The warm seat that Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt began the season sitting on has just become blazing hot.
That's because the Panthers, still in search of their first winning season under their fourth-year coach, dropped their opener yesterday, losing, 27-17, to Bowling Green of the Mid-American Conference before a crowd of 45,063 at Heinz Field.
The Panthers entered their opener ranked No. 25 and picked to contend for the Big East Conference title.
"To say the least, I can't tell you how disappointed our football team is considering how much work and effort was put into the start of the season," Wannstedt said.
"All during training camp, we protected the ball, we did a good job on turnovers, we have been smart with the ball and to go out there today and put the ball on the ground several different ways, that makes it very difficult.
"I thought our players came out and were ready to play. But working hard just gives you a chance to win -- it doesn't guarantee anything. I told the players this is the lesson to learn from this game."
Wannstedt's overall record with the Panthers is 16-20 -- 13-20 against I-A competition -- and he has yet to lead them to a bowl game. Nevertheless, he received a contract extension at the end of last season.
Pitt had plenty of opportunities to win, but the Panthers squandered them and repeatedly failed to make defensive stops when they were needed.
Pitt jumped to an early, 14-0 lead, then had several chances to extend the margin, but Wannstedt chose to punt twice from inside the Falcons' 35 instead of going for it on fourth down. That enabled Bowling Green to hang around long enough to get its offense untracked.
The Falcons scored two second-quarter touchdowns to tie the score, but Pitt's Conor Lee kicked a 36-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to take a 17-14 lead.
Boos rained on the Panthers as they left the field because Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh let most of the final 30 seconds run off the clock while playing for that field goal rather than going for a touchdown.
"We felt like we wanted points and we wanted to go in and feel good about it," Wannstedt said. "We didn't want to take a chance for a sack and we didn't want to take a chance on a turnover, and I think any time you are in that situation and you have a chance to get three points you take the three points because, if you take a chance and throw a pass and it gets deflected or you turn it over or you take a sack, now you are not giving your team a chance to win.
"That was my thinking."
Meanwhile, the Falcons and their coach, Gregg Brandon, showed they were not intimidated by the hostile environment or their status as the underdogs.
"We had a lot of motivation coming into today," Brandon said. "I think some people doubted how good we are. I hope everyone realizes how hard it is to win on the road against a BCS program, I don't care who it is in our league, it is big.
"We are not supposed to beat these people, we are not supposed to do that, but our kids relish these games."
Pitt built its early lead on LeSean McCoy's 11-yard touchdown run that capped an eight-play, 71-yard drive in the first quarter and a 4-yard pass from quarterback Bill Stull to wide receiver Derek Kinder early in the second.
Bowling Green responded with 14 consecutive points, the touchdowns coming on passes of 5 and 3 yards to tight end Jimmy Scheidler. Lee's late field goal put the Panthers back on top, 17-14.
The Falcons scored the only two touchdowns in the second half as Anthony Turner ran 8 yards to complete a nine-play, 59-yard drive late in the third quarter. Bowling Green saw an apparent touchdown on Kenny Lewis' 65-yard return of a Cedric McGee fumble wiped out because of an inadvertent whistle, but Stull fumbled on Pitt's next possession and Angelo Magnone recovered at the Panthers' 11. Two plays later, quarterback Tyler Sheehan ran 11 yard for a touchdown.
Pitt outgained the Falcons, 137-6, in the first quarter, but the Panthers rushed for only 46 yards in the final three quarters.
McCoy finished with 71 yards rushing on 23 carries and his backup, LaRod Stephens-Howling, added another 71 on seven attempts. Stull completed 29 of 51 passes for 264 yards and the one touchdown. For Bowling Green,
Sheehan was 24 for 40 for 163 yards and threw one of the two Bowling Green touchdown passes to Scheidler. Wide receiver Freddie Barnes, lined up at quarterback, threw the other.
The Panthers will face another Mid-American Conference opponent, Buffalo, Saturday at Heinz Field.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.