Ron Cook: Rhoads might take the fall for Pitt's losses

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No one expected Pitt to win the Big East Conference. Not with West Virginia and Louisville in the league.

No one expected Pitt to go 10-2 or even 9-3. It was a 5-6 team last season and still had personnel issues, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

But no one expected this, either.

Pitt's collapse has been staggering, three losses in the past three games. Maybe Rutgers was the better team, although that mere suggestion would have been considered heresy not that long ago. But South Florida wasn't better. Certainly, Connecticut wasn't better.

Now, Pitt must play the Big East's big boys -- West Virginia Thursday night and Louisville Nov. 25. The great thing about sports is upsets happen occasionally. But, at this point, it's hard to imagine Pitt winning either game. It's hard to think it will finish with anything but a 6-6 record and a five-game losing streak. It still might get a bowl bid -- doesn't every team these days? -- but it wouldn't deserve one. It should be too embarrassed to accept one.

How can someone not take the fall for that?

No, it won't be coach Dave Wannstedt. It's true, his first two seasons have been painfully disappointing. It's also true his approval rating has plummeted faster than President Bush's. But Wannstedt deserves more time. He deserves at least four seasons to show what he can do.

Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads doesn't have that time on his side.

His time appears to be all but up.

It would be unfair to put all of the blame for Pitt's significant defensive shortcomings on Rhoads, in his seventh season as defensive coordinator. These aren't the Walt Harris days of a few years ago when Harris didn't know the defensive players' names -- didn't even bother to watch them play, actually -- and Rhoads had total autonomy. Wannstedt is a defensive coach. He deserves just as much blame if only because he has done nothing to solve the problems.

Wannstedt didn't want to hear that yesterday, of course.

He took some umbrage at the suggestion Pitt might need to re-evaluate its defensive schemes.

"Please," he said, "I've been doing this for 30 years."

Wannstedt played much better defense at his weekly press briefing than his team has most of the season. His explanation for Pitt's sorry performance in the 46-45 double-overtime loss at Connecticut Saturday -- poor tackling, injuries to defensive linemen Chris McKillop and Doug Fulmer, general overall youth on the defensive line, blah, blah, blah -- sounded a lot like a bunch of excuses and was a little hard to take. It's one thing when great players such as West Virginia quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton torch your defense. It's another thing when players named Donald Brown and D.J. Hernandez do it. Brown, Connecticut's tailback, rushed for 205 yards. Hernandez, the Connecticut quarterback, added 130. Hernandez had run for only 69 yards all season.

Maybe it would be different if this were an aberration. But teams routinely run like that against Pitt's defense. Rutgers' Ray Rice rushed for 225 yards in his team's 20-10 victory Oct. 21. Earlier in the season, Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer (156) and quarterback Drew Stanton (105) combined for 261 rushing yards in a 38-23 Spartans' victory.

Go back to last season, Wannstedt's first. Individual running backs and quarterbacks combined for six 100-yard rushing games against Pitt. White and Slaton put on a fabulous show in West Virginia's 45-13 victory in Morgantown. White had 220 yards and two touchdowns, Slaton 179 yards and two touchdowns.

Go back even farther, to the '03 and '04 seasons, Harris' final two seasons. Pitt has played 46 games since then. Its defense allowed individual backs or quarterbacks to rush for more than 100 yards 24 times, including six games of more than 200 yards. Four times, it gave up 100-yard rushing games to two players in the same game.

How can that all be personnel problems?

How can there not be schematic issues that Wannstedt needs to take a hard look at?

How can Rhoads survive?

How could any coach in his situation?

It doesn't figure to get any better for Pitt in the next two weeks. White and Slaton are back with West Virginia. Quarterback Brian Brohm is back to lead a Louisville offense that put up 467 yards -- 220 on the ground -- and 35 points against the Pitt defense last season. (Seven of Louisville's points in its 42-20 win came after a fumble recovery in the Pitt end zone.)

Wannstedt pleaded for patience.

"We've only had one full recruiting class. I've said all along we need two or three classes to have some depth.

"I know it never happens fast enough.

"It's not what people out there want to hear, but the reality is we've got to get a lot better. That's the facts.

"We're in this for the long haul."

At least Wannstedt is, anyway.



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