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A bunch of Pitt fans/alumni writing and ranting about the University of Pittsburgh Panthers and anything sports and entertainment related. Other than being alumni, the writers of this blog have no affiliation or official connection with the University of Pittsburgh, the Pitt Panthers, and related entities. The views expressed on this blog are solely our own. You can e-mail us: PittSportsBlather-at-sbcglobal.net.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Bucknell-Pitt: Yawn 

The battling Bucknell Bisons play Pitt on Sunday evening. No one is even bothering to televise what is expected to be a blowout. Pitt game notes (PDF) are mostly unremarkable. Pitt, with the expected win will be 11-0 and for the second straight year be undefeated in their non-con (as well they should given the opponents). The only thing remotely interesting about the game is that Chevy Troutman needs 16 points to reach 1,000 for his career. Not sure he will get it, because I would hope Coach Dixon limits the minutes of the starters. Play some of the kids who haven't gotten much time, and need some game experience.

Bucknell's game notes are here. It would appear that you can listen on the internet to the Bucknell broadcast of the game for free. The game starts at 7pm.

P-G Pitt basketball beat writer Ray Fittipaldo has his Q&A on Pitt for the week. He doesn't seem to care about Pitt's non-con, and generally it's a kind of bland session. Fittipaldo's Q&A have not been terribly enlightening.

A Mess 

Those who live in Pittsburgh probably have a better idea than most with the myriad of problems that surrounded the completion of the Petersen Event Center. Last April, the Post-Gazette did a 2-part in-depth story on the cost overruns and expenses of the Pete. In a follow-up article, they detail the state's strange and unclear procedures for resolving disputes with contractors over monies owed.

Just to keep things messy, the state and Pitt filed a lawsuit yesterday:
The school and the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, which ran the construction project, filed two lawsuits yesterday seeking unspecified damages against the companies and their insurance companies for alleged problems at the $107 million Petersen Events Center, which opened in November 2002.

Neither the state nor the university estimated how much the alleged problems would cost to repair.

In the lawsuit, the university claims an architectural partnership between Pittsburgh-based Apostolou Associates and Atlanta-based Rosser International drew up shoddy plans and caused construction delays that cost the university $5.5 million to settle claims by contractors.

The university also claims the arena's steel and aluminum roof, which was installed by Kansas City-based Havens Steel Co. and G&W Roofing & Construction of Eighty-Four, Pa., is deteriorating and has leaks from poor workmanship.

According to the article, there are more than 200 holes in the roof and the venilation, sprinkler and communication systems are all subpar. It apparently won't interfere with the basketball games.


The Game Itself 

Larry Fitzgerald will be at the game as an honorary Pitt captain.

The QBs for both teams seem almost mirror images at times.

Pitt defense points to the goal line stands against Temple as plays that helped turn their season around. The team as a whole, seems to be relishing the underdog role. (I put the over/under on when Brent Musberger drives that issue into the ground and starts Lee cursing him at about 5 minutes into the second quarter.)

Questions about whether the offense will be rusty continue. Meanwhile the new Utah offensive coordinator, not surprisingly, doesn't think any defense even remotely stopped or will stop the offense. Naturally, this spread-esque offense has me very nervous given Pitt's history against it.

Utah also feels good about its special teams.

A little more than 33 hours...


The Future 

Jumping ahead, a bit. While the so-called "Crimson Nation" rolls southwest, and those already in Arizona have a big rally for the team, the future for Utah is a big question.
Quarterback Alex Smith and the rest of the undefeated Utah Utes are barely a day away from the most important and exciting game in school history, and their fans are surely delirious amid the final buildup to a Fiesta Bowl that represents a dream accomplishment.

So enjoy it.

It might be the last big thrill for a while.

The final gun at Sun Devil Stadium is poised to have the same effect for this red-and-white Cinderella as the clock striking midnight, turning the Utes back into a nice little team that contends for the Mountain West Conference title but not much else - at least not right away.
Utah will graduate 18 seniors, QB Alex Smith and WR Steve Savoy might go pro, and their head coach is on the first plane out to Florida after the game. That's a lot to rebuild. Still, they have done everything and reached a peak. Lots of credit must be given to any team that actually reaches and possibly exceeds its potential. A perfect record, no matter what your schedule is an impressive thing.

For Pitt fans the future looks very bright. This doesn't feel like the peak of this team. Just an early surprise. I don't necessarily agree with Smizik that Pitt is in a win-win situation regarding being in the Fiesta Bowl (never mind how he acts as if he wasn't part of the group looking to get rid of Harris), but better things are expected. A good article on how Pitt seems to be seeking that elusive next level, and how Harris came to be seen as not being the guy to do it.
This season's Panthers started 2-2, then finished 8-3 with a share of the Big East championship and a Fiesta Bowl berth, but the feeling of not-good-enough seemed to hover over the program, putting Harris on a perpetual hot seat that will soon be only a pile of ashes.

It was so obvious at times, said Rob Petitti, three-time All-Big East and second-team All-America offensive tackle, "that I think people wanted us to lose this year. I don't know if he had a choice of leaving, but I don't think he did. I think he got forced out."
...
Administrators never seemed to make a push to keep Harris, whose record at Pitt stands at 52-43 entering Saturday's game at Sun Devil Stadium, and first-team All-Big East defensive tackle Vince Crochunis can only shake his head at all the criticism.

"Many feel Coach Harris overstayed his welcome, but from a player's standpoint, I think he could have stayed here as long as he wanted," he said.

Harris doesn't want to talk about the events that triggered his move, but he said winning the Fiesta Bowl would be a nice way to exit.

His mission statement for Pittsburgh was: "We will not cut corners, not sacrifice the success of the program in order to have a one-time successful football team."

"I tried to put the program first and foremost," Harris said. "All the decisions were made based on the program."

Petitti said the Pitt football team "was in the doldrums, sliding" when Harris took over and began the turnaround. "I think Coach Harris did a great job. We've got a lot of good guys on the team, not just good athletes, but good people. There's not a troublemaker on the team."
Shelly Anderson has the must-read column for the day regarding the administration, fans and commitment to the team.

Pitt is nationally prominent in basketball and is headed for its fifth consecutive bowl appearance, and a Bowl Championship Series game at that. Yet it was the football coaching change that seemed to inject the Panthers' faithful with large doses of adrenaline and New Year's joy.

The administration has finally made a real commitment to the football program, brought in a big name -- and a Pitt guy -- who can lead the Panthers to great things. Or so the sentiment seems to be.

There's no disputing it was a great hire, and there's nothing wrong with that optimism. In fact, it's refreshing after all the vitriol spewed toward Harris and the underappreciation of the job he did in his eight seasons.

Yet the scenario begs a question about commitment.

Just how does the commitment thing work in college athletics? What comes first -- the administration making the right moves, the fans offering staunch and unwavering support, or the coaches and players going above and beyond?

Then there is Wannstedt coming home, and even in the Miami area they think it is a win for all:

Such a strange and wonderful force home can be.

Strong connection to Pitt

Maybe it's too fairy-tale sappy to suggest Wannstedt is exactly where he's supposed to be after mostly disappointing NFL tenures as head coach in Chicago (six years) and Miami.

But he sure did look proud and relaxed and, well, somehow more imposing than he ever did with the Dolphins that day he was introduced as Pitt's new boss.

"I can promise you there hasn't been a Saturday that I've been removed from the University of Pittsburgh," Wannstedt said during the news conference earlier this month announcing his hiring. "There hasn't been a Saturday when I haven't checked the score or watched on TV or called a friend to find out who won the game."

That's good stuff. That's real stuff. That's good and real Wannstedt stuff.

And Wanny has helped solidify a recruit and has indicated a lot of the defensive coaches will be staying.

[Linebacker, Steve] Dell committed to Pitt the day before Harris accepted the Stanford job, then reopened his recruiting. Dell said he talked to Wannstedt several times and was assured that linebackers coach Curtis Bray and defensive line coach Bob Junko would remain on staff.

"He pretty much told me he was keeping the defensive staff, that coach Bray and coach Junko were definitely staying," said Dell, who had 82 tackles and six sacks in seven games in a hurricane-shortened senior season. "He's from Florida and he knows the talent coming out of South Florida. He told me I'm officially his first recruit."

Craig Bokor, a defensive end from Hopewell who spent the fall at Valley Forge Military Academy, and tailback Rashad Jennings of Forest, Va., also will enroll next week.

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Bokor signed with Pitt last February but did not qualify academically under NCAA freshman eligibility guidelines.

"I've talked to (Wannstedt) twice since he got the job," said Bokor, who picked Pitt over offers from Miami, Michigan, Michigan State and Virginia. "I like him."

Meanwhile the Trib. continues to push Duquesne head coach Greg Gattuso for an assistant coaching position at Pitt.

Tons of Stuff 

Multiple posts will be necessary again to cover all the articles of interest. Just a lot of stuff.

The Pitt players have enjoyed themselves in the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. Click on the photo of Del Sardo on media day, talking with the Fiesta Bowl queen and court, then click over to the one of H.B. Blades. I don't know why these photos crack me up so much. DelSardo's facial expression and body language is great.

Josh Cummings gives his first person account of the week. He had been to the Fiesta Bowl with Oregon a few years ago. He also drops that his girlfriend is on the Pitt Dance Team. Maybe that helps to explain why Sunshine would happen to drift down the sideline when the dance team was in front of the student section.

Of course, Utah has their own refuge from that Oregon team. Senior Wide Receiver, Paris Warren, was a redshirt freshman at the time. Warren also thinks Pitt should have a bit of a chip on their shoulder.

Sounds like Vince Crochunis was having some fun with the Utah media in talking about Utah's offense.
Crochunis has offered his insight on any and all subjects this week. Today's topic: the spread offense that has taken hold in college football, and is mastered by Utah.

"That's really made it hard for defenses around the country to adjust," Crochunis said. "I don't think a good defense has been found yet to stop the spread offense, because it's a relatively new thing. In a couple of years, probably nobody will use it. It takes time for defenses to evolve."
Anyone outside of Hawaii still using the chuck and duck run and gun? I don't think the spread is going to quite go that way, but it will eventually be solved as more teams try to run it. Crochunis also received a nice little puff piece in the Arizona Republic.

A column on Utah Running Back Marty Johnson, who has alcohol issues. I think Starkey is being a little unfair to Johnson, but at the same time the guy has only been sober for less than a year. He hasn't completely earned the benefit of the doubt as to how firm his resolve is. Unasked, and very important, is the question of whether he has people around him that won't enable him.

Interesting article regarding the budgets of bowl teams.
Of the 56 teams in postseason games, Utah is 40th in spending, at $5.8 million, according to 2003-04 financial records, the most recent available. When it comes to raising money, the Utes are 46th, with $4.7 million.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is 15th highest in spending, at $11.7 million, and 21st in revenue, with $19.4 million.

The top spending team is Ohio State, at $16.1 million, while Troy State spends the least at $3.1 million. Texas is best when it comes to raising money, with $47.6 million, while Toledo raises the least, at $1.3 million.
A shame there aren't more details. It might be interesting to see where the money is going and compare it to other programs.

Razor 

No, not you John (inside joke).

At the start of the basketball season there were questions about which of the 3 new players on Pitt's team would have the earliest impact, i.e., earn major minutes either off the bench or even as a starter. If you put a gun to my head back then, I would have gone with John DeGroat. I figured as a JUCO and playing Forward he would be the first option to sub for McCarroll and Troutman or even supplant McCarroll.

To quote a far better writer than myself, "The lesson, as always, I'm an idiot."

Both papers do pieces on Ronald "Razor" Ramon. This one focuses on his play, especially how he helped keep Pitt in the first half of the South Carolina game. Ramon hitting outside shots in the first half was very important not just in keeping Pitt close, but because it eventually started stretching the Gamecock's zone to allow passes inside to Troutman and Taft. The thing that was often missing from Pitt's game last year.

The other is more of the puff-type dealing more with his relationship with his father Ricardo Ramon. His father was a star player in the Dominican Republic and played ball in parts of South America, before they came to the US. The story, though, also contains a key comment from Ramon, showing why he is playing so much:
"I just come in and try to play hard," Ramon said. "My role is to play defense, try and stop somebody. The offense just comes. At that time it was tough. It was a tight game. I just wanted to play great defense. Defense wins games. If we get stops, the offense will come."
He appears not only to have been the first to grasp that, but the first to play it. I think the others will get their chance, as they more fully understand how much they have to give on defense first.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tomorrow's Quotes Today 

Pitt released some more quotes that you can expect to show up in Friday's articles. Comments from Greg Lee, H.B. Blades, Kellen Campbell and Josh Cummings. Nothing that spectacular.

One more prognostication via an ESPN.com chat with Todd McShay -- another member of ScoutsInc.:
Todd McShay: Alright, before I take off here's my breakdown of the USC/OSU national championship Orange Bowl. WIth both defenses ranking in the top-5 in the nation versus the run I think it comes down to QB play. I know White has more weapons at WR, but Leinart has more versatility with Bush, Smith, Jarrett, Holmes and Byrd to throw to. I also think that Chow and Carroll will out-coach Stoops & Co. just like Saban did in the Sugar Bowl last year.

Other BCS bowl game predictions:

Michigan in an upset over Texas

Pitt keeps it a lot closer than the "experts" think but lose to Utah in the Fiesta

Auburn in a "woodshed beating" over Va. Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
For what it's worth.

The Shine Off Slick Rick 

So Neuheisel can't even get a sniff for a job. Can't say I'm surprised. The other "tarnished" coaches cited in the story -- George O'Leary and Mike Price -- committed sins of personal failings. Neuheisel's sins impact a program. Here's what I have said of Neuheisel:
Of course, when talking of compliance and NCAA violations, there is no one that knows it better than the man that leaves a trail of slime wherever he goes, a man who causes other attorneys (like myself) to say about him, "sure he went to law school, but he's not really a lawyer. He's not one of us." I'm speaking of course of Rick Neuheisel.
...
It's consistent with Neuheisel's violations of recruiting and ethics at Colorado and Washington. Skate up to the razor's edge of the line, and maybe fall over it just a little, but not so much that it can't be argued that there was a gray area -- thus precluding major penalties, only continual paper cut, minor ones.

I've always thought that was in part because of Neuheisel taking the wrong lessons from law school (the majority of it is because Neuheisel is a slimy, corrupt, and doesn't think the rules apply to him kind of guy) -- the line can be blurry and as long as you don't go over a clear line, you can wriggle free.
Any school that would take a chance on him, even as a coordinator, would be inviting the NCAA to put the entire program under an ongoing microscope. Not many ADs prepared to take that chance.

Worst. Interviewer. Ever? 

I'm starting to wonder if that is Bo Pelini's problem. He can recruit. He has the backing of Bob Stoops. It seems he has the backing of another big college coach.
The rumor mill worked overtime around USC's hotel Wednesday. The subject: that offensive coordinator Norm Chow would become Syracuse's next head coach. But a far more likely choice is Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, according to sources.

Pelini is a close friend and protege of USC coach Pete Carroll, who in the past year has pushed Pelini for several jobs, including Nebraska and Pittsburgh. Carroll also has recommended Pelini for the Syracuse job, sources said.

Everyone thinks he will make a great head coach. Yet, he apparently tanked his Pitt interview so that he wasn't a finalist even though the AD had him tabbed early in the season. Maybe a similar thing at Nebraska last year.

Won't that be something if he gets the Syracuse job?

By the time I get to Arizona... 

As I write this, I'm psyching myself up for the trip to the Fiesta Bowl by listening to some classic Public Enemy.

[It reminds me of the late '80's in the towers, when the guy in the pie-shaped room next door to me was a devotee of all things anti-whitey, includinig my favorite rap group, PE. He used to play recordings of Farakhan's speeches, and almost never spoke to anyone on the floor - including the black guys. I suspect he was too black, AND too strong.]

I fly out to Phoenix (via Detroit and Milwaukee) on New Year's Eve.

To prepare myself for next couple of nights in Tempe-Scottsdale-Phoenix, I've done some internet research about the area. I'm meeting up with an assistantMaricopa County Attorney (prosecutor - like the District Attorney in PA), which is good since I don't want to end up in the tent-city jail system imposed by America's toughest Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, if things get out of hand. It's always good to party with law enforcement in a strange city. 911? A joke?

As an aside, I'm pleased to see such a growing county has several county-wide elected officials, or "row officers" as we call them in PA. In Maricopa, they elect the County Attorney, Sheriff, Assessor, Clerk of Courts, Recorder, Treasurer, as well as a county Superintendent of Schools, 23 Constables, and 5 members of the Board of Supervisors (elected by-district). And yet, with all these elected officials, their population grew by 50% between 1990 and 200. Mabye those who advocated row-office consolidation in Allegheny County should check that out!

It seems there is an active night-life in the area, as well as activities associated with the game itself. I will do my best to document our activites and report back, and I will Bring the Noise in Sun Devil Stadium. For those who will watch on TV, remember to Give It Up for the Panthers.

No, I Don't Believe the Hype about Utah; I believe Pitt will Fight the Power, Shut Em Down; and refuse to lose!

Yes, I am BOLDLY predicting a Pitt victory on Saturday.

Signing off now. Going, going, GONE...

Misc. 

A few articles I found late or forgot to include where appropriate.

First person with H.B. Blades talking about being in Tempe. Click the article just for the photo. The cheap, and possibly crude comments that come to mind...

A bit more on Utah QB Alex Smith on his development and what how his departing coach is starting to hint that Smith shouldn't go pro.

A piece from the Arizona Republic questioning the Big East in the BCS.

And As To The Game Itself 

Both teams are expected to be rusty, but Utah has to be especially concerned. They haven't played since November 20. That's a 6 week layoff. Pitt had a month, break since walloping USF -- yet another break from the postponement of the season opener. The players say they aren't worried, but considering the precision with which their offense operates, it is hard to believe the coaches aren't concerned. The players at least admit that they are tired of just practicing. They want to play.

Brent Musberger thinks Pitt will be tough, of course he is also trying to help get interest/ratings for ABC, so take that for what it is worth. Should be a lot of fun to watch the game with Lee with his favorite announcer calling the game.

After all the exuberance and borderline overconfidence from the paper, you are seeing the Salt Lake Tribune writers starting to hedge a bit on how the game will go. Some other writers are still a bit cocky about what they expect.

A "5 Keys to Victory" pair for Pitt and Utah. The first and last on the list for Pitt shows how little each side's writers know about the other. Point 1, ignores the reality that Pitt will give up a ton of yards no matter what. It is just a given. The final point regarding turnovers seems clueless that outside of the early games, Pitt just doesn't turn the ball over too much.

Attendance and Attention 

That huge turnout from Utah fans may not be as big as expected.
Though tickets to the New Year's Day event are hot items, three days before kickoff they're easier to obtain than get rid of in some cases — despite University of Utah faithful coming out in full force, gobbling up 27,000 of the 73,000 Sun Devil Stadium seats and making some ticket sales staff put in 142 hours in eight days to keep up.

Factors that caused the rush to return: Some fans simply got too many — or "freaked out" and bought a bundle without thinking who'd actually go, said Erica Monson of the U. of U. ticket office. A few hoped to cash in, then realized that idea was a "fantasy" because supply exceeded demand, admitted one fan who did that.

Others didn't arrange their travel plans very wisely. Some realized the whole ordeal was out of their budget. And several have resorted to saying they have a note from their doctor in an effort to ditch their ducats, including a man who claimed he couldn't go because his wife was suffering pregnancy complications.

"We've gotten a lot of medical excuses," Monson said.

The most unfortunate one?

"A brain tumor," she said. "I got that (excuse) yesterday."

The woman, for the record, did receive a refund -- "I wasn't going to call them on that (and say), 'You're lying,' " Monson said -- but that was the rare exception. The U. stopped doing returns/exchanges last week. It'll stop selling today at noon.
...
Ticket brokers from Macon, Ga., to North Chelmsford, Mass., might end up with the same memento (minus the trip memories). A Google search for Utah Fiesta Bowl tickets revealed 175,000 online sites and as of Wednesday, 37 sets of tickets were up for grabs on eBay but only three had actually received bids. The cheapest was one buck (the catch: $20 shipping and handling) -- a steal compared to the $2,000 asking price in one newspaper ad. Prospective buyers needn't hurry for another auction, which doesn't end until 5:18 p.m. Wednesday -- four days after kickoff.
Hey, you can always bid afterwards for the souvenir aspect.

Then there is the fact that road conditions might be a problem for a lot of fans heading to Arizona.
Storms in southern Utah and northern Arizona are expected to subside a bit Thursday before picking up again Friday when there is a 60 percent chance of rain and snow on southbound travel routes. Today would be the best day to travel, said Gene Vancor of the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City.
Have fun in Tempe, Pat.

Utah is definitely making money from the Fiesta Bowl.

One of the media's major storylines for this game, is definitely on the coaches, no matter how they try to say it's about the players. They knew of each other before, but wouldn't talk about offense until this game:

Meyer and Harris clearly agree on that point, but the two haven't always worked in harmony. It was only a few years ago that Harris refused to assist Meyer after the latter was named quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame.
...
"I had great respect for Walt, and I had heard him speak at a couple of clinics over the years," Meyer said. "His reputation around the coaching fraternity is that he's the guy as far as technically coaching quarterbacks. I did what people typically do, and I went to the best. I called him and I said, 'Do you mind if I spend a couple days with you.' "

Meyer didn't get the answer he'd wanted.

"He said we play each other, so it's probably in my best interests if we don't do that," Meyer said of Harris, who's been instrumental in developing quarterbacks such as Tony Eason, Bobby Hoying, Rod Rutherford, Joe Germaine, Boomer Esiason and current Panthers starter Tyler Palko. "So, he declined it."

Harris was asked to explain himself yesterday.

"It wasn't quite like I said, 'Go get lost,' " Harris said. "I just said that it would be very hard when we're playing you -- and he had better players than we did. I felt that was enough of an advantage for him. But I respect what he's accomplished and he's done it a lot faster than me as a head coach."

Although Meyer has yet to pick Harris' brain -- five years after the fact -- he still hopes to get a 10-minute sit down with the Stanford-bound coach to learn more about grooming quarterbacks. This time, Harris will oblige.

"I'll give him 10," Harris said. "I've always learned to give 10 and get 90. That's the old Coach (Johnny) Majors-ism. When you talk to other coaches, give 10 percent and get 90 percent. I'd love to talk to him about what they're doing."

There are some really tasteless comments I could make here regarding Major-isms that I'm going to skip. A pretty good piece on Harris developing QBs. It practically came out of nowhere since he was a coach for defenses until hired to the Illinois staff in 1980 as the QB coach.

Then there is the fact that Utah's Defensive Coordinator, Kyle Whittingham, is taking over the program from Meyer after he leaves for Florida. He turned down the job at his alma mater (BYU) to stay. Interesting to learn that he was actually the only holdover from the previous coaching regime, and was up for the head job before Meyer was hired (is Paul Rhoads paying attention?).

A surprisingly preachy column from Joe Starkey about student athletes and education. Part defending both programs which have been attacked for being deficient in graduating football players according the latest NCAA figures from 97-98. The problems with those numbers are well documented, so look at some more recent unofficial numbers
Under departing coach Urban Meyer, the Utes said they graduated 11 of 18 seniors last season (though their media guide says 14 of 15), and have 14 of their 18 seniors this season on track to graduate by the spring.

Pittsburgh? Same thing. Eighteen of 19 seniors graduated last season under coach Walt Harris - the lone holdout is playing in the NFL - and each of the current crop is on pace to earn a degree.

"I value our education so much, and graduating our football players," Harris said. "I don't think you have a football program if you're not graduating players."
Today's repeated profile story focuses on Senior Utah guard Chris Kemoeatu, who has some anger issues.
With one swift and vicious kick, Utah guard Chris Kemoeatu damaged his college football career and nearly ruined someone else's.

The incident occurred Oct. 18, 2003, at UNLV's Sam Boyd Stadium, after UNLV nose guard Howie Fuimaono lost his helmet at the end of a play.

Before Fuimaono could get up, Kemoeatu kicked him flush in the face.

Fuimaono escaped with blurred vision and a brief visit to the hospital, only because Kemoeatu's cleats landed just inside his left eye socket instead of on the eye itself or the bones surrounding it.

Kemoeatu was suspended for all of one game for that. He was also ordered to attend anger management classes that he said did nothing for him. To be fair, he hasn't had an incident since. And lets face it, Kemoeatu is an All-American player and potential first round pick in the NFL draft. You hate to have him not playing for your team. Of course this comment in response to going to the NFL just has to make the Andy Katzenmoyer Academic Achievement list:

"I hope so," Kemoeatu said. "Football is all I know."
So much for progress in the academics at Utah.

Almost Too Many Stories 

Tons of stories today. Kind of expected as yesterday was media day. That allowed the sportswriters to collect quotes to sprinkle into articles they had been writing or already written. The result is that I'll have to do about 3 posts to cover everything.

Let's start with a Smizik column declaring when the turning point for the Pitt season came:
Many people, including some of the Pitt players, will tell you it was the Temple comeback, after which the Panthers won five of their final six. Other players say it was no one thing but rather the maturation of an inexperienced team.

Here's my vote:

The Hit!

There have been more ferocious hits during Pitt's season but few with the implications of this one.

The Hit took place a week after the win against Temple. It came when the Panthers were in the midst of a lethargic performance against Boston College, a game in which there was scant indication the team, particularly its offense, had turned anything around.

On a first-and-10, late in the third quarter with Pitt ahead by four, quarterback Tyler Palko -- who threw for 16 yards in the first half -- scrambled out of the pocket and down the sideline. He was in the sights of Boston College cornerback Pete Shean. Most quarterbacks would have stepped out of bounds. Not Palko. He steamrollered Shean, who ended up on his back minus his helmet.

And so a season was made. And so a quarterback was made. Neither Pitt nor Palko were the same again.

Well, this was a big play. No doubt. All the fans and I'm sure the players loved it. It will be on his Pitt highlight reel, forever. It's part of why Palko is a team leader. By example. It did not change the season, though. Or even the game. In fact, though, that drive resulted in 1st and goal, Pitt had to settle for a fieldgoal. Reveiw what happened: Pitt's defense then gave up a long drive that led to a goalline stand for nothing, but Pitt then went 3 and out. Despite a massive punt (79 yards), BC then marched right down the field to tie the game and send it to OT. Pitt won, but it was not a game or season changing moment.

The players were right, this was a team that slowly improved all season. There were missteps and setbacks, but it was a progression. There was no "leap" or point where things really changed.

The smarter view actually came from a Utah columnist in his puff piece on Palko:

His Pittsburgh teammates love to talk about the play when he ran over a Boston College defensive back, knocking off the opponent's helmet. And even Palko's use of a particularly bad word in a live television interview after the Panthers' victory at Notre Dame - for which Palko quickly apologized - impressed Utah quarterback Alex Smith.
...
Scrambling along the sideline during the third quarter of an eventual overtime victory, Palko plowed into cornerback Pete Shean.

"He just crushed him," Pittsburgh offensive tackle Rob Petitti said this week. "The best thing was it was right on our sideline, so there were about 30 players surrounding this one kid. . . . [Palko] got everybody going. It was unbelievable."

Tom Freeman, the Panthers' offensive line coach, knows his players love blocking for Palko, because his passion for football makes him like a smaller version of a lineman at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds.

The collision with Shean "may live to be a signature play," Freeman said. "That pretty well summarizes what Tyler means to the offense. He's driving the bus, make no mistake about that. He's an emotional kind of guy, and that's the way he plays the game."
It may have symbolized Palko and his drive, and maybe even something about this team. It was not about the entire Pitt season. It demeans the improvements and efforts of the entire team.

Coach Walt Harris actually put the turning point to the season at a week earlier. Their comeback against Temple in the 4th quarter.

"Despite all the adversity, we were able to concentrate and get better. Our kids were able to pull us through. We were 2-2 going into Temple. A lot of people might not respect Temple, but that's our sister school. Winning that game in the fourth quarter gave our kids the confidence to start climbing the mountain."
Check out the press release for other player quotes. Vince Crochunis seems to be having fun:

On preparing against Utah:

"There are so many responsibilities with this team. You can't blitz and attack with a spread offense. If you miss, they gain 5 or 6 yards. You can’t miss."

On the bowl experience:

"It's pretty amazing. I never thought I'd be in a national spotlight. I like being a media darling."

Joe DelSardo got some love from some of the other papers.

Coach Harris talks about Greg Lee, and raves about how well he developed this year. Greg Lee thinks he is going to have a big game. Utah CB Ryan Smith, disagrees.

The Big Men 

That's what the second half came down to. Pitt getting the ball inside and low to Troutman and Taft. The first half, part of the reason for the turnovers was that Pitt had trouble with South Carolina's zone defense, and could not pass the ball inside.

In the second half, Pitt scored 28 of its 47 points from inside and held South Carolina to 14 from the paint.

"All this other stuff is window dressing," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said, holding up a stat sheet. "That's the game."

And when a team is effective at denying Pitt the ball inside, then they can win. USC was only able to do that for one half.

Chevon Troutman and Pitt's inside game was the theme for all stories. It wasn't just the points. USC was not able to get rebounds against Troutman and Taft. South Carolina's frontcourt duo of Powell and Wallace combined for only 8 rebounds. Troutman had 12 on his own.

It was a frustrating outcome for USC who had lost on the road to Kansas by 4 a couple weeks ago.

"They are the No. 10 team in the nation," Gonner said. "They are going to find a way to win. We've got to find a way to win at some point."

USC did plenty of things to keep the game close. The Gamecocks shot 50 percent despite making just 2 of 11 3-pointers, and they used their trapping, full-court defense to force the Panthers into 17 turnovers.

Pittsburgh point guard Carl Krauser, after scoring 31 points in a 69-60 win over Richmond last week, made just 2 of 11 field goals to score 14 points.

Still, USC heads into Friday's game with Wofford, its final nonconference game of the season, lacking a killer instinct against top competition.

"As a coach, the thing I've got to be very, very careful about is not allowing them to stick their chests out and say we came close again," Odom said. "What we've got to do is push them where they are not quite ready to go themselves. We've got to push them to win on the court of a top-ranked program like Pitt. We've got to push them to that. They don't understand that they are capable of that."
Pitt made adjustments to what they were facing from the first half. There was not stubbornness of just trying to do things their way. Pitt always wants to get the ball inside -- whether for the shot in the paint or just to kick it out. Passing along the perimeter is not what Pitt wants to do. Pitt did that by adjusting to the defense and finding the weak spots.

Ramon and Demetrius hitting open 3s was huge in creating the openings. As long as Pitt can make 35-40% of its 3 point shots, the inside game will be available. This doesn't mean taking 20 3s in a game. It means taking the clean shot when given. Teams are going to sag inside on Pitt a lot this year. It is still the most effective defense against Pitt, until the team shows real consistency on the outside and mid-range shots.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Second Effort in Second Half 

Now the second half was entertaining. Not just because Pitt won. It sure helped, but the USC announcing crew seemed to pick up their own effort in the second half to make the difference.

In the first few minutes of the second half, they commented that to this point, this may have been the Gamecocks' best defensive effort. They didn't, however, sound sure that it would continue. Kept commenting about how they've played some good teams tight, but haven't won yet. Then as Pitt was on a 10-0 run about halfway through the second half, they were just going off on the team. Talking and ranting about their mistakes. How they were giving away the game and the opportunities. It was a riot. Sure they were homers, but you expected that. They were just funny about it.

As for the second half of the game itself. Pitt turned up the intensity and really started getting the ball inside. Troutman, who only took one shot in the first half, went 8-10 from the field in the second and stayed on the boards. He finished with 20 points and 12 boards. His only negative was going only 2-5 from the Free Throw line, including 2 misses at the end of the game when Pitt needs to have them.

Krauser finished the game strong after a hideous first half. He definitely didn't have his shot tonight. After going 1-6 in the first half, he only attempted 4 shots (making only 1) but was the guy making the clutch free throws at the end when USC was successfully fouling to try and snatch the win back. Krauser made all 6 FTs in the last minute to help Pitt hold onto the game. He ended up with 14 points and 10 coming from the charity stripe. He can annoy and frustrate at times in the game, but he is still the guy on the team I like seeing with the ball in the last couple minutes.

Taft had a so-so night. I expected a better game from him, and I'm starting to wonder if maybe his elbow that he hurt in preseason might still be bothering him. He was dreadful at the FT line at 2-7. He finished with 5-10 shooting and 12 points but only had 6 rebounds and 1 block. Plus he had at least 2 shots blocked by USC during the game. Just should not happen.

Ramon played a solid game. He was 50% shooting 3s, making open looks that were given. He will keep earning minutes with 11 points in only 21 minutes.

Yuri Demetrius gave his usual defensive effort, but also provided some actual offense tonight. He hit 2-3 3-pointers. Clearly Coach Dixon likes the defense Demetrius gives the team.

Antonio Graves, coming off the ankle sprain was not much of a scoring factor with only 3 points. He did however have 5 assists and a steal while playing a good defense.

Mark McCarroll is losing minutes rapidly. He has become this year's Toree Morris. The big senior who just is getting lapped. McCarroll still looks lost playing defense, and is now afraid to shoot. If he can't even provide the offense, he will not be getting off the bench much. It's part of the reason, Pitt has gone to starting 3 guards, rather than using 2 guards and 2 forwards.

Aaron Gray has become the most reliable bench player to spell Troutman or Taft. He is showing a much better touch on his shots and is handling passes much better. He still needs to improve the defense, but he is staying at home more. I expect his minutes will keep increasing.

Looking at the boxscore, what is missing? Keith Benjamin and John DeGroat. Neither even got in the game. This was Pitt's toughest game, and the first one they really had to fight and the outcome was in doubt until the end. Suddenly the Pitt bench got a lot shorter. The players out there this night will be the ones we will be seeing when Pitt starts playing the upper-half of Big East teams. The only guy I think could get on the court still, is DeGroat. McCarroll, if he continues to struggle will get less time. Perhaps Levon Kendall as well.

Bad First Half 

First time Pitt has trailed at the half this year. Also the first time Pitt has ever trailed at the half at the Pete. Down 28-25.

Listening to the first half of the South Carolina-Pitt game has been annoying. Hard to tell with the USC announcers how much Pitt is just flat or if they were unprepared for South Carolina's defense. I'm thinking more of the latter. In game, halftime stats can be unreliable, but Pitt has committed 9 turnovers (4 from steals) and had 3 shots blocked. South Carolina has only 6 turnovers (0 from steals).

Neither team has shot exceptionally well. Pitt near 40% and USC at almost 45%. Pitt struggled with FT shooting. 3-7 (actually it was mainly Taft 1-4), but did hit 4-10 3-pointers. USC missed all 5 3-pt shots.

Krauser not having a good night. 4 points, 1-6 shooting, 0-2 on 3-point attempts. More later

Is There Anyone Who Believes? 

I've yet to see anyone actually predict a Pitt upset. Maybe that's for the best. Just give the players more reason to get fired up for the game. Let that "us-versus-the world" cliche get full use.

This breakdown via ESPN.com from ScoutsInc. (subscription only), gives every facet they analyze to Utah. Essentially, they predict a blowout in the second-half:
Expect Utah to prove it belongs in this game, while also helping to prove the theory that the BCS' automatic bowl bid system is flawed. A Panthers' pass defense that has been among the worst in the nation will have problems slowing down Smith. Once the passing game is established, Johnson and Smith will have more room to run. Pittsburgh's conservative offense will keep the score close in the first half, but the Panthers will eventually abandon the running game in an effort to come back and Palko isn't capable of keeping pace with Smith.

Prediction: Utah 38, Pittsburgh 17

In the breakdown, what they say is that Pitt has not shown itself to be a fundamentally and technically sound team. That is what will catch up to them in the second half as Utah exploits their mistakes.

On the lighter side, there is the chat session with Beano Cook:
Johnny (Ann Arbor, MI): Is Wanny going to be able to bring Pitt back to prominance? Do you think he'll unload those horrendous uni's?

Beano Cook: I hope he gets rid of the uniforms .. if he can recruit, they will be real good again. If he can't, they will struggle. However, the feeling here is that he will do a good job in recruiting.
...
Sean_Peadar (Hoboken, NJ): Beano, what will it take to get Pitt & PSU to renew that rivalry?

Beano Cook: Remember this Sean, Auburn and Alabama didn't play for about 35 years .. life goes on. If Penn St. doesn't want to play, so be it. It's up to them. It's childish of Penn St. not to play but it is their choice.
He also suggests that Syracuse hire Tom Bradley from Penn St., but also writes off the 'Cuse as ever being major players in college football again. I will however back Beano completely on junking the present Pitt unis.

Even Quicker Than Expected 

You knew it was coming, but I thought they might wait until after January 1.
Syracuse fired football coach Paul Pasqualoni on Wednesday, eight days after a 37-point loss in a bowl game -- and less than a month after giving him a vote of confidence.

Chancellor Nancy Cantor announced Dec. 6 that Pasqualoni would return for his 15th season with Syracuse, but 11 days later Daryl Gross was hired as athletic director and the Orange's humbling 51-14 loss to Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl apparently sealed Pasqualoni's fate.

The decision to fire Pasqualoni was made by Gross.

I love how they note that Pasqualoni did not attend the press conference. That might have been a bit awkward.

I'm guessing Randy Edsall, the UConn head coach and Syracuse alumn, will be one of the names commonly brought up for this search.

Plenty of Stories 

Lots and lots of stories. Very little time this morning.

Today is media day for both teams. Expect lots of quote-filled articles tomorrow.

The issue of coaches leaving for other jobs and should they still be coaching in the bowl games. I know I'm biased, but I think there is something of a difference where an assistant will be taking over as head coach (Utah), and where the new head coach wasn't even decided until this past week (Pitt). The former suggests the departing coach should not, while the latter gives a little more of a rationalization/justification.

Utah seems to be enjoying the role of being the favorite. The defense is talking shutout. Maybe that's because their star players on defense were originally members of the offense. Heck, even the Utah beat writer seems to be caught up in the idea of blowing out Pitt.
Quarterback Alex Smith has seen the odd alignments, the disguised coverages, and the blitzes from all angles.

And for the last time, probably.

Not only is the Utah junior expected to leave school and turn pro after leading the unbeaten No. 5 Utes against No. 19 Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, but he does not anticipate seeing from the Panthers any of the complex defensive schemes to which he had grown accustomed in the Mountain West Conference.

Pair that with the fact that Smith has directed the third-most potent offense in the nation - 46.3 points and 520.7 yards per game - and the question becomes pretty obvious:

Can the Utes possibly be stopped?
...
The Utes have won 15 straight games, and withstood all kinds of defensive attacks - from the relatively basic schemes of Texas A&M and North Carolina to the wild blitz packages of New Mexico and BYU. Few of their own players have an idea of how an opposing defensive coordinator might best plan to stop them.
Yes, the Mountain West Conference. Where only 2 other schools finished above .500. Home to the most complex defenses in the country? Funny, looks like most of them are pretty much middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the D-IA schools.

Pitt on the otherhand, seems to be doing fine with the role of underdog. The label isn't a problem.

Everyone wants to write about the Ute defensive lineman Sione Pouha who has love for Pittsburgh because his Mormon mission was in the Oakland section from 1998-2000. Heck, he was even at the final game at Pitt Stadium. Expect to hear that story Saturday night after his first tackle.

Greg Lee gets a nice piece in the Arizona paper talking about how he stepped up after Larry Fitzgerald left. Puff piece on Palko.

Notebook quick hits: Palko was recruited by Urban Meyer to play Safety at Notre Dame; Pitt's offensive line coach and "run-game coordinator" will likely go to Stanford with Harris -- considering how both have been, well the only response I can think of, is "good".

That "spider" Rob Petitti encountered. It really was a scorpion.

Joe Starkey sees the potential for a fantastic game.

Where the money goes. The Mountain West is partying this year. Pitt, meanwhile is not reaping as much as expected. Interesting reads if the economics of programs and conferences are of interest to you. Then there is the money the players get -- travel expenses and per diem.

Now for the Wannstedt features.

Smizik column on how hard Dave Wannstedt is working on assembling a staff, talking with other coaches, seeking advice, and -- because the NCAA gave Pitt and Wannstedt a special waiver -- talking to recruits.

H.B. Blades' dad, Bennie Blades, was a star safety with the Miami Hurricanes and coached by the Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Bennie is quite happy to have Wannstedt now in charge. He also would like to see Pitt and his son win the Fiesta Bowl since they blew their shot against Penn State back in '87.

South Carolina - Pitt 

South Carolina is a good team. They are just outside the top-25, and the latest RPI has them at #38 (Pitt is at #51 thanks to the 260th rated schedule). They have lost twice this year. In OT to in-state rival, Clemson; and by only 4 points to #2 Kansas on the road. There is no reason to think this will be an easy game. South Carolina has veteran players.

"Pitt is going to lose to somebody sometime," [South Carolina Head Coach, Dave] Odom said. "I'm not going to say it's going to be to South Carolina, but I'm hoping it is."

South Carolina returns three of its top five scorers from last year's 23-11 team, including forward Carlos Powell, who tops the Gamecocks in scoring, rebounding and has recorded three double-doubles this year. Guard Tre' Kelley and forward Tarence Kinsey also are averaging double figures in scoring.

With so much talent returning, Odom decided to beef up his non-conference schedule. He added home-and-away series with Kansas and Pitt, opting to play road games this season in exchange for home dates in 2005. He also scheduled Temple and Clemson at Colonial Center.

"I thought this year's team required a different challenge," Odom said.

Pity Pitt hasn't considered that option.

South Carolina Coach Odom sees some familiarity in Chris Taft with Tim Duncan, who he coached at Wake Forest.

Despite all of that, the lines put Pitt as a 10 point favorite. You can catch the game free on streaming audio through South Carolina.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Some Analysis and Player Comments 

This may come as a shock, but I really don't have much of a sense as to how this game will go at this point. I just have not seen much, nor read enough about Utah's actual game (as opposed to just glowing praise of the team and the coach) to form an opinion. And I have to say, most of the stories talking about the game have been less than informative. They usually just talk about the coaches going to new jobs and the game will be on the QBs. Then without much explanation they just go with something like "Utah has too much firepower for Pitt" as if nothing further is needed.

There is a more trusted source this time. I find the writers at College Football News have actually watched the teams and know a little more about what they are writing. So, they have a preview and keys to the Fiesta Bowl worth reading in full. From the Preview portion:
Pittsburgh will win if... it avoids the early Utah run. Once the Ute offense gets on a roll, it's impossible to slow down while the defense always seems to feed off the momentum of the moment. Pittsburgh has to strike early and strike heavy slapping the Ute defense in the mouth with a couple of big plays. The Utes are second in the nation in turnover margin taking away 29 and only giving up 13, but Pittsburgh is ninth with a solid ball-hawking defense. If the Panthers can force a few mistakes and capitalize, it'll have a shot.
That's the encouragement. Now from the keys, and what makes me worry:
One of the underrated aspects of Walt Harris’s career at Pittsburgh was his ability to get some ball players out of the state of Florida. That is no more evident than when looking at the Pittsburgh linebackers, HB Blades and Clint Session. The two south Floridians have combined for 188 tackles on the year and have improved significantly from last year, the freshman year for both of them. However, they’ll be under the microscope in a major way in Tempe against the vaunted Utah offense. Against West Virginia, there were a number of occasions where the two linebackers were caught out of position when WVU QB Rasheed Marshall ran the QB zone read trap. Marshall picked up chunks of yardage early as Blades, in particular, was chasing the running back after a solid fake. Um, bad news for the Panthers because that’s a staple in this Utah offense. So, against this offense one of the best ways to not get caught out of position is to cross key the potential ball carriers, especially when Smith is in the backfield with only one other back. Blades and Session run exceptionally well, but that speed can get them out of position, so reading their keys is huge in this game for this duo. They’re going to need some help from their defensive front, in that they’ve got to be able to run to the ball without having a lineman come free to hit them in the face. It’s going to be hard to enough to find the ball, much less to have to get free of a guy like Ute OL Chris Kemoeatu. Don’t be surprised to see the Pittsburgh defensive staff use either one of them in blitz packages if they’re not able to slow this offense conventionally. It’s a huge role of the dice to take your linebackers and put them on blitz missions against this offense, but with a pair of Floridians like this, you can take your chances.
That's what I mean by guys who actually watched the teams play. Pitt, even in the last game against USF, was painfully burned at times when the D bit on the obvious fake to the RB. Read both pieces. It will at least give you an idea of what Pitt will be facing.

The Pitt web site has put out some of the quotes from player interviews. The defensive players were actually interviewed yesterday, and you can see their comments sprinkled in the articles (but Pitt only put the direct quotes up today). Later they added the quotes from members of the offense. From Rob Petiti:
On keys to winning:

"We have to score more. We have to control the ball. We can't make mistakes, especially turnovers. If we're going to win this game, I don't want to say we have to play perfect, because you never do, but mistake-free. We don't want to turn over the ball. We want to make their offense work for everything."

On the Fiesta Bowl experience:

We've been here only two days. The hotel is awesome. It's something I could probably get used to, except for the spider in the bathroom.
Must have been a hell of a spider.

Tyler Palko:
On Utah's defense:

"They can do a lot of things and play fast. They do a lot and they're good at all the things they do. They show a lot of things and they disguise well. It's going to be a challenge for me because you have to prepare so much mentally for this game. I'm looking forward to the challenge, it will be my hardest game, mentally, that I have to face and I'm looking forward to that. It's going to force me to prepare like I would against a pro football team. They can do so much and I'm welcoming that challenge. I'm really looking forward to that."

On Pitt's Approach:

"We're not going to go into this game any differently. The big thing we have to realize is, it's just a football game. Just like when we went into Notre Dame, we can't be in awe. You've got to control the ball and take care of the clock. We're up to the challenge. You can't dictate how the game is going to go when so many things can happen. Everyone is talking about how good both offenses are, I thing the defense is going to come out with a little chip on their shoulder; with something to prove."
Harris may not necessarily inspire the troops, but you have to believe they will follow Palko through a wall.

There Are No Guarantees 

This is just some unfinished thought I had bouncing in my skull.

Louisville, which recently raised the salary of their head football coach Bobby Petrino, is going to have to sweat it out whether he will be spirited away to LSU. Doesn't matter that his salary will be nearly $1 million per year. LSU can and will offer more if they decide he is their guy.

Why bring this up? Well, one of the big arguments everyone advanced for bringing in Wannstedt or someone like him (Cavanaugh, Sunseri) was that he was a Pitt guy. A guy from the area. Played at Pitt, coached at Pitt. And all of that is great.

But what if he does everything we hope he does in a few years? Gets Pitt back to national contention. Shows no signs of being a one season wonder. Recruiting is yearly top-15. What happens if Miami under Larry Coker continues to fall short of national title contention? Wanny was a top assistant and recruiter there. He won a national championship with Jimmy Johnson. Now at Pitt, he showed he can win at the college level. Think they wouldn't make a run at him. Why wouldn't he at least listen? He must have some feelings left over for the area and the school. And you know Miami would be perfectly willing to throw the money for a coach.

Arguably, even at his introductory press conference he left wiggle room to leave someday, by saying "I would plan on this being my last coaching stop." It is the plan now, but things change later.

I'm not trying to be negative. I'm very happy with the hire. But lets stay realistic. His ties and roots may help, but they do not assure he will never leave. Just as they don't assure success.

It's Still a Bad Non-Con 

I know, I've been complaining about this years schedule since the summer. I complained about last year's non-con as well. It's mainly two things: 1. It's embarrassing for a team and a program that has been in the Big East Tournament Championship game for 4 straight years, to play such a weak schedule; 2. It means people like me who live outside of the Pittsburgh region don't get to see Pitt very much until sometime in January. Everyone talks recruiting as the big thing in college. How do you help recruiting? By winning and being seen on national TV. Pitt is doing one but not the other.

I've mentioned that Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated has blasted the non-con regularly. He leads with his mailbag on the issue again.

We'll begin with Patrick from Pittsburgh, who is one of many Panthers fans who took umbrage with my criticism of their team's weak non-conference schedule:

I just don't get where all the anti-Pitt venom comes from. Certainly Pitt doesn't play a tough non-conference schedule. But looking at today's Sagarin ratings, Pitt plays three top-50 non-conference opponents in December. UConn, the defending national champion, plays a grand total of zero before February. I know that people do mention that UConn and teams like them are playing weak schedules, but there seems to be a special hatred for Pitt.

First of all, Patrick, hate is a strong word. Not only do I not hate Pitt, I think it's very possible the Panthers will end up as the best team (and Carl Krauser the best player) in the Big East. But Pitt fans are constantly carping about a lack of respect from the national media, yet the team plays a non-conference slate that wouldn't even test a Division III team. And to make matters worse, Pitt left the state of Pennsylvania just once (for the Jimmy V Classic at MSG) before the start of Big East play. Its only true non-conference road game was at Penn State on Dec. 11. Patrick cites the Sagarin ratings, but I can also direct you to the latest RPI numbers from Jerry Palm, which indicate that Pitt's strength-of-schedule ranking of 260 is lowest among the top 70 teams in the RPI.

Yes, UConn isn't much better in November and December (140th in strength of schedule), but at least the Huskies are playing at Oklahoma on Jan. 10 and at home against North Carolina on Feb. 13. You also said it yourself -- UConn is the defending national champion. The Huskies hardly need to maximize their national TV exposure. Pitt, however, does. Given how good this team appears to be, it's a shame the school is denying its fans and players the pleasure of playing more meaningful games this time of year.

[I don't think it was the same Patrick who blogs here occasionally (we are expecting a full posted report on the Fiesta Bowl, BTW).]

Not to mention making it a question mark as to how good the team is or will be; and where it really needs to work on improving. Some things will be obvious, but other things don't get exposed until late. Kind of like when Syracuse beat Pitt last February. The 'Cuse went to a collapsing defense, that forced Pitt to make outside shots. Pitt couldn't, and it cost them that game and was the blueprint followed by opponents in the NCAA Tournament.

Workouts, Roleplaying, and Wondering 

Mostly side stuff. The teams are practicing, but there isn't much to report about it. Pitt is working on stopping Utah's offense. Their practices have done well to stop the shovel pass, but that isn't making Pitt feel good.
He figures that if the Utes have thrived on that play all season, the Panthers' reserves who are imitating the Utes' Paris Warren and others are not doing a very convincing job.

"Going against the scout team offense, we've been stopping that play left and right," Crochunis said Monday. The Utes "must have the timing down so well for that - the speed and tempo; it's so fast. It's hard for us to prepare for, because for the scout team offense, it's a very difficult scheme to run. It takes a couple of weeks to learn."

Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads described the Ute offense as "extremely unique," although Pittsburgh faced spread-offense teams such as Temple, West Virginia and South Florida.

"They really make you work to stay disciplined," Rhoads said. "Obviously, nobody's been effective at [stopping] it all year. . . . You've got to have everybody in the right location and they can't vary from that task."

Rhoads' defenses are known for basic, sound schemes without much risk. Like Utah's defense under Kyle Whittingham over the years, the Panthers give up a lot of yards (388.9 per game) but not a lot of points (23.0).
Comments, Lee? Actually, the more I read about the Utah offense, the less I want to know. It makes my palms sweat at the thought of Pitt's defense facing it.

And while their offense has been categorized in many ways -- as a hybrid of a spread and wishbone, a cross between a spread and a pro-set, a spread with too many wrinkles to call it a mix -- one word probably describes it best:

Unstoppable.
...
It was developed by coach Urban Meyer when he took over at Bowling Green in 2001. He took pieces of different offenses -- the running game from option teams and the passing game from some wide-open teams such as Purdue -- and combined them. He brought it to Utah in 2003.

The offense includes many wide-open formations, but it is not a pass-happy system.

In fact, the Utes were ranked higher in Division I-A running the ball than throwing it. And most of the pass routes are short, with receivers gaining a lot of yards after the catch.

Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said it is a combination of three offenses that Pitt has faced this year -- Temple, South Florida and West Virginia. It combines the quarterback running plays and options of the Mountaineers and Owls with the passing plays and five-wide formations of the Bulls.

If there two words that strikes fear into my heart regarding Pitt football, it is simply "spread offense."

Sticking with defense and Paul Rhoads for a little longer. A column wonders whether the Utah game will be the deciding issue in whether Rhoads comes back as Pitt's defensive coordinator under new head coach Dave Wannstedt next year.

Meanwhile the Duquesne head football coach is eyeing a place on the Pitt coaching staff. Well, at the very least the media keeps bandying his name about and asking him. Tells you all you need to know about the head job for the Dukes. Hey, at least he could pocket the moving expenses.

Speaking of pocketing the money, a bunch of the Pitt players decided to drive down to Tempe in rental cars. Each player gets $1400 dollars to use in any way they want for getting to the bowl game. They can keep whatever is left. I like the idea of a roadie, but you have to imagine the coaches were sweating it. 30+ hours driving. Hey, when you have more time than money...

Tyrone Gilliard is loving life in Tempe. Seems he could get used to being waited on constantly.

Perhaps Urban Meyer is looking to piss off the media, or just circle the wagons with his players early in the week. He did his best to keep the players from expected media interviews after practices yesterday. Well, he does have a lot of issues with the turnover of coaches including many who have already left or are assuming new duties in this game.

Utes offensive coordinator Mike Sanford was recently named the head coach at UNLV and he left Utah immediately after he was hired. He also took with him linebackers coach Kurt Barber and tight ends coach Keith Uperesa. Cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, who is going with Meyer, already has left to start his position at Florida.

That means the staff was short-handed by four coaches.

To make up for the losses, Meyer promoted quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen to offensive coordinator and two graduate assistants, Lance Hunsaker and Garry Fisher, will take on the roles of full-time assistants. And volunteer assistant Jay Hill has been hired as a defensive assistant.

Here's a longer piece on Dan Mullen. He'll be leaving Utah for Florida after the Fiesta Bowl with Meyer, along with offensive line coach John Hevesy and receivers coach Billy Gonzales. Mullen will not be up in the booth, but stay down on the field. At least for Pitt, while the coaching staff may be sweating, they haven't left.

Add in another Ute who is dealing with rumors of turning pro after the game. Wide Receiver Steve Savoy is giving it a serious thought.

A fairly interesting piece comparing the two QBs -- Tyler Palko and Alex Smith.

In four days, Palko and Smith will ask a national television audience to strap on the seat belts. It could be an incredible ride. Both are capable of putting up monster numbers and neither takes kindly to losing.

"A Heisman finalist and a Heisman candidate for next year," said Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades. "That's what we got in this game. You're talking about two really good quarterbacks. I'll take Tyler, but I'm sure Utah will take (Smith). Both can play the game."

And everyone expects big numbers on both sides.

To think, Pitt could have faced Texas in Tempe.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Catching Up 

Limited computer time, dial-up, and too much preoccupation with the new football coach led to neglect of what the basketball team has been doing. Well, technically, nothing since they haven't played since Thursday. Still, some articles and things worth noting.

No change in Pitt's ranking in either poll.

Krauser carrying Pitt against Richmond got him lots of love. For whatever it is worth Dick Vitale named him his player of the Week.
Veteran point guard Carl Krauser played all 40 minutes in a hard-fought 69-60 win over Richmond. Krauser finished with 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. His effort and leadership are keys to another fast start (9-0) this season for the Panthers.
In the Big East, he had to share Player of the Week honors (PDF) with Ryan Gomes of Providence. (BTW, check page 5 for the home attendance listings. Pitt is in 4th, but BC is hovering around 4,000. Hard to get respect nationally, when your own fans don't show. Enjoy the ACC.)

A piece noting how Pitt's depth has been important already this season. A theme I have been mentioning since before the season started. It is one of the things I now check in the box scores after games -- who got a DNP or very limited minutes.

There is a game Wednesday on ESPN Full Court/Fox Sports Pittsburgh (doesn't appear to be on Fox Sports Atlantic unfortunately) at 7 pm. Pitt's lone remaining challenge in the non-con -- South Carolina. The good news for those outside of the FSP, or don't feel like paying $15 dollars for the game, or even the $5 to listen to the Pitt broadcast over the net -- South Carolina streams the game free. Go to their Yahoo! page, and click the audio link for the Pitt game. I mean, yeah, you may have to listen to Gamecock homers calling the game, but how much can you complain when there is no charge?

Pitt has put out info and the game notes (PDF). Here's what South Carolina has to say about the game. Pitt has never beaten the Gamecocks. 0-5 record. The last time they faced each other was back in 1976. Of course USC hasn't beaten a ranked non-con opponent in almost 7 years.

Finally Focusing on Fiesta 

If I wasn't still on dial-up at the in-laws, this would almost feel like the normal beginning to a week getting ready for a football game. It's Monday, the game's on Saturday and the articles are finally beginning to focus on the teams and the game.

It starts with the warm reception each team's official flight received at the airport:
They could see the party from the plane, the huge tent with the welcome banner stretched across the top, the scores of bowl organizers in pastel yellow jackets waving congratulatory placards, and the red carpet being rolled out across the tarmac and right up to the steps leading from the plane.

"It's unreal," junior linebacker Grady Marshall said. "It's like nothing I've ever seen."

That stands to reason, considering the Fiesta Bowl is like nothing the Utah football team has ever attended.

Their historic undefeated season made the No. 5 Utes the first mid-major team to break into a Bowl Championship Series game like the one against No. 19 Pittsburgh on New Year's Day, and many of the players and coaches arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport on a chartered flight Sunday every bit as awed by the welcome reception as they expected to be.
Then there is the reality:

I'm not sure exactly what I expected to see as we rolled into Sky Harbor International Airport on a sunny, but cool Phoenix afternoon, but I surely did not expect to see Fiesta Bowl volunteers donned in yellow jackets literally roll out a red carpet for Stanford coach Walt Harris as he descended a portable stairway tethered to a U.S. Airways aircraft (one of the few in recent days that actually had all of the passengers' luggage on board).

Florida coach Urban Meyer got the same treatment.
...
You never would have suspected that the "fans" who helped to line each side of the red carpet -- along with many Fiesta Bowl Committee members -- actually were props who'd been invited to party under a canopy the size of a couple of end zones on the understanding they would welcome the participating teams (Pitt and Utah) on the tarmac.

It seemed like a good deal. Many of the adults spent their time sucking down Coors Light, eating turkey and roast beef fresh off the bone and dipping into that fondue fountain.

A few minutes before Pitt's plane landed, the revelers emerged from the canopy with signs that said things like, "Welcome Coach Harris" and "Welcome Big East Champions."
...
Another man was a lifelong Penn State fan who said, "I can't believe I'm holding up a Pitt Panther sign right now."
...
Utah arrived an hour later. And wasn't it cute that the crowd was supplied with placards welcoming each of the team's head coaches, the outgoing Meyer and his soon-to-be successor Kyle Whittingham.

They stood there and cheered just for free Coors Light?

Vince Crochunis has an account of his commercial flight from Philly to Tempe.

The game is officially a sell-out, though you can expect Utah fans to outnumber Pitt fans nearly 2-1.

Both teams are talking about how they came here to win the game. As opposed to the "we're just happy to be here," stuff. Well, there was some use of the cliche:

"It's great," [Utah] senior running back Marty Johnson said. "You pull in and see all this stuff, and you realize the kind of game we're at. You know, playing Pitt? That was a downer, at first. . . . But now, it doesn't matter who we play, it's just about the game, the Fiesta Bowl. We're happy to be here, and I know Pitt's happy to be here. Now, we just have to come out and play."
Actually, both teams are out to prove they belong in the BCS game.

Both coaches insist that their impending departures are not a distraction. Utah, may have the additional distraction of wondering how soon after the game whether their QB will announce his decision to go into the 2005 NFL draft.

A puff piece on Darrelle Revis, on his progression from planning on a future in basketball to being a starting CB on Pitt. The Utah paper indicates that defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads wants to stay with Pitt. Then, let's hope the defense performs in a way suggesting they want to keep playing for him.

Finally, from the selective transcript of Walt Harris' press conference in Tempe:
On coaching the last game for the University of Pittsburgh:

"We came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1997. There's not a lot of coaches that can say they were head coaches for eight years. (Pitt) had won 15 games in (the prior) five years and hadn't gone to a bowl in nine years. Since then, we've gone to six bowl games in eight years, we've graduated players... we've had a Heisman Trophy runner-up that you are all getting a chance to enjoy for those of you who follow the Cardinals, we've had all-conference players, we've had the most Big East Academic players for four years in a row. We're proud of what's been accomplished with the tremendous help and support of the university. Our players find a way to get it done and now we're going to play in the arena that we wanted to play in, which is the Bowl Championship Series."
Expect a couple extra stories this week on Larry Fitzgerald's first year with the Arizona Cardinals. I also think we can put the chance of a sideline interview with Fitzgerald during the Fiesta Bowl at better than 90% since Arizona ends the season at home.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Looking to the Game and Basking in the Afterglow 

The papers are split in two distinct directions. The P-G looks towards the Fiesta Bowl and the teams. The Trib. stays in Pittsburgh happily discussing Coach Wannstedt and AD Long.

Let's start with the team and the Fiesta Bowl. Admitting this should be the Lame Duck Bowl with a different sponsor, a look at the weird situation of the coaches on both sides leaving for new pastures. The situations are different.

Utah had their coach get wooed for a higher profile, big money job. Everyone knew he would be getting a great offer from somewhere within the first month of the season. Utah will keep continuity, though, as one of the assistants takes over the program.

Pitt saw their coach all but officially fired despite the success in a rebuilding year. Pitt has just made a high profile hire, but the entire Pitt football staff is up in the air. Some members might stay, some let go, some just leave. No one knows anything. Arguably, the Pitt players could be playing for some of their coaches jobs. Lots of pressure on that.

You know, there's been a lot of complaints that this will not be a good game and that people won't want to watch because of the programs. I can't help but think that the ratings might be better than expected. You will have all of Utah and Western PA watching -- obviously. But you will also have the state of Florida watching to get a sense of their new coach. Stanford draws on the San Francisco area, and there should be some curiosity about Walt Harris. Then there are the Domers around the country. There has to be curiosity about the game, but who do they root against? A Pitt team that beat them at home, but helped get Willingham fired? Or Urban Meyer, the guy they wanted and thought they could get, but spurned Touchdown Jesus for the Swamp? My guess is going against Utah, because it was more personal.

Then there is preparations for the game itself. The players are talking about winning it. Not just trying to play close. Tired of hearing how they don't deserve to go. Hopefully we will see them show everyone why the Big East is a BCS conference and the Mountain West isn't.

Over at the Trib., they aren't yet ready for Tempe. A long puff piece on Dave Wannstedt -- just a Pittsburgh guy no matter where he has been. If it matters to you that Wanny was from Pittsburgh, then this is a story you will enjoy.

The other is a puff piece lauding AD Jeff Long for getting Wannstedt. I've lauded AD Long for issues of TV exposure for Pitt, getting a new marketing deal, apparel contract, and the local radio and TV stuff.

I will not join in the chorus praising him for this hire, in so far as it applies to the search and the process. I have my doubts as to how much AD Long got to actually search. My gut says this search had more than a little of the heavy hand of Chancellor Nordenberg. I hope to have more time to get into this (not to mention my broadband connection, to help me dig up some things to help make my argument). Suffice to say, that while things managed to work out, the process was anything but encouraging.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Love and Speculation 

Dave Wannstedt now has a week or so to at least get some of his assistants and recruiters hired before the NCAA imposed "dead period" for contacting recruits expires. This also means that there is plenty of time to wonder and hope that his hiring will immediately catch the fancy of local recruits. At the very least, present Pitt commits seem juiced about the hiring.
There is an air of excitement among Pitt recruits and targeted prospects about Thursday's hiring of Dave Wannstedt as the Panthers' new football coach.

Recruits said Wannstedt's NFL experience -- he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears and won a Super Bowl ring as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys -- is an attractive quality that should make a recruiting impact.

"He was an NFL guy, so he obviously knows how to run a successful program," said Burrell offensive tackle John Brown, who in March became the first player from the Class of 2005 to commit to the Panthers. "Kids are going to look at coach Wannstedt as a guy who has been successful in the NFL, has coached some Hall of Famers and should have an idea in their head that, 'He can do that for me.' "

That is what went through the mind of linebacker Steve Dell of Lantana, Fla., who committed to the Panthers the day before Walt Harris accepted the Stanford job. Dell also is considering Florida, Indiana and North Carolina State, but he said Wannstedt's hiring was a bold move.

"Wow," Dell said. "That was my first impression. He knows what the NFL wants. He sure has enough contacts in the NFL. That's very much a plus."

Further down the article is praise for Paul Rhoads (of course) and Bob Junko, the present associate head coach and guy in charge of recruiting for most of Western PA. Now, what I don't get is that the criticism of Harris was that he didn't recruit Western PA very hard, yet there has been nothing but praise in the last week or so for Rhoads and Junko from high schoolers and their coaches. Is everything just being piled on Harris? If so, why hasn't anyone come out and accuse Harris of ignoring his own staff recommendations? These seem to be some of the unasked questions.

Sorry, got off topic. There are just a lot of things never explained that may remain that way.

Apparently Wanny's hiring doesn't just intrigue the recruits. At least one local college coach is hoping for some interest.

Pitt and the Steelers' coaches are also planning to talk more. It can only help, and enhance interest from recruits to see more and more ties to pro teams.

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