Pitt has dropped two straight heartbreakers, but if there is any bit of solace in those losses it is this: none of them were conference games.
Certainly the Panthers would much rather be undefeated than 2-2. But the Big East is still there for the taking. That quest begins Thursday night in a pivotal home game against No. 16 USF (4-0). Beating a conference opponent would be the perfect way to pull out of a two-game slide as the Panthers end the toughest stretch of their season.
"We have a great opportunity here," Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said in a phone interview. "The key is recognizing we played good in both games, but it wasn't good enough to win and realizing that we have to get the mistakes corrected if we don't want that bitter taste again. I think we're really doing a good job of that. We had an excellent practice (Monday), and a really good one (Tuesday)."
Pitt has won three straight in this series, including a Thursday night game in 2008 in Tampa against the undefeated and No. 10 Bulls. But this is the first time in the recent past that Pitt goes into the game on a two-game losing streak. Different problems have plagued this team. The fourth quarter has been one period to forget. Iowa erased a 24-3 deficit to win. Notre Dame scored its game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as well.
The offense simply has not run the way coach Todd Graham has scripted it, and had its worst performance against the Irish last week. Unfortunately for Pitt, the poor offensive outing came on the same day as the best defensive performance of the season. Pitt had been having problems with its linebackers and pass coverage -- but those were cleaned up in a big way against Notre Dame. The Panthers shut down Michael Floyd and allowed 216 yards through the air.
Alecxih said the defense played better because it is starting to get comfortable in the new defensive system. The Panthers are attacking a lot more, and that is something that feeds into their strengths.
As for the offense, Graham says he is sticking with quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has taken a great deal of criticism for the low-octane offense. There are some fans who want to see a switch to freshman Trey Anderson, who got in on one series last week and was ineffective. That is just not going to happen right now.
But the onus is on Sunseri to get better. He continues to take too many sacks because he is holding onto the ball too long. Pitt is tied for last in the nation in sacks allowed, with 19. The offensive line has been shaky all season and now must play without veteran starter Chris Jacobson, out for the year with a knee injury.
"You have to be able to push the ball vertically down the field," Graham said. "We had some explosive plays against Iowa that kind of resembles what we're looking to be but we're still not there yet. I told our offensive coaches that we have to call the offense. We can't start throwing quick game on every down because we can't protect. You can still push the ball down the field and throw it on timing. Our whole deal is to keep running the offense but we need to start executing it better then we have in the past. The main thing is to be disciplined enough to do what you're coached to do and that is our challenge for them this week."
Despite the struggles, Alecxih says the Panthers remain confident.
"We're not blind to the fact that we're coming off two losses, but they very easily could have been two wins," he said. "I don't think that shook our confidence as a team in how we see ourselves. We know that we're seven points away from being 4-0 and ranked in the Top 20. It's realizing that, and knowing we've had two hiccups and this is crunch time. This is conference play."