Pitt trying to involve Baldwin more
Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin has caught 15 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns this season.
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Now that the Pitt running game appears to be rounding into form thanks in large part to the emergence of reserve tailback Ray Graham, the Panthers' offensive coaching staff can begin to focus on getting the passing game fixed.
And any discussion about that should begin with getting the ball to talented junior receiver Jon Baldwin.
Coaches and players say there are a number of reasons Baldwin hasn't been more of a factor this season, but they are working hard to try to get him the ball more in different situations.
"It is just a matter of time," Baldwin said. "We just have to keep practicing at it and keep trying to find different ways to get me the ball. Saturday I was just happy for Ray Graham, he did a great job running the ball and so there was just no need to pass the ball any more."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday the Panthers' offense is destined to be rather ordinary unless they can utilize Baldwin more and that he is going to have a breakout game soon.
He said Baldwin was close to making some plays Saturday in Pitt's 44-17 victory against Florida International. He said Baldwin and quarterback Tino Sunseri have worked together to try to get on the same page.
"For us to take our offense to another level, which we need to, Jonathan needs to get his hands on the football," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference. "He had as good of a week of practice last week as he's had since he's been here from an execution standpoint. We've got plays [for Baldwin] and three plays we thought were touchdown plays for him [against FIU], one we jump offside, one they get pressure on our quarterback and the third one they rolled coverage on us and we were uncertain."
It was clear Saturday against FIU that the Panthers were trying to get the ball into Baldwin's hands, but he finished with only two catches for 14 yards.
Wannstedt said the passing game has been a work in progress mostly because Sunseri is a first-year starter and the offensive line has struggled to come together, which has hurt Pitt's chances of fully utilizing Baldiwn. He also said defenses have done a very good job of giving the Panthers different looks in how they have defended Baldwin.
"Credit to the defense of coming up with things but every week we see another new wrinkle specifically for Jonathan," Wannstedt said. "They are always going to come up with a different look and we have a few new offensive linemen as we know and a new quarterback, so we're trying to progress, but at the same time be smart so it has been quite a challenge."
One element that has been overlooked in why it has been so hard for Baldwin to get going is that the Panthers miss tight end Dorin Dickerson, who created matchup issues for defenses and whose presence made it impossible for teams to focus on Baldwin.
Against FIU, the Panthers tried to create some of what Dickerson brought by utilizing Devin Street -- who is 6 feet 4 -- more in the three receivers sets as opposed to Cam Saddler, who is 5-7. Baldwin said Street's presence will be a boost for the passing game because it means the Panthers have three tall receivers on the field at the same time.
"Dorin created a lot of mismatches, he was a 4.3, 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash] guy and he was a nightmare for a lot of linebackers," Baldwin said. "He was the only other receiver we had who was a legitimate 4.4 guy. He was playing tight end, but he could have played receiver. That speed changed the whole game plan for defenses because you have the tight end running down the field that fast and then you have me running down the field that fast -- it changed the whole thing."
Baldwin, who is the team's leading receiver with 15 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, said he has heard criticisms from some fans that he is not playing hard enough or that he has checked out and is looking ahead to his NFL career. He said nothing is further from the truth. And he also dispelled the idea that he is frustrated by the Panthers' inability to get him the ball and thus isn't trying on every play.
He said anybody who thinks he isn't working hard and doing the best he can do to help the Panthers win hasn't paid attention to his blocking skills, which have improved and have been a factor in Graham's recent success.
"I can't really worry about how people think of me, I just have to keep doing what I have been doing," Baldwin said. "All I can keep doing is working hard in the things I do, continue to be better not only as a route runner but also as a blocker. I'm pretty sure I am going to make a lot of plays like that this Saturday. I circled the game on my calendar the last two years, and I circled the game again for this year, and I plan on having a great game."
Saturday the Panthers play at Notre Dame and he has played well against the Irish the past two seasons.
In the 2008 game -- won, 36-33, by the Panthers in four overtimes, Baldwin made a spectacular catch on a third down to extend a drive and then caught the tying touchdown pass to send the game into overtime.
Last year, Baldwin had five catches for 142 yards and a 36-yard touchdown reception to help the Panthers defeat the Irish, 27-22.
One of the Irish players who was asked to stop Baldwin last year was former Woodland Hills standout Darrin Walls, who plays corner. Baldwin beat Walls for the touchdown and for two other big plays, and it seems clear Walls didn't make much of an impression on him.
"I never even heard of him before we played last year," Baldwin said when asked if he knew Walls or had heard about him when he was with the Wolverines. "Last year everybody was telling me he was from North Hills or Woodland Hills or something, I'm not even sure. He didn't really press me that much so I couldn't really determine if he was physical and he didn't tackle me, so I wouldn't be able to tell you [whether Walls is a physical player]."
NOTES -- Graham was named the Big East Conference offensive player of the week while punter/kicker Dan Hutchins was named the conference's special teams player of the week. ... Wannstedt said the Panthers are healthy and that he expects Dion Lewis (shoulder) to be ready to play against the Irish. ... The Pitt-Syracuse game Oct. 16 was chosen as the "Big East Network Game of the Week" for that week and will be a noon game and will be televised by ESPN Regional (locally on WTAE).
First Published October 5, 2010 12:00 am