Mistake-plagued Pitt falls, 17-13

McCoy's running, defense keep it close



EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The Pitt Panthers became "Wildcats" yesterday and nearly pulled off the biggest upset of the Dave Wannstedt era, but they could not overcome a myriad of mistakes, penalties and turnovers and their inability to pass effectively.

The result was a 17-13 Michigan State victory against the Panthers in front of 68,620 at Spartan Stadium. It was the kind of loss that will leave Wannstedt to wonder "what if" yet again.

That's because all three of the Spartans' scores were set up by Pitt turnovers. Furthermore, the Panthers (2-1) dropped a touchdown pass, had another potential touchdown drive crushed by an offensive-facemask penalty, another drive killed by a fumble and at least two others derailed by pre-snap penalties.

THE BIG EAST

 

Overall

 Conf

Team

W

L

Pct.

W

L

Pct.

W. Virginia

3

0

1.00

0

0

.000

Cincinnati

3

0

1.00

0

0

.000

UConn

3

0

1.00

0

0

.000

Rutgers

3

0

1.00

0

0

.000

S. Florida

2

0

1.00

0

0

.000

Louisville

2

1

.667

0

0

.000

Pitt

2

1

.667

0

0

.000

Syracuse

0

3

.000

0

0

.000

But none of those costly errors compared to the biggest what if of the day -- what if the Panthers had not waited until after halftime to go to their Wildcat offense. If nothing else, they would not have given up 14 points on two poorly thrown balls that turned into interceptions.

The Wildcat offense, which features freshman tailback LeSean McCoy lined up in a shotgun formation and taking a direct snap from center, was an effective change of pace for the Panthers and enabled them to keep the Spartans' defense off balance most of the second half.

More importantly, the offense minimized the number of times the ball was in the hands of redshirt freshman quarterback Kevan Smith, who struggled mightily the entire game, and maximized the number of times McCoy touched the ball. Both developments were a good for the Panthers.

Wannstedt said the idea for the Wildcat was born after it became clear in the spring that the Panthers' passing offense would struggle because of the absence of a capable and experienced quarterback.

That's why in May, he sent his offensive coaches to Fayetteville, Ark., to spend time with the Arkansas Razorbacks staff, which has had a lot of success running a similar offense built around standout tailback Darren McFadden.

"We'd been working on that all during training camp," Wannstedt said.

"I knew we'd be forced into this situation sooner or later and we didn't use it the first two weeks, but we practiced it some. It is something that gives us a change of pace and something teams will have to defend because we'll continue to use it.

"We still have to throw the ball at some point, but we do have some other options off of what we showed today."

Michigan State's defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who held the same job at Cincinnati the past two seasons, said the Wildcat was a wrinkle the Spartans did not expect to see. He said Pitt should continue to use the formation because it was an efficient way to get the ball to McCoy.

"We had not never -- and we played them twice in Cincinnati -- seen that before," Narduzzi said. "It is good stuff and it is the stuff that Florida used against Ohio State in the national championship game, and we had talked about it but didn't really think we'd see it."

McCoy rushed 25 times for 172 yards and had a 64-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that tied the score, 7-7. He became the first Pitt freshman since Curtis Martin in 1991 to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games, and his 172 yards was the seventh-best total by a Pitt freshman.

Smith completed 9 of 18 passes for 85 yards and threw two interceptions, one which was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by Michigan State's Travis Key. Smith's first interception gave the Spartans a first-and-10 at the Panthers' 35. Four plays later, they cashed it in for a touchdown.

The two easy scores proved far too much for Pitt to overcome.

"It wasn't because of effort or want to, we just made a few more mistakes than they did," Wannstedt said.

"I don't know what more you can ask of your defense, those guys played consistent for the entire game, but those turnovers cost us the game. It is tough to win on the road but, when you give a good football team points, particularly in the situation we are in on offense, [it is hard] to overcome that."

Pitt's defense almost surely played well enough to win the game. Michigan State came into the game averaging 41.5 points and 492.5 yards of total offense (220 on the ground) per game, but the Panthers held the Spartans to 144 yards rushing on 51 carries (2.8 yards per carry).

The Panthers also had six sacks, blocked a field goal and twice stopped the Spartans on fourth-and-short.




Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720. First Published September 16, 2007 4:00 AM


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