Dave Wannstedt the riverboat gambler?
Not exactly, but yesterday in the Panthers 21-20 win over Iowa, the usually conservative Wannstedt at least showed he's willing to take some chances and lo and behold -- nearly every time he did, it paid off in a big way.
In fact, all three of Pitt's touchdown drives were extended when, at some point, Wannstedt made the decision to go for it on fourth down instead of punting or attempt a long field goal.
And the third time he went for it on fourth down -- it was a fourth-and-one at the Iowa 30 in the third quarter -- the Panthers were trailing 17-14 and could have easily opted to try and tie the game with a 47-yard field goal.
"We felt like we would have to be aggressive, go for it," Wannstedt said. "Where we were at on the field we were just out of field goal range and we felt good about the down and distance. I think most of them were 2-yards or less and in that situation I don't feel bad about going for it but when it gets up to three or four yards, then you are rolling the dice."
Wannstedt certainly will never be accused of being a coach who likes to "roll the dice" too much, but the Panthers did a number of things beyond going for it on fourth down that suggests perhaps they will be less conservative -- and predictable -- in the future. Those two criticisms were put on Wannstedt after the Panthers lost to Bowling Green in the opener and he failed to go for it on fourth down in several situations, but yesterday was completely different:
* The Panthers used back-up quarterback Greg Cross in a spread formation and the play turned into a 17-yard touchdown run by Cross.
* The Panthers ran a "flea-flicker" play that almost turned into a 39-yard touchdown but the ball was knocked out of the hands of receiver T.J. Porter by an Iowa defensive back at the last second.
* On their game-winning drive, the Panthers caught the Hawkeyes off-guard with a shovel pass to LeSean McCoy that went for 28 yards and set up the Panthers with a first-and-10 at the Iowa 39. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the play was one of the biggest plays of the game
* Pitt opened one series with a reverse to little-used receiver Aundre Wright.
* Pitt's second touchdown came on a 6-yard quarterback draw by Bill Stull.
All of those plays were celebrated by the players, who said that they gave some energy to the offense and helped them change the game's momentum.
"If we think we can get some things done against a certain defense we'll try it," Stull said. "One thing about it is the fans really kept us in it and we weren't able to get down on ourselves and we were able to stay confident. And the fourth down calls, that just make is feel that the coaches trust in us and know that we can get it done and we got it done."
Brytus's big day
Pitt punter Dave Brytus said the toughest thing about his job is that the only reason he is called is when the Panthers offense stalls -- and he'd obviously prefer the Panthers to score on every possession. And the only time a punter is generally mentioned is when he makes a mistake or gets a punt blocked.
But in tight games where field position is a key, a punter can make a huge difference and yesterday Brytus came through big-time for the Panthers.
Brytus punted eight times and averaged 47.8 yards per punt and his final two punts, when the Panthers were trying to pin Iowa deep and hold onto a lead, both traveled more than 55 yards.
And while the first one was 60 yards and sailed into the endzone for a touchback (yet it still flipped the field position), the second one traveled 56 yards and rolled out of bounds at the 1 which meant the Hawkeyes would start their final possession 99 yards from the endzone (and likely 65 yards or so for at least a realistic attempt at a game-winning field goal).
"I liken it to a game-winning field goal," Brytus said about his final punt. "When you are the punter, you don't get too many moments like that, but the way [the Panthers] attacked me coming off the field, it was something special, like I made a big play. Like I always say, in order for me to get on the field, the offense has to stall but when you're called on, you have to get it done.
"All I tried to do was get it inside the 10 and I got a fortunate bounce, so that's a great thing and it was a big play for our team at that point."
Greg Cross, a junior college transfer, was recruited to be a change-of-pace kind of quarterback as he is athletic and fast and the kind of player generally used in spread offenses and offenses that utilize a running quarterback. Pitt coaches had said they planned on using him, but through two games he had not played.
Yesterday, however, he entered the game in the first quarter and provided instant gratification for the fans as he ran 17 yards for a touchdown in his first play as a Panther. Cross only had one other play -- he was sacked for a 10-yard loss in the second half -- but Wannstedt said he will continue to look for opportunities to get him in the game.
"It was a nice play [Cross's touchdown] that our offensive coaches put together," Wannstedt said. "We had about a half dozen plays for Greg today but never had the opportunity to get him in there. We put in a tough situation in the second half on that waggle play so we have to get him in there some where he is handing off and running some of our normal plays to give him a chance. We'll continue to do some things to build on this."
The Panthers escaped injury for the most part though Stull was limping badly in the fourth quarter and then after the game. "I'm faking it," Stull said, then laughed, when asked about his injury. Also safety Elijah Fields sat out the final three drives with an undisclosed injury and defensive end Greg Romeus finished the game despite a minor shoulder injury...Pitt's three touchdowns were the first touchdowns allowed by Iowa's defense this year. In fact, through three games the Hawkeyes had only given up a total of eight point. ... Pitt blocked a punt early in the game. ...Pitt outside linebacker Greg Williams, a redshirt freshmen making only his second career start, had two sacks. The Panthers as a team had six sacks against Iowa. ...Pitt begins its Big East schedule next Saturday when they travel to Syracuse.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.