Cook: Panthers' program: How low can it go?

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It's hard to say what is more depressing this morning. Is it the nightmare that was the Pitt football season in 2006? Or is it the thought of what Pitt might be like in 2007?

Really, what reason do we have to think Pitt will be better next season?

I know, it's hard to imagine Pitt being worse. This season was an enormous disappointment. Pitt got blown out by Louisville at Heinz Field yesterday, 48-24, its fifth consecutive loss, leaving it with a 6-6 record and -- if there's any justice in the college football world -- completely out of the bowl picture. It finished in sixth place in the eight-team Big East Conference. You knew going in West Virginia and Louisville were better. But Rutgers? South Florida? Cincinnati, for heaven's sake? Those teams got better as the season went on. Pitt got worse, much worse.

That's bad, for sure.

Pathetic, actually.

But, could Pitt be worse in 2007?

To begin with, the Panthers lose quarterback Tyler Palko, who started each of the 35 games the past three seasons. It didn't seem right that his career had such a dismal ending on a day he threw three interceptions. What a joy it was to watch this kid play. He might not have been a big winner -- Pitt was 19-16 in his starts -- but he was one of this town's all-time great competitors. He went down fighting to the end, getting sacked from the blind side on his final snap as he tried to make one last play in a hopelessly out-of-hand game.

Junior-to-be Bill Stull is Palko's heir apparent. He has thrown 10 passes in two seasons. If Stull isn't the quarterback, it will be highly regarded recruit Pat Bostick, one of the top prospects in the country. Either way, Pitt will be playing a new man with no experience at the game's most demanding position.

Pitt's losses on defense might be more damaging. You might be thinking that any loss from its horrible defense has to be addition by subtraction. The defense gave up 499 yards to Louisville and, although it didn't allow its usual 200-yard rusher, it did let quarterback Brian Brohm throw for 337 yards and wide receivers Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas combine for 11 catches for 276 yards. Louisville also had three touchdowns called back because of penalties.

There's no defending a Pitt defense that allowed 48, 45 and 46 points in the past three games, but you would be wrong about that arithmetic argument. Pitt will have a hard time replacing its only three defensive playmakers -- linebackers H.B. Blades and Clint Session, who are out of eligibility, and junior cornerback Darrelle Revis, who almost certainly will leave for the NFL as a No. 1 draft pick.

Blades and Session left everything on the field, as always. Each had 10 tackles against Louisville. Revis didn't have such a great game. He was called for pass interference in the second quarter when he had to grab Urrutia's jersey to prevent a touchdown pass. The guess here is he was shocked that Brohm actually threw to his man. Revis is so good that teams avoided him all season.

It's nice to think that Blades and Palko rubbed off on their teammates. It was no surprise that Blades cried during the pregame introductions and Palko was in tears after the game. Their passion for football and their teammates was palpable. They hurt that their careers are over. And they hurt even more that they couldn't do more to make Pitt a winner.

"Special guys," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called his seniors.

Now, the pressure is on Wannstedt and his staff.

The product they put out on the field this season -- the past two seasons, really -- was not acceptable.

"You've got to be physically dominant to win. We are not a dominant team physically by any stretch of the imagination," Wannstedt acknowledged.

Pitt is counting on its young offensive and defensive linemen being much better next season. But it's going to take more than that, a lot more.

"We've got to recruit like we've never recruited before," Wannstedt said. "We've got to have as tough an offseason as we've ever had. We've got to bring these young kids around at a fast pace."

The schedule next season doesn't do Pitt any favors. It must play at Michigan State, Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia. It had better win all seven of its home games if it wants to finish at least 7-5.

"There's a lot of work to be done, a lot of work," Wannstedt said.

More than anyone at Pitt can possibly imagine.


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


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