Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon visited Pitt football practice Thursday and delivered a motivational speech to the Panthers as they put the finishing touches on their preparation for their game against Iowa yesterday.
Although motivational speeches are generally a dime a dozen, Dixon's was different because his message was simple, direct and powerful -- a hard-fought win against a big-time opponent is the kind of victory that can give a program the confidence it needs to do great things.
It is the kind of victory, Dixon said, that one can build a season and a program on.
Yesterday, with that message fresh in their heads, the Panthers (2-1) went out and, perhaps, got that program-building victory as they scrapped and clawed their way to a heart-stopping, 21-20 win against the Hawkeyes (3-1) before a crowd of 50,321 at Heinz Field.
It is the Panthers' first win against a Big Ten opponent since a 12-0 win against Penn State in 2000, and, as defensive tackle Mick Williams explained, the kind of victory the Panthers needed to prove to themselves -- and to others -- that they are capable of doing big things this year.
"Coach Dixon came in Thursday and talked to us about this being a big program-building kind of game," Williams said. "And we all got together and said let's go and do something to build our program. He talked about when Brandin Knight played, it was a win over Ohio State for them and he told us, this is Iowa for us. That was a big thing for us, that he came in and talked to us, and I'd like to thank him for that.
"[In the fourth quarter, when it got tight] that is all we were talking about there today, we knew we had to dig deep because this game is our program-builder right here."
The Ohio State game Dixon referred to was in 2001 when Knight was a junior and the Panthers, coached at the time by Ben Howland (Dixon was an assistant), went to Columbus and upset the Buckeyes, 62-55. That victory put the Panthers on the map and propelled them to the first of seven consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Yesterday, the Panthers not only had to come from behind in the fourth quarter, they needed to hold off the Hawkeyes as they clung to a one-point lead for the game's final 11 minutes. And, when the Hawkeyes had one last opportunity with less than two minutes to play to try to drive for the potential winning points, the Panthers had two sacks and then forced a fumble to end the threat.
It is the kind of game Pitt often has lost in recent years -- particularly against opponents from BCS conferences -- but one that can perhaps build the kind of character and confidence the Panthers seemed to lack.
"The positive from today was the effort that our kids gave, particularly at the end of the game," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The mind-set I want is for them to feel like we're a very good football team. And the most encouraging part was the end where we had to make some plays and we made them, especially on defense.
"We're still growing on defense, but the two series right before the half our defense stepped up and got two three-and-outs and, at the end of the game, they stepped up again. It was fantastic on our sidelines. It was a great atmosphere for our younger players to be around and now you build [on] it."
"This was a good team win. Nothing will give us momentum better than a nice win like today."
Although the defensive line dominated the Hawkeyes' offensive line in the fourth quarter, it was the Panthers' offense that made the big plays early to give Pitt a 14-3 lead.
The Panthers' first touchdown came on a 17-yard run by backup quarterback Greg Cross, the second on a 6-yard quarterback draw by Bill Stull. Both plays were called at the line of scrimmage and designed to take advantage of tendencies the Hawkeyes showed on film.
Late in the third quarter, though, the Panthers trailed, 17-14, when they began a drive on their 20. They marched 80 yards in nine plays and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 27-yard run by tailback LeSean McCoy. It was a stunning reversal for an offense that had gone six consecutive possessions without a first down.
"[McCoy] is an excellent football player -- my sister could tell you that," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "[McCoy] is a guy who will find a way to do something that impacts a game, and we saw that [today]."
Stull said the drive for the winning points was proof that the offense is starting to mature. And, like his teammates, he believes the win will provide a confidence boost and a springboard for the team to reach great heights this year.
"We know any day we can rise to the occasion and beat any team," Stull said.
"It wasn't easy. It is never easy and we're usually going to do it the hard way, but we got it done.
"[The winning drive] was just awesome, our guys just stepped up and made the big plays. We just wanted to power it. We turned to our power game there, we wanted to hit them in the mouth and keep hitting them in the mouth and, if they are down, keep hitting them.
"We're always going to do whatever it takes today and we did that today."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published September 21, 2008 4:00 AM