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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

BlogPoll, Week 14 

The full poll is up and indvidual ballots can be viewed here. My ballot is here.

Time To Get Painful, Opening 

That means starting the review of the past season of Pitt football.

Between the time crunch of family visits, travel and just not being emotionally ready to discuss it, I've been putting this off.

To start, let's see what has been written.

First things, first. Paul Zeise in last week's Q&A let fly with a whopper of revisionist history in his introduction:
I've said it numerous times and I'll say it again -- Rich Rodriguez inherited a talented team in 2001 with a lot of returning starters and a lot of optimism, then went out in his first year and laid an egg to the tune of 3-8. He made some offseason adjustments in his approach and in some of the things he tried to do, he recruited well, and he continued teaching the things he believes in and the result has been a team that has improved steadily every year. And think about it -- his first full recruiting class is his senior class this year, which shows how important it is to get off to a good start in recruiting. And he did so coming off a 3-8 season, so I don't think the Panthers record this first year is much of a factor. Kids are smart enough to know that the transition year can sometimes be tough because of all the adjustments that have to be made.
[Emphasis added.]

I really like Zeise's writing, but BS is BS. Since I like the writer, I'm chalking it up to a faulty recall or something non-deliberate.

Here's the reality check. Going into the 2001 season, WVU was picked to finish no better than 5th in the Big East. The consensus was 6th, ahead of only Rutgers and Temple. WVU had been sliding in the talent, and no one was predicting a smooth time. Rodriguez slightly underachieved according to most of the predictions by finishing 7th (good old Rutgers taking the bottom rung). So, no more comparisons please to WVU and Rich Rodriguez in 2001. Expectations and talent were no where near the same.

As for the rest of Zeise's opening remarks about the future:

I think the West Virginia model is a good one, as well, because it is clearly evident that Rodriguez has always looked for and recruited speed and last night it showed because it looked like they were about three steps faster at just about every position than the Panthers. Wannstedt's philosophy has always been to stockpile speed and that's what he's attempting to do. And one thing I've been very impressed with about Wannstedt is this -- when it comes to recruiting, he is a workaholic and he loves it more than anything else he does. One coach told me Wannstedt is the most competitive recruiter he's ever been around. He's all about text messaging, e-mailing, writing letters and getting out on the road to meet people. That's the first step toward rebuilding a program and contrary to popular belief, this program needed some rebuilding when he arrived. That much is evident when you take a close look at the so-called talent that was left behind.

The second step is being able to coach and develop that talent. There are a lot of coaches who are great recruiters -- and I'm fairly confident Wannstedt fits in that category -- but getting players is only half the equation. I think there will be some offseason adjustments made by Wannstedt -- he's already said as much -- now that he has a very good idea of what he is up against and what it is going to take to win.

Maybe I'm just feeling argumentative, but Pitt didn't need "rebuilding." The program may need reworking and some definite talent upgrades, but rebuilding is not what it is undergoing. That is a disservice to what Walt Harris did accomplish at Pitt from 1997 through 2004, and the players.

Coach Wannstedt has put together an outstanding first recruiting class, that will be considered a top-20 if not top-10 class by Signing Day in February. It has been the brightest thing, and let's face it, the thing most fans have kept in the fore in an otherwise enthusiasm dampening debut season.

Q: What should fans look for from the Panthers for spring and heading into next season as far as position battles go?

Zeise: Boy I could write about five or six pages on this subject, but I won't. I'll try and keep it simple. The spring will be exciting, but not nearly as exciting as the fall when all the freshmen arrive. That's when the real position battles will begin. That's when we'll have a good chance to see what the roster is all about. But I would expect some moves to be made in the spring with the arrival of the freshmen in mind. I think some of the moves you could anticipate are C.J. Davis to center, Shane Murray to safety, Rashad Jennings to fullback and a whole lot of shuffling along both lines. There will also be a battle between Conor Lee and David Abdul at kicker and some stiff competition at linebacker, safety and corner because of graduation. One thing that is good news for the Panthers is they aren't losing a whole lot to graduation. Losing Lay, Cummings and Charles Spencer will hurt because they are talented, had great years and are at positions where the Panthers aren't loaded -- but other than those three in particular, the Panthers have younger, more talented guys to step into the holes that will be left behind. I think Lee and Abdul are both talented enough that the Panthers kicking game will be fine, but they need some freshmen to step in and step up at corner and tackle.
Q: Can someone explain why Pitt didn't take the penalty and have third-and-13 or, if they were going to decline it, go for it on fourth-and-3?

Zeise: Well, Walt had the slide at UConn, this one was clearly a brain cramp by Dave Wannstedt. His explanation for declining the penalty then punting was that he was trying to play field position. Obviously that didn't make a lot of sense from this standpoint -- he could have accepted the penalty and had a third down play and then punted if the Panthers didn't make it. What he did was essentially punt on third down and that is not a good thing. It made even less sense when you consider how poorly Adam Graessle has been punting the ball inside the 5. To me, there was no question that ball was destined to be a touchback which is why I thought you'd rather have the ball further back if you were going to punt it. To Wannstedt's credit he admitted he made a mistake, he made the wrong call and if he had to do it all over again he'd have gone for it. It was clearly a bad decision but I have to be honest, I saw very few bad decisions this year which makes me believe the coaching staff has a good idea of what to do on game day. There were very few games where I questioned game management decisions -- like when to go for it, when to punt, how to manage the clock -- etc., etc.

He also writes about Recruit/Soft Commit RB Kevin Collier. As always, it's a must read.

AD Jeff Long has no complaints at this point.

"We're disappointed in this season, but we're excited about the future," Long said Thursday, minutes after the Panthers' 45-13 loss against West Virginia.

As Long spoke, coach Dave Wannstedt walked into the room to begin his postgame interview. Long glanced over a reporter's shoulder at Wannstedt and smiled.

"I couldn't be more pleased with where we're going and where Dave believes he's going to take us," Long said. "I think he believes, as I do, that he's going to have the kind of program that (can recruit) the best players in the area. That's the kind of guy we wanted when we brought him here to coach the team."

Wannstedt's first season at the helm of his alma mater's program ended with its first losing mark since 1999. The Panthers (5-6, 4-3) were unable to defend their Big East title, and along the way suffered a few demoralizing losses.
What? You were expecting anything else?

The story also reveals that WR/Kick returner Terrell Allen wasn't simply suspended for the WVU game, but kicked off the team for "chronic disciplinary problems."

As for what happens in the off-season as far as adjustments regarding coaches. This is a fervent wish: fire Defensive Coordinator Paul Rhoads. I know Rhoads is very popular with the Pitt administration, but his defensive schemes are the classic smoke and mirror D.

Against below average to bad offenses the numbers look nice with interceptions and low productivity in the red zone. Against decent offenses, though, it gets absolutely torched. Because Rhoads is always more concerned about keeping the offense in front of the the defense it is never playing aggressive. It is soft and gets gashed. Not on the big play, but on chunks, gashes and drives. Rutgers, ND, Louisville and WVU. They all just moved at will on Pitt. Especially running the ball. Under Rhoads and the kids he has recruited, the run defense has become sub-par.

This year, Pitt allowed 4.3 yards/carry. Last year, 3.8 yards/carry. In 2003, 4.5 yards/carry. In 2002, 3.2 yards/carry. 2001, 2.9 yards/carry. 2000, 2.6 yards/carry (PDF). Anyone noticing a trend? Rhoads came to Pitt as DC in 2000.

Rhoads isn't the only defensive coach who should be coming in for review. Curtis Bray has been the LB coach since 2003, and Charlie Partridge who was responsible for DEs and Special Teams. A big mitigator for both, though, are their roles in the recruiting class for 2005 ("page 2" indicates the lead recruiting coach).

This is not simply looking for scalps or someone to blame for this season. I've been down on Rhoads, his defensive schemes and his inability to teach players to tackle rather than hit since the 2003 season. He continually espouses a "bend but don't break" defense and eschews blitzes. Despite having excellent corners, he rarely was willing to bring up the safeties to assist against the run -- part of that fear against giving up the big play. I guess he feels a quick strike is more demoralizing than watching a team just march down the field steadily and easily.

That keeping the offense in front of the defense, along with a clear lack of speed up front is why the various permutations of the spread offense and good running games have killed Pitt. Or as was put this way (Insider Subs.):
Pittsburgh's Defensive Front Seven
Pittsburgh's run defense, which ranks 95th in the nation, lived up to its pathetic billing in last Thursday's 48-13 loss to despised rival West Virginia. The Panthers have good size at defensive tackle with Thomas Smith (6-4, 300) and Phil Tillman (6-1, 315), but neither player does a good job of anchoring at the point of attack, which has forced standout MLB H.B. Blades to sift through entirely too much traffic on the second level when in run pursuit. Those problems were highlighted by coach Rich Rodriguez's spread scheme, as QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton combined for 399 of the Mountaineers 451 net rushing yards.
Blades barely played in the WVU game before going down with injury. He still had 121 tackles for the season. Tops by far in the Big East. The rest of the linebackers were just abused. There's only so much you can blame on Smith's injury.

Recapping the Terriers 

I think Carl Krauser is dead on with this:
"When we come out there and we're not focusing or not playing great outside defense and things like that, it causes teams to come out and hit open shots and great shots. That's when we dig ourselves a hole and have to dig ourselves out. So what we have to do now is concentrate on the couple of days off that we have to practice and just really dig down and basically have a self check within ourselves as a team and come out here and give forth the effort for 40 minutes of defense."
It's easy to point to the poor 3-point shooting by Pitt to explain why St. Francis (NY) hung around -- especially in the first half when Pitt was 1-9 and the Terriers were 5-11. Ronald Ramon appears to agree.
On playing a more physical defense in the second half

"More team defense. We had to get more focused. At the beginning we were giving up shots, we weren't talking on defense at all. In the second half we were talking more and the team defense was good."

On clamping down on Christian Brown in the second half

"He's a great player. We played against each other in high school. It was kind of like a pay back, if you want to put it like that. We played against each other for the city championship back in New York and they stole that from us. He's a great player. We knew he was going to come here, take shots. First half he had wide open shots, like I said it was just about the team defense. Second half we had more help from the team."
Brown had 16 points in the first half, but only 4 in the second half when Ramon locked down on him. The defense completely took Brown out of his game.
"[Pitt] defensively stepped it up and he got frustrated," he said of Brown's second half performance.
Ramon used his defense to help compensate on a night where he didn't sink a 3 and his stat sheet would otherwise appear unimpressive. A very important thing, especially if Pitt is to reclaim a reputation as being a physical defensive minded team.

The players, though, who led the way for Pitt were Carl Krauser and Aaron Gray.

Gray converted 7 of 10 field-goal attempts and was 8 for 10 from the free-throw line in 30 minutes, as St. Francis was unable to contain him.

"Aaron looked more comfortable going up with his shot tonight," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "He had patience in the post, too. Teams are going to double-down a little more as this goes on. You're talking about a guy who didn't score a lot of points last year, and maybe they aren't expecting it. But the progress he's made from his senior year in high school to now has been steady, yet dramatic."

Said Gray: "There's definitely been improvement each year I've been here. Right now, I'm doing all right."

The victory improved Pitt's record against the Northeast Conference to 62-0. The Panthers are 3-0 against St. Francis in a brief series that was not started until 2000.

The outcome was never in doubt, although Pitt teased a home crowd of 7,263 by allowing St. Francis (2-2) to hang around until the Panthers turned up the heat in the second half and began clicking as Dixon continued his constant shuffling of the lineup.

I'm really impressed by Gray's free throw shooting. He's not as consistent from game-to-game, but he is now 20-29 (.690) in 4 games. Considering he can expect to get to the line more often this year as he gets more assertive, this is vital.

Krauser served as the catalyst in the second half to start Pitt on the run from which they blew the doors off of St. Francis.

But when things get a little tense, that's when Carl Krauser takes over. Just as he did against Robert Morris a week ago, Krauser sparked a second-half surge and led Pitt to a 79-58 victory last night at the Petersen Events Center.

"Our guys feed off his energy," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "His leadership ... it's one thing to talk. It's another thing to do it."

Krauser had another off-shooting night, but he made his presence felt in other areas, most notably his hustle, defense and playmaking. Krauser, who had 18 points, was the impetus for Pitt's 8-2 run at the beginning of the second half that ignited the runaway. On one play, Krauser stole the ball, had it bounce away, chased it down and, from his back, threw an over-the-head pass to Aaron Gray for a layup. Less than a minute later, Krauser made another steal, drove the lane and made an acrobatic layup that gave the Panthers a 43-34 lead with 16:33 remaining.

St. Francis never mounted a serious threat after that.

"He's our leader on and off the court," Gray said. "He's one of the main reasons Pitt is looked at as such a physical and overpowering team. We're going to get that from Carl every practice, every game."

Krauser set a career-high with six steals. On the same night he became one of the top 20 scorers in school history, all anyone wanted to talk about after the game was his defense.

A concern of course, was the poor 3-point shooting. Take that out of the game, and Pitt was very efficient.

Listening to the game, makes it hard to draw my own conclusions about what players were doing. Hillgrove and Groat were very complimentary of Kendall's hustle and defense. Kendall would appear to have had a solid night with 9 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds, 1 steal and 0 turnovers.

Both Keith Benjamin and John DeGroat played solid games. Both would appear to be much more comfortable this season. Not looking to do everything and looking over their shoulder for fear of being pulled if they make a mistake.

As would be expected, some of the freshmen players were a little uneven. Tyrell Biggs would appear to still be struggling on defense, and was a little too eager to score. Sam Young and Levance Fields saw a little less time than before, but handled the ball well and didn't press for shots.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Touching A Raw Nerve 

Orson at EDSBS lists only "52 Reasons ESPN/ABC/Disney Sucks." It could have easily gone on for quite some time.

Absolutely effing hilarious and painfully truthful. It has generated an amazingly long comment thread that gets angrier and angrier as it continues. The animosity built towards the Mouse network is impressive. Even more so, when you realize most of the list and comments were devoted primarily to the football stuff.

BlogPoll Ballot Week 14, Not Enough Teams 

I really feel that way. After I got through 1-16, the rest were just there. Some moved up simply because there was no other team to comfortably put in front of them while others probably didn't even deserve rankings. If I could have just left blank spaces for 17-19 I would have.
  1. Southern California
  2. Texas
  3. Louisiana State
  4. Penn State
  5. Ohio State
  6. Virginia Tech
  7. Notre Dame
  8. West Virginia
  9. Auburn
  10. Oregon
  11. Georgia
  12. Miami (Florida)
  13. UCLA
  14. TCU
  15. Louisville
  16. Florida
  17. Wisconsin
  18. Alabama
  19. Michigan
  20. Texas Tech
  21. South Carolina
  22. Boston College
  23. Georgia Tech
  24. Toledo
  25. Oklahoma
IN: Oklahoma, Toledo, Texas Tech
Out: Iowa St., FSU, Fresno St.
Games Watched (whole or in part): Pitt-WVU, Colo-Neb, Ark-LSU, Tx-Tx A&M, UNC-VT, UVA-Miami, ND-Stanford, Fresno-Nev., FSU-Fla and Md-NCSt.

I watched a lot of college football this weekend. Oddly, that has put me in less of a mood to bother explaining each vote.

More Stressful Than It Should Have Been 

Pitt never trailed against St. Francis (NY), but they sure let the Terriers hang around for quite a while, before pulling away to a deceptively large final score 79-58. Pitt hoisted way too many and missed an overwhelming majority of 3s (4-20).

This was a case of a bigger, stronger team wearing down a smaller team -- again.

Gray had a very good game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. His 3rd double-double in 4 games.

Krauser was part of the problem with 3s (1-7) and seems to have lost his free throw touch (1-4), but he still put in 18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists.

UPDATE: One mitigating factor: injuries. Listening to Coach Jamie Dixon afterwards with Hillgrove and Groat, Doyle Hudson was scratched because of an ankle injury and Antonio Graves went down very early in the game with an ankle injury -- unknown how severe, but Coach Dixon didn't seem overly concerned postgame.

Big East Power Rankings  

Big East B-ball Blog has the aggregate power rankings for the conference this week. Pitt was placed #6. Here's how I voted.
  1. UConn -- Easiest rank. High quality wins in Maui.
  2. Villanova -- Also cruising
  3. Louisville -- Most teams are accused of playing nobody in the non-con, Louisville started its season so late in almost played nobody literally this first week
  4. Pitt -- Okay, admittedly a bit of homerism but they have won all the cupcakes in front of them
  5. Cinci -- Won all their games including a less than cupcake game against Murray St.
  6. Georgetown -- Can't lose to Vandy at home
  7. Providence -- Get the wins now, because they will only become harder later
  8. Syracuse -- Inconsistency right now. If McNamara is off, the team is going to struggle
  9. St. John's -- Beating on the NY Metro teams
  10. Marquette -- I think I may have been a little unfair to the Warriors, Gold, Golden Eagles. That Winthrop loss, though...
  11. ND -- NC State isn't that good, and that was essentially a home game. No offense outside of the guards
  12. WVU -- Lose 3 straight, regardless of the foes and you slide.
  13. USF -- I repeat, USF will not be the worst team in the BE despite the lack of depth
  14. Rutgers -- Blown out by Illinois is not a shame, but squeaking by Delaware St. and Kent St. by a combined 10 points is.
  15. DePaul -- Not a particularly impressive team
  16. Seton Hall -- It will be hard for them to get out of the cellar
This is completely imperfect right now. I rushed my voting a bit. That 8am Monday voting deadline makes things a little compressed.

Thank The Irish 

I admit to rooting for Stanford and Walt Harris on Saturday night. This despite all logic telling me how bad it would be for the Big East if ND lost.

If ND had lost, they would have been going to the Gator Bowl and all of the Big East teams would have been bumped down a bowl -- resulting in less money and attention for the conference and the teams. ND in the BCS was actually good for the conference.

Then there is the fact that ND is going to a BCS bowl over a higher ranked Oregon team according to the BCS standings (PDF). You now have media hacks (except in PAC 10 land) now very happy to point out that it is okay for ND to go because the other BCS games are all about ratings and money. Not about the best teams playing (not to mention what could happen if there are any upsets in the SEC, ACC or Big 12 Championships).

It undercuts arguments that the BE is undeserving of receiving a BCS bowl bid because it leaves more "deserving" teams out of the payout. Suddenly that isn't an issue when it is about the Irish. Well, some did, but it points out their own hypocrisies as much as the system in place.

In the first year of a new BE stripped of the 2 best teams formerly of the conference (both of which are in the top 10 of the BCS standings and the third is ranked in the top 25), the BE still placed a team in the top 12 (WVU is #11). Not the worst outcome for the BE in its new alignment.

Tonight's Game 

Tonight Pitt plays St. Francis (NY). If you take a look at the game notes (PDF), you would see that one of the storylines is that Associate Head Coach Barry Rohrssen played his college ball and got his first college coaching gig there. Naturally one of the papers does an article on it. Usual stuff, he roots for his alma mater every other day, etcetera.

In case you were curious, the nickname of the school is the Terriers and they play in the same conference as Robert Morris.

There's a piece focusing on Levon Kendall's start to the season. He's not shooting particularly well, but is the second leading rebounder on the team and is happy to be playing at the power forward position. Coach Dixon is not publicly concerned about his offense, stressing that he is playing solid defense.

"Our biggest thing with him was that he got rebounds," Dixon said. "He got nine and eight in the last two games. Those are good numbers in 26 and 20 minutes. I think with him and Sam [Young] we'll have very good production out of that spot. We're not getting as many points as we would normally get, but I think we will. We're talking about guys who haven't played a lot of minutes before."

Kendall and Young, a talented but unpolished freshman, are sharing the power forward position. Together, they are averaging 11.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, which is below the production that Troutman provided last season. Troutman averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game.

"Chevy didn't put those numbers up until his senior year," Dixon said. "We're talking about a junior and a freshman. I think we're going to get good numbers out of those guys. And different types of things, things maybe we didn't get last year. I feel really good about that spot."

Right now, Kendall has averaged about 24 minutes per game. Young will see more minutes as his defense improves and he becomes more consistent on offense.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Puff and Moving Pieces About 

Keith Benjamin was the most productive player for Pitt in the win against Maine. He had 10 points (4-5) and 4 assists in only 17 minutes. He gets the lead piece in a story as much about the Pitt players being moved into different positions.

Pitt sophomore Keith Benjamin was recruited to Pitt to be the replacement for Julius Page at shooting guard. Benjamin was the same type of player as Page, who was athletic, could score and play tough defense.

But 15 months into his college career, the man who was supposed to blossom into Pitt's next great shooting guard is playing a new position. Benjamin is sharing minutes at small forward with John DeGroat and Antonio Graves. And Benjamin, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, admits the transition has not been easy.

"There's been an adjustment mentally, physically, everything," Benjamin said. "Sometimes I go home mad, saying, 'I'm a shooter, man. I'm a scorer.' Then I come back to the gym every day and I realize this is what I have to do for my team. Coach [Jaime] Dixon sees a lot in me playing the three [position], so I'm just trying to put my best effort out there."

Benjamin is one of several players who are playing out of position as Dixon attempts to find roles for his top players. Graves was the starter at shooting guard for most of last season, but is playing a lot of small forward this season. Sam Young, recruited to be the small forward, is playing power forward. And Tyrell Biggs, recruited as a power forward, is playing center.

The position changes were made because Dixon has a bevy of talented guards but not a backup at center.

Benjamin had a series of nagging injuries last year that aided in keeping him buried on the bench last season.

Coach Dixon appears to be minimizing the position switch issue because in the present system, "there's not a lot of difference between the shooting guard and the small forward."

Offensively, I can't disagree. I worry more about on the defensive side, where as the competition and talent improves there will be bigger, stronger, faster players that can take it inside a lot easier.

Obviously the player facing the most scrutiny this season will be Carl Krauser. There's been a lot of arguing as to whether Krauser coming back this season was a good or bad thing. Not for helping the team win, but helping the young players develop. I've been back and forth on this. Others have gone the opposite way.

With that in mind, this should be a rebuilding year for the Panthers. Let the talented group of young guards that have played -- Ronald Ramon, Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin -- gel with freshman standout Levance Fields for a year, and while Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall mature for another year, the sky could be the limit for the 2006-07 Panthers.

However, with Krauser here this season, that rebuilding won't happen to the extent that it should.

I'll be the first to tell you I'm a Krauser fan. Krauser is the best athlete to interview and is always a treat to be around. And if I'm not covering the games, I'll be jumping up and down in the Zoo making the "X" over my head when he hits a three. But I just don't think Dixon and the Pitt program should be thankful that Krauser is back this year.

It's not Krauser's fault, but it just seems obvious that while he might help the team this year more than the younger guards would, this fifth year might be detrimental to Pitt in the long run.

It will be interesting as the season plays out if Krauser's playing time gets cut and Dixon begins thinking about the future of his program. That will depend on how Krauser and the young Panthers do in the tough Big East.
I don't think Dixon would have had the luxury of many fans being willing to write this season off as a rebuilding year without Krauser. There seems to be the early stages of a hardening of opinion regarding Dixon. Even with a legitimate rebuilding year, there would have been a lot of blame placed on Dixon. How Krauser, the team and the future is handled is more about Dixon than anything else.

After Krauser, the player under the most scrutiny is Aaron Gray. Gray was like a back-up QB last year. Very popular, but not called upon to do too much. Now he's the starter and people are quick to rip him for not playing forceful enough. This is his first year as a starter. He barely got on the floor as a freshman. His sophomore year saw him rarely reach 10 minutes in a game. He could come in and not worry about foul troubles. Now he is starting and will be expected to be in there 25-35 minutes a game. It's an adjustment.

"Playing against these (non-conference) teams, it's definitely great that we don't play against (the likes of) UConn and Syracuse right away," Gray said. "It gives our team a chance to tune-up the things we need to. It gives a chance for guys to get a lot more comfortable."

Gray, who is second on the team to Krauser in scoring (12.3 ppg.) and leads in rebounding (10.3 rpg.), shot 6-for-10 against Maine. But, as he has done in every game so far, he misfired on several shots near the basket.

It doesn't seem to concern him, though.

"Every night, I just come out and try to play as hard as I can," he said. "I'm not really a numbers guy. The only number I look at right now is three, because we're 3-0 as a team."

Those missed open shots seemed to generate the most complaints. Centers, almost without exception, are projects. They come to college after easily dominating in high school entirely based on size. They take time to learn about footwork and positioning. College brings greater balance by virtue of speed, leaping ability and more size. Gray's development through the season is being heavily scrutinized.

At least his hometown area is happy to see him starting.

Ex-Lehigh Valley standouts are playing well.
Aaron Gray, the 7-foot center from Emmaus, is starting for the first time at Pittsburgh and has played like the beast he'll definitely need to be once the Big East season begins. In three games, he's averaged 12.0 points and 10.3 rebounds, and has attempted more free throws (19) than any other Panther.

He had a career-high 13 rebounds, plus 15 points and four blocks in Pitt's 62-49 win over Maine Saturday night.
Hey, if all of Scranton can become a Syracuse bastion because of McNamara, maybe Gray can help out on the Eastern part of Pennsylvania.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Battling Black Bears  

The problem with visiting family over the holiday weekend is that there just so many times you can say, "screw you guys, I'm going to be on the computer listening to the game." My time ran out last night, so I didn't get to tune in to the Maine-Pitt game. Judging by what I am reading, that turned out to be a good thing.

The game was less than perfect.

After three games, Pitt remains undefeated, but not all is rosy with these young Panthers. For the second consecutive game they allowed an inferior opponent to hang around for much longer than they should have.

On Wednesday, Robert Morris was within one point of Pitt early in the second half before the Panthers pulled away for a 27-point victory. Last night, Maine made it much more interesting, keeping the contest to single digits for most of the second half after Pitt had built a 20-point lead in the first half.

"A lot of guys are trying to get comfortable and used to the rotation that coach is using right now," senior guard Carl Krauser said. "But we can't allow a team like that to hang around. Our defense was there. We just made some bad decisions and we weren't knocking down shots."

Maine played a soft-zone against Pitt. Allowing outside shots but clogging the passing lanes and making it hard to go inside. That forced Pitt to settle for jumpers. As has been the case, previously, that is not Pitt's game. Krauser, Fields and Ramon combined to shoot 5-25 including 3-15 on 3s.

As usual, Coach Jamie Dixon went into positive-spin coachspeak.
Opening remarks:

"Maine played very well, they're a good team, a good program. They do a very good job and have guys that can score. I thought we did a good job on Turner, I thought Carl (Krauser) did a very good job, as did Antonio. We did well, we did some good things, especially defensively. We had a couple breakdowns, that will happen but I thought we did pretty well defensively. Ball pressure was good. I thought we passed the ball very well. We have 18 assists on our 22 baskets, which shows we had very good passing and open looks. I think we could have shot the ball better, I think that was something we didn't do as well tonight. I think that allowed Maine to stay around."

On Pitt's guards shooting 5-25 from the floor:

"We took good shots, had good looks."

On his playing rotation:

"We had good production out of guys and good things out of everybody. We could have played better but we did a lot of good things. This was not our best shooting night and still we came away with a 13 point win."
I want to believe that Dixon knows statements like, "I think we could have shot the ball better," just invites eye-rolling and frustration from fans but is determined to protect his players. At times, though, I think he just doesn't think. There was no need to add a modifier like "think" to the statement. The team shot under 40% and didn't put this team away. Clearly Pitt did not shoot well and it allowed Maine to stay in the game.

Pitt did win this game early, by playing a tough defense that not only kept Maine from shooting much above 21% in the first half but also allowed Pitt to take 7 more shots than them.

Gray had a solid game.
"We didn't have a lot of energy at some points in the game," Pitt center Aaron Gray said. "We missed a lot of wide-open looks."
The 7-foot Gray led three Pitt scorers in double figures by posting his second double-double of the season and of his career. Gray scored 15 points to go with career-highs of 13 rebounds and four blocks. Antonio Graves added 12 points and Keith Benjamin tied his career-high with 10 for the Panthers.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon continued to show support for his players, even in the aftermath of this latest adventure. He insisted that Gray is steadily getting comfortable.

"He's playing well," Dixon said. "It's funny -- 15 points and 13 rebounds -- he would tell you that he would have felt he could have knocked down a few more shots. Overall, I thought we took good shots."

Gray's going to take a lot of criticism because at 7' he is expected to be very dominant inside, but he isn't near the expectations right now.

A big reason Pitt won is that the Pitt bench provided half their scoring, while Maine got next to nothing (6 points).

Keith Benjamin had a solid game, with 10 points off 4-5 shooting, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 rebounds.

Final addition, the NY Times had a piece on the bloated Big East. Not that interesting.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Shifting Positions and Black Bears 

A couple articles yesterday about Carl Krauser playing more at the shooting guard (sort of).
Jamie Dixon isn't calling Carl Krauser a shooting guard. And don't expect to hear that terminology from Pitt's coach anytime soon.

Call Krauser's move away from the point anything you wish. But through two games, it must be called an unqualified success.

Given the talent faced, I'd be a little less effusive in the praise.

Former Pitt guard Curtis Aiken, who covers the Panthers for FSN Pittsburgh, said the decision to move Krauser off the ball has been a success, but he said the real test will come when Krauser begins to face better teams, with better athletes who are able to keep up with him.

"It's working now because Carl is being patient," Aiken said. "It will be interesting to see how he handles things when he's going against better athletes, when he's getting denied the ball. What's going to happen when he doesn't touch the ball for five possessions down the floor? He's really going to have to be patient then. That's going to be the thing to watch."

That's a little better.

Krauser, though, is enjoying the challenge of playing more without the ball.

"I really don't think of (Krauser) as a 2-guard. He's a point guard," Dixon said. "But he's played off the ball before and he's playing there again.

"We're going to have two point guards on the floor a lot of this season, and that's something we've talked about. It's something that's best for the team because of the personnel."

To learn more about playing away from the point -- his natural position -- Krauser has been studying the NBA game and watching in particular the play of Detroit Pistons guards Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups.

"It's definitely different," Krauser said. "At the point, you've got the ball every time. You can make plays, you can shoot, you can do whatever you want. But when you come off those screens, you've got to be ready to shoot the ball, you've got to be ready to make plays.

"When you don't have the ball, you definitely have to play defense and you have to set screens. You have to do a lot of things."

Putting Krauser off the ball more, means that Levance Fields along with Ronald Ramon are getting more time at the point.

Through two games, he ranks third on the Panthers in scoring (9.0 ppg.) and is shooting 55 percent (6 for 11), including 3 for 4 from 3-point range. He has recorded five assists, including several on ally-oop passes that led to dunks by freshman Sam Young.

"Once you get on the court and play, your game will determine what happens," Ramon said. "If you get the attention, you get the attention. But that's not something that should get you down at all. If you don't get the attention from everybody else -- the media, the people around -- you should just keep playing and keep working hard. It should be motivation."

While Ramon is known as a shooter, Dixon is hoping the 6-foot-1 guard can add some wrinkles, such as penetrating the opposing defense and playing some tougher defense of his own.

"He's such a good shooter and everybody knows he's a good shooter," Dixon said. "They're going to be out on you. You've got to be able to create something and get other guys shots."

Dixon said that, like Krauser, Pitt's leading scorer (20.0 ppg.), he's comfortable with using Ramon at either guard spot.

"He can play both spots," Dixon said. "He's getting better at penetrating and he's becoming a better defender on the ball. He's definitely improved from last year to this year."

His game should continue to improve this year as his right thumb heals. So far, Ramon has been one of several players coming off the bench to help the team. Tyrell Biggs made his case coming in for Gray, who picked up early fouls.

Freshman Tyrell Biggs came off the bench and scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting while playing 14 minutes during a portion of Gray's absence.

"Tyrell keeps getting better," Dixon said. "Defensively, we've seen some real strides in him the past couple of days." On Gray's performances, Dixon offered: "With any big guy, you're a little concerned with foul trouble. It's something that you deal with with every big guy, especially with Aaron, being as big as he is. He hasn't played long periods of time, so it is an adjustment."

Like last year, Pitt is hitting the 3s against the weaker teams. Whether Pitt can do so when the defenses improve is a different issue.

Tonight Pitt faces the Black Bears of Maine. Pitt should have a relatively easy win with Maine's leading scorer from last year still out with an injury.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Backyard Brawl: Still Don't Get It 

Strange to watch the game with family. People who haven't seen this team all year. I was in the position of trying to explain that decision in the second quarter by Coach Wannstedt. The one where Pitt had the choice of 4th and 3 or 3rd and 13 following an offside call. By choosing to punt instead. I was absolutely flabbergasted, as was everyone in the room. Even more stunning in a way, the fact that Tirico and Herbstreit not only took it in stride, but didn't even seem to notice or question it. The whole strategy (such as it was) failed miserably anyways when Graessle's punt went for a touchback. A net punt of 18 yards. It was a stunning brainlock. These days, teams look to take the delay of game penalty to punt further away anyhow. Yet, somehow -- no, there is just nothing about it that made sense.

Midway through the second quarter, Wannstedt declined an offside penalty on West Virginia that would have given Pitt a third-and-13 at the Mountaineers' 48, choosing instead a fourth-and-3 play at the West Virginia 38. That's fine if you're going to go for it. Wannstedt punted. Couldn't Pitt have taken a shot on third-and-13 and then punted from midfield if it had to? Didn't it have to do everything it could to keep the ball away from the West Virginia offense?

Then, at the end of the first half, with Pitt down, 21-13, Wannstedt went for it on fourth down when he should have punted. A Palko pass was incomplete on fourth-and-4 from the West Virginia 48 with 29.8 seconds left. The Mountaineers would have made Pitt pay if kicker Pat McAfee's 49-yard field-goal try wasn't wide right.

"I should have gone for it the first time," Wannstedt said. "Considering our strengths and weaknesses, I should go for it every time."

The game wasn't necessarily won or lost then, but it sure sucked the hope from me.

Wannstedt sure didn't help Pitt's cause.

In fact, he went Walt Harris early in the second quarter, essentially punting on third down with his team in West Virginia territory, trailing 14-13 and carrying momentum after a Josh Lay interception.

A 15-yard completion to Derek Kinder gave Pitt a 4th-and-3 at the WVU 38, but WVU was offside on the play. The choices there would have been to: a.) decline the penalty and go for it, because you couldn't stop WVU's rushing attack, anyway, or b.) take the penalty and try again on 3rd-and-13, feeling pretty good about yourselves since you just made a 15-yard completion and had a red-hot quarterback in Tyler Palko.

Wannstedt went way off the board for c.) take the completion and punt.


If Wannstedt was obsessed with winning the special teams battle - as most NFL coaches are -- he could have punted again if another third-down play failed.

Instead, Adam Graessle punted into the end zone. After an exchange of punts, WVU took over at its 49 (so much for winning the field-position battle) and used eight straight running plays and a Pitt personal foul to take a 21-13 lead.

Wannstedt made an almost-as-nutty decision on Pitt's last possession of the half, going for it on 4th-and-4 from the WVU 48 with 33.6 seconds left and WVU holding all its timeouts. WVU forced a Palko incompletion and drove 21 yards before missing a field-goal attempt.

Mind-boggling stuff, but Pitt would have been humiliated, anyway.

It was that kind of season.

I don't think I'll get an answer that will make me happy. I'd just like one that made a little more sense. No. Check that, no answer is going to make much sense on that play.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Backyard Brawl: Searing Pain 

That 2nd half effort was pathetic. Bad turnovers. Unable to put the ball in the endzone. Complete and utter inability to stop the run. When a defense allows just under 400 rushing yards to just 2 players, there is not a lot to say.

Give credit to WVU for not doing anything stupid or foolish by even pretending to pass in the second half. They threw the ball only 10 times in the game (was a pass even attempted in the second half?), and that was the smart thing. Why bother when Pitt couldn't stop the run?

Stephens-Howling had a game that should gnaw at him for a while. Turning the ball over twice and nearly a third time. Eric Gill had another key fumble. Just thoroughly depressing.

Backyard Brawl 

Open thread. Let it rip.

UPDATE 1 (9:13): If anyone has a frickin' explanation as to why Pitt would choose 4th & 3 to punt rather than 3d & 13 to try again when the D hasn't held I'd love to read it.

UPDATE 2 (10:20): Apparently the offense no longer can hold onto the ball.

Wannstedt -- Coaching, Recruiting and Players 

The Post-Gazette lists its "Fabulous 22" from the WPIAL and City League. There are 20 Seniors on the list. 6 have committed to Pitt (Dickerson, Nix, Malecki, Pinkston, Webster, and Aaron Smith). 2 more are undecided and have Pitt in their final list (Fields and Miller).

Coach Wannstedt is starting to talk a lot about next year and the incoming talent (despite saying he doesn't want to talk about what happened this year until the season is actually over).

"We've got one or two players stockpiled at every position. Good players want to come here, but we don't have scholarships to offer them ...

"I spend a couple of hours on Sunday nights talking to them. At least half a dozen have told me, 'Coach, we're coming there and we're going to make a difference in the program.' Imagine that. I'm trying to pump them up, and they're pumping me up. I love it."

Wannstedt was rolling now.

"This will be my first recruiting class from start to finish. It's going to be a special group, the foundation of something special to come here. The players know it. Their parents know it. Their coaches know it. Everybody knows it, including the people we're recruiting against.

"And you can quote me on that."

While Coach Wannstedt doesn't want talk about this year in the past tense, others are starting to. Bruce Feldman at ESPN.com blogs his list of worst coaching jobs of the season (Insider Subs.).
5. Dave Wannstedt, Pitt: Tinkered with a dangerous passing game and unsettled his own QB Tyler Palko. The Panthers opened 1-4 with the lone win over Youngstown State. The Panthers, who last season averaged 358 yards per game, brought back the same QB and receivers and yet rank 7th in the Big East this season at 325 yards per game.
I don't disagree with Wannstedt making the list for coaching, but I would have put him further down the list behind at least Callahan (Nebraska), Amato (NC State) and Koetter (Arizona St.). The top 4 were Fulmer (Tennessee), Franchione (Texas A&M), Groh (Virginia) and Smith (Mich. St.).

Backyard Brawl: Cold, Cold, Cold 

Game time temp is supposed to be around 30, with winds up to 20 mph. The parking lots will be opening at 2 pm allowing those planning to deep fry their turkeys on site plenty of time. Naturally there will be very little drinking before hand by the fans. Not on Thanksgiving.

A list of 5 memorable Backyard Brawls for the Hoopies and Pitt. Clearly a flawed list if the Pitt list manages to exclude the 1997 game.

Sorry, not going to do a full narrative. Too much going on in the parent's house. Too many relatives and things happening. It figures to get even worse when the drinks start flowing, so this will be disjointed.

Summary story on the game, what's on the line and stuff like that. This version, pretty much takes quotes from all week long to make the story.

This piece looks at how WVU plans to stop Pitt's offense (hint: it ain't by worrying about the running game).

This story argues that the key to stopping the WVU running game will involve a huge game from H.B. Blades. Actually, stopping the running game will require career games from the entire d-line and Thomas Smith playing at least half the game.

Final story is a puff piece on the McKillop boys and their family.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Backyard Brawl: Hoopie Talk 

I'm pretty sure the Charleston Gazette is an afternoon paper, so their stories come later.

You have a longtime West Virginia sportswriter talking about WVU winning 15-0 in 1967. The kicker, of course, was from the Pittsburgh area.

An article about Wannstedt's first season in charge. Coach Wannstedt isn't ready to discuss what happened.
"We'll deal with the season when the season's over," Wannstedt said. "We still have another game left and it would be way too premature to get into (analyzing the season).

"I think you have to correct the bad things that have happened and we can't stick our head in the sand. But then you look for the things that were good and you build on that."

Hopefully he won't have to talk about it for a bit longer.

West Virginia, arguably, is the school that most needs a Big East football conference to work and thrive. While Pitt and Syracuse quietly jockey and hope that when the Big 11 expands, and ND turns them down again, they will get the nod. WVU has nowhere else to go, despite their history. As such, they view the reconfigured bowl tie-ins for the Big East as having good potential.

It recouped by landing half-a-berth for No. 2 in the Sun Bowl, which while it may not quite share the clout of the Gator, has deeper roots (only the Rose, Orange and Sugar have been played longer).

The Sun is also a good deal for the Big East in another fashion. While the payout (see accompanying chart) pales in comparison to the Gator, the Big East will only be required to take 5,000 tickets for the game at the 50,426-seat Sun Bowl. Unsold tickets can eat into conference payouts.

After dickering for a Liberty Bowl berth against a bottom rung Southeastern Conference team, the Big East ended up with a spot for its No. 3 in the Houston Bowl, against No. 5 from the Big 12. That's a shorter trip than to Phoenix for the Insight, where Big East No. 3 currently goes.

The Liberty would have been best option, but Houston is better than the Insight. The Big East is keeping its date in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., where minimum payouts can be boosted by a WVU or Louisville, or a neighboring North Carolina.

Last December, the old Tire Bowl was contracted to deliver a $750,000 payout. The Big East and ACC, due to big-time North Carolina ticket sales, got $1.3 million apiece for a Boston College-UNC game.

Now, the Big East is trying to help place a new bowl in Toronto for a fifth bid. Commissioner Mike Tranghese expects NCAA Football Subcommittee approval for a 2006 game between the Big East and Mid-American conferences.
Bottom line? Big East football fared better with its bowls recast than it did in telecast renegotiations.

Kind of damning with faint praise.

Unit comparisons between Pitt and West Virginia. Favoring Pitt: QB, Receivers and Secondary. Favoring WVU: D-Line, O-Line, RBs, Linebacker and Special Teams. Special Teams is most questionable.

Finally, a widely distributed AP story on the Backyard Brawl.

Second Half Strength 

I was only able to tune in for the 2nd half. After RMU pulled within 1, early in the 2nd, Pitt just blew it open. Seemed to really turn up the defense, took some better shots and simply wore down a weaker smaller team to win 86-59.

Backyard Brawl: Outside the Region Perspective 

Here's what the gamblers are saying:
In the eight major rivalries, the favorites went 6-2 straight up and against the spread. A day like that is normally a catastrophe for bookies, who almost always take more action on the favorites.
BetCRIS.com was one of the first sportsbooks to release a line for the game, which they opened at West Virginia -9. Catford said they took one-sided action on the Mountaineers and had to gradually increase the pointspread to 13 points before they finally got some buy-back on Pitt.

West Virginia is still laying 13 points in the Brawl -- and rightfully so. They're the top team in the Big East and they've covered the spread in four straight games coming into this one.

But even with the success of the favorites over the weekend, is a two-touchdown victory too much to expect from a team in a game filled with as much emotion as this one?

"There are so many big games on a team's schedule these days, I don't think these rivalry games mean as much anymore," says Covers Expert David Malinsky. "If someone thinks they have a matchup advantage here, I don't think they should worry about the rivalry thing."

Only one team in last weekend's rivalry action was favored as heavily as West Virginia is on Thursday. Oregon was laying 13 1/2 points against Oregon State in the Civil War, but that game turned into the most lopsided victory of the weekend as the Ducks flew to a 42-point victory.

Pitt has flopped in some games this year and recently against WVU. I wouldn't touch this game.

USA Today's college football guy is picking the Hoopies.
Stakes are always high for the Backyard Brawl. This year is no different. Dave Wannstedt is trying to overcome his 1-4 start with the Panthers to become bowl-eligible. The Mountaineers have their sights set on the BCS and a possible top-10 finish in the polls. West Virginia 26, Pittsburgh 14.
This general, AP story picks the 'Eers to win 28-13.

A Connecticut paper picks up the theme from a NJ paper bemoaning the lack of rivalry games in the Big East. Apparently they got UConn Coach Randy Edsall to discuss the subject, and show a little of his own ignorance (either that or they put words in his mouth).

Coach Randy Edsall said he hopes the league considers developing some November rivalries in the same fashion that a conference like the Big Ten promotes rivalries like Penn State-Michigan State or Ohio State-Michigan.

"I think it will make the conference a little better if you had teams play games like those late in the year," Edsall said. "You have West Virginia and Pitt finishing off the last game of the year every year. That is the best thing to do."

Edsall said that from a logistical standpoint, having Cincinnati and Louisville play each other would seem like a natural fit. And while that would leave three Northeast teams and South Florida, he thinks it would make sense to have Syracuse play South Florida. He reasoned that the Carrier Dome could nullify the weather differences between the two schools.

That would leave UConn playing Rutgers. While the players believe it could take some time to build a rivalry between the two teams, they like the idea.
Cinci and Louisville already have a rivalry game with each other. With a trophy that has a great name: The Keg of Nails. Penn State-Michigan State is not a rivalry game no matter how hard it is spun. No one is buying it.

Backyard Brawl: Other Things 

We're heading out the door to be with my family in Lebanon for Thanksgiving. I'll post later tonight (probably). Just a few articles and things to get posted.

Puff piece on Palko's season of transition.

The losing is hard on Palko. He's not sure, but he doesn't think he has played in a total of five losing games in all of his years in football. It's especially difficult because Pitt started the season with such high expectations and a No. 23 ranking, back in the days when he was mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.

Palko is dealing with it the best way he knows how -- by working harder. On Friday afternoon, when there didn't appear to be another player at Pitt's South Side headquarters, he was studying film of West Virginia's defense in a room adjacent to Cavanaugh's office. It's safe to say he'll spend countless hours there between now and next season, gearing up for a senior season that Wannstedt predicted will be "sensational," a belief shared here.

Palko finds great comfort in that quarterbacks' room, not to mention great motivation.

It's the Dan Marino room.

"I have to walk by his jersey every day," Palko said. "Then, I have to look in the eyes of a guy who was an All-American quarterback here" -- Cavanaugh -- "and has a national championship ring. I definitely feel I have a responsibility to the position at this school. I want to keep the legacy going."

Also a puff piece on WVU's Freshman RB Steve Slaton. Slaton didn't know much about the Backyard Brawl, as he's from Levittown, PA. Which is right on the NJ border and is closer to Trenton than Philly. The Backyard Brawl just doesn't get the run on that side of the state. Not many Hoopies over in Eastern PA and NJ.

A good piece on ESPN.com by Joe Starkey on the Brawl. It discusses Tony Dorsett getting tossed from the game in 1976, and preparations by Coach Wannstedt for this game.

Wannstedt used an old Majors tactic this week in practice, blaring the John Denver song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- the West Virginia anthem -- over the loudspeakers. As of Tuesday morning, anyway, Wannstedt had not gone to the extremes Majors did leading up to the 1973 game.

That was Majors' first year at Pitt, and he was willing to try anything to reverse the program's luck in Morgantown, where it hadn't won since 1963. For starters, he had his defensive backs tape fly swatters (without the screens) across the insides of the tops of their helmets. The idea was to put them in a mind-set to stop the Mountaineers' star receiver Danny Buggs.

"To kill Buggs, you know," Majors said.

The coach also had his team drink only Mountain Dew at practice all week and played "Country Roads" ad nauseam -- before, during and even after practice in the locker room.

"No bebop music, no jazz," Majors said. "They showered pretty fast, they got so sick of that damn thing. We had a little humor in it, but it was serious business. We went down there pretty loose and confident."

The Panthers won 35-7 in a game Majors calls one of his personal favorites.
That song is so easy to hate.

Finally a couple stories on Jovani Chappel announcing his verbal commit to Pitt.

"After I committed to Purdue, I decided to just take a trip to Pitt," he said. "Once I did, I found out both schools were about equal in everything. With them being equal, I just had to go where my heart was. I had to pray on it. I found my heart was with Pitt."

Chappel will graduate in December and attend Pitt in the spring semester. "They're having an excellent recruiting class, which should make for a great future," he said. "Plus, coach [Dave] Wannstedt is a great man. I think I'll have a great player-coach relationship with him."

Coach Wannstedt's ties to Chappel's high school coach apparently helped.

... It didn't hurt that Trotwood Madison coach Maurice Douglas played for Wannstedt with the Chicago Bears.

"Coach Wannstedt was one of his head coaches," Chappel said. "He thinks he's a real honest, straight-forward guy who keeps his word. He thinks I'll have a great player-coach relationship with coach Wannstedt."

Interesting how those NFL ties are still helping.

Backyard Brawl: Couches, Coaches and Running 

You knew this story was long overdue. Hoopie couch burning and the "unfair" stigma on Morgantown.

University chief of police Bob Roberts said it will take a combined effort to douse the flames and end West Virginia's reputation as the couch-burning capital of college football.

"We want all our students and fans to know that we will hold people responsible and accountable for their actions," Roberts said.

Sports writer Mickey Furfari, who has been covering West Virginia athletics for 59 years and writes for seven newspapers across the state, said the outdoor furniture blazes have produced negative national publicity.

"But I doubt there's any danger this week when Pitt plays here because the students are away for Thanksgiving and the weather forecast is calling for snow," he said. "I would be shocked if there will be any problems, unless they burn the couches to keep warm."

Wilson, a Morgantown native who has watched the couch-burning trend evolve over the past 18 years, agrees that the Pitt game isn't likely to spark trouble. He also cites the fact the Mountaineers still have two more important games, including a possible major bowl berth.

"West Virginia has always been a rowdy school, but this week, our couches should be safe," Wilson said.

Wilson said the problem was blown out of proportion by the media. Many of the students burning couches aren't even from Morgantown.

Sure they aren't from Morgantown. Wheeling, Parkersburg, every other ramshackle trailer park called a town in the state, yes. But not Morgantown.

Big news in West Virginia, Coach Wannstedt had the Hoopies as his second choice.

"I really liked Coach Bowden,'' said Wannstedt. "But I'd heard a lot of talk that he might not be staying at WVU, so I went to Pitt. As it turned out, he wound up staying a few more years and I wound up playing against his teams every year.

"It's kind of funny. Even today, whenever I run into him, that's what we always talk about.''

Considering all week WVU players from Pittsburgh have been talking about their grudge against Pitt for not recruiting them, why is this a surprise?

A tough article asking questions about the lack of change in Pitt's offense from the start of the season to now.

Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt talks repeatedly about wanting to have a streamlined offense, one that can run or pass equally well and creates matchup problems at nearly every skill position for the defense.

So why then, as Pitt heads into what could be its last game of the season, is the offense in almost exactly the same state it was before the Sept. 3 opener against Notre Dame?

Just as then, the offense is still overly reliant on the passing game to generate scoring and keep drives going. Just as then, a No. 1 running back has not emerged. Just as then, Pitt never can seem to figure out whether it needs to go with a single running back and let him try to develop, or to use a multi-back rotation and go with whichever back is running well.

One thing is for certain: the Panthers (5-5, 4-2 Big East) are running out of time to find out the answers.

You could say that.

West Virginia, on the other hand, has no problem running. And running a lot.

Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said the Panthers must find a way to stop the Mountaineers' rushing attack or they have no chance of winning.

"You see how they play; they line up and try and knock you off the ball," Rhoads said. "But they also spread you out so if you don't make the tackle at the point of attack, it can go for a long, long way. And those running backs -- and the quarterback can also run very well -- all have a lot of speed, so once they get into the secondary, it can be off to the races."

The Mountaineers average 236.8 yards per game on the ground and have rushed for more than 200 yards in six games. Twice the Mountaineers have eclipsed the 300-yard mark and had 297 against the Bearcats. Steve Slaton is their leading rusher (117 rushes for 695 yards) and White is second (73-513).

Those numbers don't bode well for the Panthers, who have been inconsistent stopping the run all season because they have been beaten too often up front.

That could spell trouble because West Virginia's offensive line is as good as any the Panthers have faced since the opener against Notre Dame.

The health of defensive tackle Thomas Smith, who has a toe injury, might be a big factor. When he has played, the Panthers have had some success stopping the run. When he hasn't, they've struggled.

Pitt gives up an average of 158.6 yards per game on the ground. Only one team, Ohio, has rushed for less than 100; three teams have burned the Panthers for more than 200.

The article says Rhoads doesn't want to leave Lay and Revis to take the WVU receivers one-on-one because of QB Pat White's accuracy. Crap. I don't see how Pitt has a choice. They need to bring the safeties up more, not just to stop the running back but also White. Pitt needs to be able to keep White from getting outside the pocket and turning the corner.

Both team's passing numbers are down from last year. Hardly a shock.

WVU lost their top receiver and quarterback from last year. They have switched QBs during the season and have developed a powerful running game.

Pitt, as has been well documented, has a new coach and new offensive philosophy that emphasizes running a lot more.

Pitt players will have their thanksgiving feast at a hotel in Washington, PA.

Just How Much Can You Talk About This Game? 

It is Robert Morris, after all.

That means player puff pieces in the context of Pitt basketball.

Senior John DeGroat gets the "I'm just trying to help the team," story.

Playing time didn't come easy to DeGroat in the opener. He played only 13 minutes, scoring three points and grabbing four rebounds.

"Same thing as last year," he said. "If I'm on the court, I'm on the court. If I'm not, I'm not. I'm still part of the team. I've got to support my teammates, no matter what. Everybody wants to be on the court, but I do take my (senior) role as a lead role."

DeGroat was a scorer in high school at Monticello (N.Y.), where he averaged 24.3 points to go with 13.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game as a senior. He went on to play two seasons at Northeastern Colorado Junior College.

As a sophomore, he averaged 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds, and shot 49.4 percent (128 for 259), including 44.4 (32 for 72) from 3-point range.

Now, in his second season at Pitt, DeGroat is hoping he can contribute.

"Everybody can keep improving. I'm improving every day," he said. "One part of my game I can improve is I can rebound and defend more, but I'm getting better every day."

DeGroat was not seen very often until nearly the end of the season when he got into a couple games during the random bench rotation time. This, despite expectations that he was going to be an immediate contributor at forward. It still remains to be seen what happens this year.

The other story is for Center Aaron Gray.

Gray is a double threat at center. He can score when called upon, but he also is among the best passers on the team. When St. Peter's played zone against the Panthers, Gray found the open man and forced the Peacocks to play more man-to-man defense. And when they played man-to-man, Gray exercised his size advantage and went to the basket.

"We got them out of their zone because I got the ball in the high post and was making good passes," Gray said. "It was opening up our offense. When they went man-to-man the guys were looking for me. I was trying to get to the hoop. I worked on my moves really hard during the offseason."

Gray is looking to be more assertive this season. Because he is one of the team's better passers, Gray sometimes fell into the habit of passing out of the low post last season instead of going to the basket.

In the offseason, Dixon and the coaching staff talked with him about taking more of the offense on his broad shoulders.

"One of the things I do in practice is pass too much out of the post," Gray said. "The coaches said I need to be a big offensive contributor to this team because we have so many young guys who are working their way in."

How Gray develops and progresses this season will be part of how well Pitt does. It's the trend for the whole team. Development and progress.

There is no doubt that this will be an up and down season for Pitt. There just is no other way with the number of new, talented players plus the ones from last year who are getting a shot.

I think most fans understand that. What I, and most, want to see is some reasonably steady improvement over the course of the season. Last year the team didn't change from start to finish. No improvements, no growth, nothing.

Final note, Carl Krauser is once more a candidate for the Naismith Award to go with his candidacy for the Wooden Award. Long-shots, I know, but who knows.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Bison Strike Again 

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least take note of this.
First Pitt. Then Kansas. Now Syracuse.

Beating the big teams is getting to be old hat for Bucknell, which used its slowdown offense to rally past the 17th-ranked Orange 74-69 on Tuesday night.

"We never take the underdog role," said Kevin Bettencourt, who led Bucknell with 20 points and keyed a late 13-2 run that decided the game. "We think we can win every game."

And why not?

Last January, Bucknell handed 10th-ranked Pittsburgh its first loss of the season, also snapping the Panthers' 48-game home winning streak against non-conference teams. Then in March they shocked the third-seeded Jayhawks 64-63 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

On this night, it was the Orange's turn. Bucknell (2-0) won for the first time in nine meetings with Syracuse (3-2) and sent the Orange to their second straight loss.
Bucknell returned most of the starters from last year. It still doesn't remove the sting, but it is interesting considering how Syracuse absolutely destroyed Texas Tech a few days ago.

Looks like Pitt definitely won't be the only up and down team in the Big East this year.

Backyard Brawl: Imitating Hoopies 

The job of the scout team.

Simulating it at practice, however, has been a much different story because one of the Mountaineers' greatest assets -- and Wannstedt's biggest fear -- is their team speed. He said watching West Virginia on film and breaking down its plays is one thing -- trying to get scout-team players and backups to provide the starters with an idea of how fast they are is another.

"They are as fast as anybody we've played at almost every position," Wannstedt said. "Their running back, their cornerback makes as many big plays as anybody we got. They've got speed at receivers, they have speed on the defensive side of the ball, they've got speed everywhere.

"That ties in with Rich Rodriguez's whole philosophy. The things they do on offense are predicated on making big plays, and they have the athletes and speed to do it. That makes it tough because you try to simulate that in practice and it's very difficult but that's the only way you can halfway get our guys prepared."

To simulate the Mountaineers' speed, Wannstedt has used a number of players at different positions on the scout team .

"We really emphasized to those [scout-team] guys in practice the speed thing," Wannstedt said. "It is what we're going to try and see at practice. We have some guys who are fast enough that I think we'll get a good picture but we'll have to be ready early.

"The first series or two is always important from the standpoint of setting a tempo and not going out there and being fooled by the pace of the game."

Wannstedt said the Mountaineers' talent is evident in the way they've been able to attack teams on offense and defense. They are very aggressive on both sides of the ball, and even if they make a mistake, they are able to compensate for it with their quickness.

Pitt has had trouble with team speed, well, for a couple of years. Nothing that can be changed right away.

What might work to slow WVU down a little may be some nasty weather.

"We'll see how the game unfolds," Wannstedt said. "We'll see what the conditions are. They're talking about bad weather, some snow, some wind, sleet, whatever. I think you have to be aware of that in advance and talk about it, which we have, and be ready to make some adjustments."
Though, the nasty weather would appear to be hitting tomorrow and only into the AM in Morgantown. It means, their astroturf should be fine.

BlogPoll Ballot, Week 13 

Still more shaking up and out. Painful, very painful to do this one.
  1. Southern California -- That game was why no one wants to play Fresno State
  2. Texas -- DNP
  3. Louisiana State -- Very good
  4. Penn State -- I'm jamming a pen into my leg after typing this
  5. Ohio State -- That is 2 years in a row now, that Tressel remembers to take the gloves off the offense after playing so conservatively cost them a couple games
  6. Notre Dame -- Surprisingly not as impressive against a very, very bad Syracuse team
  7. Virginia Tech -- Do they have one more choke job in them?
  8. Auburn -- Possibly playing the best football in the SEC
  9. West Virginia -- Songs banned in Morgantown this week include: "Under Pressure", Queen with David Bowie and "Pressure Drop" as sung by many including The Maytals, The Clash and The Specials.
  10. Oregon -- Yeah, yeah, we know. No one respects the PAC 10
  11. Miami -- Damn hard to play football with both hands wrapped around own throat
  12. Georgia --Great, you beat Kentucky
  13. UCLA -- DNP
  14. TCU -- DNP
  15. Louisville -- DNP
  16. Fresno State -- Not quite as impressive a loss as ND had to USC, but scary
  17. Florida -- DNP
  18. Alabama -- No offense left
  19. Florida State -- DNP
  20. Wisconsin -- DNP, running out of choices again
  21. Michigan -- Part of the reason they still stay in
  22. South Carolina -- Ditto
  23. Georgia Tech -- And for their next trick, they will get blown out by Georgia
  24. Boston College -- Typical BC
  25. Iowa State -- This is the team, the dart landed on
OUT: Oklahoma, UTEP, Northwestern,
IN: Iowa State, BC, Georgia Tech
Games seen whole or in part: OSU-Mich, PSU-MSU, Syr-ND, Aub-Ala, BGSU-Miami (OH)

A New Verbal 

Pitt has a commit from Jovani Chappel out of Ohio (hat tip to Neil). Chappel had taken a visit to Pitt during the UConn game. The visit and his comfort with Coach Wannstedt and the staff led him to change his mind on a previously soft verbal to Purdue.

According to the e-mail from Chris Dokish of Pittsburgh Sports Report,
An excellent student with a 3.6 GPA, Chappel is planning to graduate in December and enroll at Pitt in January. It is a new strategy used by more and more players so they can participate in spring practice, and thus have a much better chance to start as a true freshman.
I'm not sure of how the rules work, but I think he also doesn't count against Pitt's recruiting class limit for 2006. Instead he would count in the class of 2005. I'll have to check on that.

Backyard Brawl: Hype and Keeping Things In Check 

In this latest version of the Big East, there is no doubt that the Keg of Nails Backyard Brawl is the big rivalry game.

Take a close look at the revamped Big East and you'll see one glaring void in the conference: The absence of a handful of intense and storied rivalry games. But there is one, and no one has to explain to Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt or Rich Rodriguez, his counterpart at West Virginia, what Thursday night's "Backyard Brawl" in Morgantown means.

Wannstedt was a three-year starter at tackle for the Panthers from 1971-73. Rodriguez was a defensive back for the Mountaineers from 1981-84.

It's the first time since 1965 that a Pittsburgh graduate is coaching his alma mater and a West Virginia guy is at the helm for the Mountaineers in the game.

Though the Hoopie head coach is trying to downplay the head coaches as former players angle a bit.

"I remember walking around campus and the 'Beat Pitt' shirts -- or things more colorful than 'Beat Pitt,' " Rodriguez said. "But, being honest with you, I don't think it's any different if I wasn't an alumni. I think too much has been made of this. Maybe the fact I experienced it as a player makes good copy."
Rivalry games, though, mean that fans have strong memories of games attended for good -- 1997, triple-OT win in Morgantown -- and bad -- the shellacking the following year at 3 Rivers. So do the players memories of the games they were in.

Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford stopped by Monday to see some of his former teammates and to spin tales about recent Backyard Brawl games against rival West Virginia.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt wondered if, 20 years from now, Rutherford will be telling the same stories.

"Everyone's got a Backyard Brawl story, and they get better as the years go on," Wannstedt said.

Like the one Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko can tell about last year's 16-13 Pitt victory over No. 21 West Virginia, a Thanksgiving night game televised nationally. The Mountaineers lead 10-0 and 13-9 only to lose on Palko's 2-yard scoring run with just over five minutes remaining, putting Pitt into the BCS bowl berth that West Virginia seemed to have secured.

Wannstedt, a Pitt player from 1970-73, can tell stories himself about the Pitt-West Virginia series -- now, with Penn State gone, the only remaining rivalry on Pitt's schedule that has been played every season since World War II.

Wannstedt, as a freshman linebacker, was around for one of Pitt's most improbable victories in the series, a 36-35 decision in 1970 in which Pitt trailed 35-8 at Pitt Stadium.
I just don't see the comparisons to NFL playoff games.

West Virginia Coach Rodriguez agrees that these are the games the players remember.
"I tell our players that the rivalry game is one they'll remember the most after they've graduated," he said. "They'll recall all of them 5, 10, 15 or 20 years hence."

When he was a student-athlete in the early 1980s, the head coach recalled, there was more talk about the rivalry games on campus and less media hype.

"At that time, we were not in the Big East," he said. "There were no talk shows or the Internet. So it was a little bit different.

"There are so many experts now, and they can tell you what you could or should have done. Everything is under more scrutiny now."
Ah yes, the lament of media saturation.

What Do You Mean No More Being A Patsy? 

Apparently losing to Pitt by around 21 points every year for the last 24 years is taking a toll on the psyche of Robert Morris.

The Pitt trip is a money-maker for Robert Morris. A short bus ride. No overnight stay involved. Perhaps another $40,000 in the bank to help fund RMU athletics.

But there are indications Robert Morris is restructuring its budget so that the Pitt game won't be financially necessary any longer. Or the trip to play Iowa Dec. 22, for that matter.

"I'm not exactly saying we have to do it to fund our team," RMU athletic director Craig Coleman said of the Pitt game. "It helps. It's helpful to have that revenue. But there's a limit. I wouldn't say to Mark, 'Let's go out and play five or six of these games because that will bring in more revenue.'

"I don't want to do anything that will be harmful to his program and his kids' morale. I think you can make a case that a couple of those games a year is probably a good thing to do for reasons other than the revenue. Many more than that, I think, is probably a mistake."

Last season, the Colonials played four "buy" games -- for which they received money -- against Ohio State, Virginia, Pitt and Northwestern. They lost all four by a total of 113 points.

Don't believe it. RMU will keep playing this one. Guaranteed money and no travel expenses make this game too financially valuable to give up.

The Colonials are healthier for this game than their opening loss to St. Bonaventure.

Pitt is planning to go about as deep in rotating players as they did on in the previous game. Expect 10 or 11 players to see time.

Backyard Brawl: The Not So Divided Town 

It seems just about every year, when the Steelers and Browns are scheduled to play, there is some stupid/stock feature on Youngstown, Ohio as the dividing city between the 2 teams. It isn't that it is a lie. I lived there, and it is fairly evenly divided -- though, between the continued suckitude of the Browns and their absence in the 90s, it has tilted further to the Steelers. The problem is the story has been done to death. It's a boring predictable piece.

So, naturally with the Backyard Brawl there was an attempt this past weekend to find a similar place between Pittsburgh and Morgantown.
ON THE ROAD BETWEEN LABORATORY AND LONE PINE -- Among the modest, split-level houses and the occasional church or home business, U.S. Route 19 wends to and fro underneath Interstate 79, where the next exit south is the road to Prosperity, of all things.

Here, tucked inside this stretch of highways past and present, is the middle ground of local college-football fandom this week. It is precisely halfway to the site of old Pitt Stadium and halfway to the grounds of new Mountaineer Field. It is the center between the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh and the Evansdale campus in Morgantown, W.Va.

"We're equidistant," chimed in Critter from behind his beer at the Pancake Inn, just off I-79 Exit 30 in the Pancake Township also known as the east-Washington suburb of Laboratory.

Problem was, the majority of the area was pro-Pitt. The story still published. It took up plenty of space for no apparent reason, except that the reporter had come up with the story and spent the time researching and writing it, and the editors had decided to run it.

Backyard Brawl: Dissing The 'Eers 

The days of major bulletin board material for one side is generally nonexistent these days. Mostly gone are the days when you can find someone talk about WVU players as "Western Pennsylvania garbage." (read the article just to find out how much effort had to go into getting that material in the days before widespread dissemination)

Now, the best there anyone can do are H.B. Blades comments.
"They consider us the city boys," Blades said. "They think we're arrogant."

Then, came the bulletin-board material, as Blades responded to the obvious follow-up: If the Panthers are the city boys, what are the Mountaineers?

"They're the country boys," he said, laughing. "They're out in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing in Morgantown, really."
The Hoopies aren't even biting on that. They got burned too much last year.

The only other thing that came out this week was during Coach Wannstedt's press conference in relation to recruiting.

"West Virginia comes up here and recruits Pennsylvania," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference. "We know that. They always have. I think they have 16 players from Pennsylvania. But in my opinion, we don't have much competition here [in Western Pennsylvania] -- Penn State, every once in a while, Notre Dame or someone, but there shouldn't be and there won't be much other competition.

"The best players are going to come to Pitt."

WVU actually has 23 players from PA (14 from Western PA), but it is also true that none of those 14 received scholarship offers from Pitt.

Judas Brutus 

Okay, apparently Johnny Majors is still good for taking potshots at his former assistant.

On Monday at the Little Rock Touchdown Club, Majors said he still has fond memories of Tennessee - but he drew a laugh from the crowd full of Arkansas fans when a took a small dig at Fulmer.

"I don't pull against those players up there," Majors said. "But I don't have any regard for Judas Brutus, who's coaching up there."


Monday, November 21, 2005

Backyard Brawl: Defending the Spread 

No phrase fills me with more dread in relation to a Paul Rhoads' defense then "facing the spread offense." What further fills me with dread is the fact that there is a belief that Pitt is better ready for it. Spread offenses, no matter what variation, are predicated on speed and athleticism. The defense has to be able to move and respond quickly.

"The challenge we have as defensive coaches is to understand the differences and figure out how to defend them. Certainly what West Virginia does, and the pace with which they do it, presents a lot of challenges for us."

The Panthers have struggled against the spread in the past, but have had more success recently. Against South Florida this season , the Panthers were dominant in a 31-17 win. At the end of the 2004 season, the Panthers had a similar effort against South Florida and held the Mountaineers to only 13 points the week before.

Rhoads said the difference in his defense's play against the spread recently is not one definable thing, but a combination of things. Clearly the coaching staff has a better idea of how to attack it now that its popularity has grown so much. And the players have had a chance to play against it more and are able to recognize plays quicker.

No mention of what happened against Utah's spread offense.

The difference between the spread offenses that Pitt was able to stop last year and this year versus times when they couldn't -- one dimension.

Last year WVU had suspended/kicked-off their top WR Chris Henry. The passing game was severely limited making them more like an option team. Against South Florida the past two times, the Bulls have had no passing game. Below average WRs also made them much more one-dimensional and easier to defend.

While this WVU team is very run oriented -- both RB Slaton and QB White -- they have been very efficient when they do pass. Add in a more dominant offensive line than USF, and this could be very scary when the defense is out there.

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