Cook: Pitt victory almost feels like a loss

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CINCINNATI -- College football coaches love to tell you a team makes its greatest progress from game one to game two. If that's true, Pitt is in big trouble. Look out when Michigan State rolls into Heinz Field next Saturday afternoon. It could be ugly for the home team.

Pitt might be unbeaten and untied after its 33-15 victory against Cincinnati last night, but it also was mostly unimpressive in the win.

OK, so maybe it is some kind of sign of improvement for Pitt that we're nitpicking after it wins. It wasn't so long ago that it would have lost this game. Can you say Ohio U. last season? How about Rutgers?

Be thankful for small favors.

At least Pitt won.

On the road no less.

But that doesn't change the fact this Pitt win almost felt a little like a loss. Tell the truth. You almost were ready to give your heart to the Panthers after their convincing 38-13 thumping of Virginia in the opener last Saturday night, an impressive start to Year 2 of the Dave Wannstedt era that was better than anyone expected. Now you're not so sure after this largely lame performance against one of the Big East Conference bottom feeders. You want to see a little more before you commit. The offense that was so impressive against Virginia did next to nothing, a couple of terrific individual efforts by wide receiver Derek Kinder aside. There were special teams breakdowns galore, including two big ones by punt returner/cornerback Darrelle Revis, the team's best player. Thank goodness for the defense. It didn't just shut down the Cincinnati offense until weakening in the fourth quarter. It made the play -- a second-quarter interception by cornerback Kennard Cox deep in Cincinnati territory -- that swung the game Pitt's way.

Wannstedt has a right to feel good about that defense, which put its newfound speed on display again. Cincinnati's first touchdown came late in the third quarter after Revis fumbled a punt at the Pitt 17. Its second came late in the game after the outcome had been decided. For good measure, the Pitt defense threw in a safety in the third quarter when defensive linemen Joe Clermond and Gus Mustakas squeezed quarterback Nick Davila, forcing him to dump the ball to one of his linemen from the end zone. It also set up Pitt's final offensive score -- a 30-yard field goal by Conor Lee -- when linebacker Tommie Campbell forced a fumble at the Cincinnati 22 early in the fourth quarter. Revis provided the final touchdown with 58-yard interception return.

There's no question the Pitt defense is good enough to beat Michigan State.

But the offense? Especially the running game? And the special teams?

It's hard to believe in 'em after this night.

The final score would have been a lot closer if not for Kinder's two superb touchdown catches. The first -- an 80-yard catch and run up the left sideline, then across the field -- came on the first play of the third quarter and gave Pitt a 14-0 lead. The second -- a 55-yard play on which he outfought cornerback John Bowie for the ball -- pushed the margin to 23-0.

But that was just about it for the Pitt offense.

It managed just 48 rushing yards on 19 carries through three quarters. Beyond that futility, Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko lost a fumble and botched a handoff with running back Shane Brooks to lose another. Those mistakes could have been deadly against a better opponent.

Really, that kind of production from the ground game might not be good enough to beat The Citadel in two weeks let alone Michigan State.

It's nice to think a healthy LaRod Stephens-Howling will make a difference against Michigan State. Pitt's starting tailback sat out last night with an ankle injury from the Virginia game.

It's also nice to think a healthy John Simonitis will help. Pitt's starting right guard injured his right ankle or foot on the first play against Cincinnati. His status, like Stephens-Howling's, is uncertain for Michigan State.

Certainly, Revis and the punt return team will play better. In addition to losing the fumble, Revis misplayed an earlier punt that cost Pitt 20 yards. He's way too good of a player to repeat those mistakes. And while Pitt is at it, it probably wouldn't hurt to eliminate those holding penalties on punt returns against Kelvin Chandler and Aaron Berry.

Let's be positive here.

Maybe Pitt will make its greatest progress from game two to game three.

It must to have any chance against Michigan State.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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