Cook: This time Pitt had a speedy start
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Let's get one thing straight at the top.
It was just one game, one home win against an opponent that probably will go on to have a mediocre season.
"It's a good start, but that's all it is -- a start," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said last night.
But that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty to like about Pitt in its 38-13 victory against Virginia.
Pitt did just about everything it couldn't do in last year's nightmare of a 5-6 season. It ran the ball. The offensive line protected quarterback Tyler Palko. The receivers caught Palko's passes. The defense, looking as if it were at least three speeds faster, stopped the run. Virginia's only touchdown drive was all of 13 yards.
But the biggest and most encouraging change with Pitt was this: When it faced a little adversity, it stared it down and won the game. You know, the way a good team is supposed to do. Pitt might not yet qualify -- remember, it's early -- but this was a huge first step in Year 2 of the Wannstedt era.
"It sure beat last year," Wannstedt said, grinning, a reference to the 42-21 beating from Notre Dame in the opener.
The lasting memory of the '05 team was how it went in the tank at West Virginia after it missed an extra point to trail just 14-13 early in the second quarter. There were reasons to believe the same thing might happen last night after a Pitt mistake late in the first half gave Virginia, which had been totally dominated, a gift touchdown to make it a game.
Pitt led, 17-3, and was driving for more points when tight end Darrell Strong appeared to run the wrong pattern. Palko threw the ball out as Strong turned in. Safety Nate Lyles returned the interception to the Pitt 13, setting up the Virginia touchdown with 31 seconds left in the second quarter.
Just say it made for a worrisome 20 minutes at halftime.
Not even a neat tribute to Pitt's 1976 national championship team could stop the wondering.
Would Pitt fold again?
"The seniors on this team ... They refused to be beaten tonight," Wannstedt said. "They're a special group of guys. They kept the thing together."
That was clear on the first play of the third quarter when Pitt defensive tackle Gus Mustakas threw tailback Jason Snelling for a 2-yard loss. It was three plays and out for Virginia. After a Pitt punt, the Panthers' defense immediately put the game away. Cornerback Darrelle Revis stepped in front of quarterback Christian Olsen's sideline pass and returned the interception 19 yards for a touchdown.
So much for that adversity.
There was no way the Pitt defense was going to blow this 24-10 lead. It had a marvelous game, holding Virginia to 52 rushing yards. How many years has it been since the Panthers stopped the run like that? They were too quick for Virginia. That was best evidenced by three plays linebacker Clint Session made in a four-play sequence in the second quarter. He stuffed tailback Cedric Peerman for a 1-yard loss, burst into the backfield to throw Peerman for a 7-yard loss and chased down Peerman to the sideline for no gain.
Speed really is a beautiful thing.
"It makes up for a lot of mistakes," Wannstedt said. "We've increased our team speed at almost every position."
It only seemed appropriate that Session, who had a spectacular game, closed the scoring with a late 78-yard interception return for a touchdown.
But it wasn't just the Pitt defense that surprised. The offense also produced thrilling and somewhat unexpected moments.The final numbers for Pitt's running game -- 33 carries for 107 yards -- weren't all that impressive, but they would have been better if tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling hadn't sat out the second half with a "mild" -- Wannstedt's word -- ankle sprain. He had runs of 19 and 17 yards.
Pitt didn't really need its running game, anyway. Palko and his receivers were that good. You expect that from Palko. But those receivers? Don't say you predicted their performance.
No one -- including Wannstedt and Palko -- knew what to expect. They were thrilled to see Marcel Pestano pull in a deflected 12-yard pass to keep alive a field-goal drive. They got a kick out of watching Strong outfight Lyles for a 26-yard catch. And they absolutely loved seeing Oderick Turner make a finger-tips catch for a 72-yard touchdown and Derek Kinder take the ball from cornerback Marcus Hamilton on a 78-yard touchdown.
It's amazing how much better Palko is when his receivers catch his passes. It's amazing how much better he is when his line protects him. He was sacked just once.
It's funny, Palko had said before the game he hoped this Pitt team wouldn't embarrass itself in front of the '76 squad.
It was some scene as the stars from that national championship team -- including running back Tony Dorsett, defensive tackle Randy Holloway and coach John Majors -- made a human tunnel for the current players as they took the field.
A few hours later, Palko, Session and the rest could take a lot of satisfaction from this win.
They made the old boys proud.
First Published September 3, 2006 12:00 am