players just love him."
Stull played well in his first collegiate start, completing his first seven passes, the seventh to wide receiver Oderick Turner for 21 yards and a touchdown and a 14-3 lead. But Stull was injured later when he was tackled on a run by linebacker Darran Matthews. He played one more play but left the game after he couldn't control a pitchout to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling. Redshirt freshman Kevan Smith finished up but was asked to do little more than hand off.
Now, Wannstedt must decide between Smith and hotshot freshman Pat Bostick as his new starter.
It has to be Bostick, doesn't it?
Wannstedt confirmed his plan for this season was to redshirt Bostick, the Gatorade Pennsylvania High School Player of the Year last season and Pitt's long-term hope at quarterback. That was especially true after Bostick left the team in August and missed the first week of training camp, returning home to Lancaster to deal with personal issues.
"That redshirt is out the window now," Wannstedt said.
Wannstedt needs to learn from Penn State coach Joe Paterno's mistake with his hotshot quarterback, Anthony Morelli, now the senior leader of a Nittany Lions team that should contend for the Big Ten Conference championship. Paterno didn't redshirt Morelli in '04 but hardly played him, wasting a year of his eligibility. That extra year would look pretty good next season, wouldn't it? Or, look at it the other way: Wouldn't Morelli be even better now if he had received significant playing experience in '04?
If Bostick is going to use a year of eligibility this season, he has to get the most out of it by playing extensively. Starting him at home against Grambling Saturday is the right call. Wannstedt couldn't pick a better opponent. Pitt should win easily and Bostick could ease into the lineup without having the pressure of carrying the team. That pressure will come soon enough; Pitt plays at Michigan State the following Saturday. Bostick needs the Grambling game under his belt to have a fighting chance against Michigan State.
I don't buy the argument that a talented young player can be destroyed by being rushed into the lineup. Of course, Bostick won't be fully ready for Grambling and, especially, Michigan State. "If he plays, it would be before we'd like," Wannstedt said. But Bostick should be able to handle that. If he's tough enough mentally to be the state's best high school player, he should be able to handle any adversity. If he's not, he's probably not going to be Pitt's long-term answer, anyway.
For that matter, the same goes for Pitt's prized freshman running back, LeSean McCoy. Stephens-Howling started against Eastern Michigan and had 16 carries. McCoy had 10. Those numbers should be reversed against Grambling, if not even more going to McCoy. Like Bostick, he's Pitt's future.
"The good news for us is we have a great supporting cast to go around the quarterback," Wannstedt said. "Did you see our tight ends, [Nate] Byham, [Darrell] Strong and [John] Pelusi? I thought our wideouts looked good, our running backs ... "
Notice Wannstedt didn't mention the offensive line. Maybe it was an oversight. More likely, it's because the line looks like Pitt's weakness. That's OK. Bostick and McCoy need to do their thing behind that line and take their chances. They'll be better players down the road because of it. Pitt will be a better team.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .