NCF Nation: Huskies-Panthers 101009

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull could only chuckle when asked why his team goes through such wild momentum swings.

"That's just the way we work," Stull said. "It's never going to be easy or exactly the way we want it. We like to make it hard on ourselves."
Charles LeClaire/Getty Images
Pittsburgh fans don't know what they're going to get out of quarterback Bill Stull and the rest of the Panthers week to week.

The Panthers make things hard on a lot of people, including fans and those trying to figure out who exactly they are.

They're good enough to lead NC State 31-19 on the road in the second half yet bad enough to then lose 38-31. They're bad enough to trail Louisville at halftime last week yet good enough to outscore them 28-0 after intermission. And on Saturday, they were bad enough to trail Connecticut 21-6 late in the third quarter at home, but good enough to come back and win 24-21 on a last-second field goal.

Pitt is technically leading the Big East race right now as the only team at 2-0. It's also the league's biggest enigma.

"The discouraging or disappointing thing is we have not played as good as we can play the whole game yet," head coach Dave Wannstedt said.

Saturday's game had all the elements that can both lure you in and repel you away from the Big East preseason favorites, as the Panthers kept hitting the brakes every time they seemed to reach high gear.

Dion Lewis dropped a sure touchdown pass on the first drive. Stull threw an interception in the end zone and later tossed a pick-six from near his own goal line. Pitt should have been ahead 21-0 but got only three points out of its promising first-half drives. To make matters worse, the defense let UConn's weak passing offense burn it for a 79-yard strike from Cody Endres to Marcus Easley late in the second quarter.

By the time Andre Dixon rumbled into the end zone for a 21-6 lead with 3:56 left in the third quarter, the Heinz Field crowd was grumbling about another lost season. Then all of a sudden, Pitt showed how good it could be.

A ground game that had stalled in the first half spit out 166 yards in the second half behind Lewis and Ray Graham. The defense held UConn to six total yards in the entire fourth quarter. And Stull led three straight drives of at least 64 yards to complete the largest comeback in the Wannstedt era.

Pitt finished with 489 total yards and probably should have scored at least 35 points.

"We're just this close from putting a great game together," tight end Nate Byham said, separating his thumb and forefinger ever so slightly. "We're driving up and down the field, but we're just not putting up the points. Once we put all that together, we're going to be great."

A more objective observer might conclude that the Panthers have many terrific players, including Lewis, Byham, receiver Jonathan Baldwin and their defensive line. But they also have major flaws in the secondary, at linebacker and in playcalling, especially near the goal line. Baldwin, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak, never got a look on Pitt's first trip deep into the red zone and Lewis -- who finished with 158 yards -- didn't get a carry from first and goal at the 4 at the end of the game.

Stull might be this team's identity incarnate. He can throw two terrible picks and get booed by his own crowd. Then he can come back and lead those last three drives.

"I think all of our coaches are on the verge of having a heart attack," Stull said. "But it's encouraging when you see that we didn't play exactly how we wanted but we still won. It's going to be a little exciting and a little scary when we do put everything together."

A little exciting and a little scary. That's a pretty good way to describe life as a Pittsburgh Panthers fan right now.

Pitt pulls out the victory

October, 10, 2009

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Dan Hutchins hit a 13-yard field goal as time expired to push Pitt past UConn 24-21.

The Panthers trailed 21-6 in the third quarter but completely dominated the action from there. They improve to 5-1 and 2-0 in the Big East, while UConn fell to 3-2 and 0-1 in league play.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- You had to figure this would be a close game between two evenly matched teams.

And it is. Pitt has come back to make it 21-21 with 7:35 left. Two great drives by the Panthers to get back in this game. On the last one, Nate Byham had a catch on fourth down that was right at the sticks but got pushed by some of his own blockers for another few yards.

Pitt has had no problem passing the ball when Bill Stull makes good decisions. Even if UConn scores again, the Panthers should have time to march down the field with their passing game.

Boos out at Heinz Field

October, 10, 2009

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- The home crowd is not happy with Pitt.

Bill Stull threw an ill-advised pass from near his own goal line that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by UConn's Robert Vaughn.

Then, after a Dion Lewis run set up the Panthers at the Huskies' 8, Pitt once again failed to score a touchdown. Finally, they ran a fade to Baldwin, who made a great catch -- but Stull threw it too far into the corner and Baldwin couldn't catch it in bounds.

Pitt settled for a field goal to make it 14-6 and the boos came out again. While I'm not really in fvaor of booing college kids, you can't really blame the fans too much in this situation. They've seen this kind of ineptitude over and over again the past few years.
Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- A quick review of the first half at Heinz Field, where Connecticut leads Pitt, 7-3:

Turning point: Pittsburgh had first-and-goal at the 3 with a chance to go up 10-0. Instead, Bill Stull threw an interception, and UConn held on. Pitt had two other cracks at scores with wide open receivers either in or dashing toward the end zone but failed to convert.

Best call: On the first play after a punt late in the half, Connecticut offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead decided to go for the kill. Cody Endres connected with wide open Marcus Easley for a 79-yard touchdown pass. Easley is not even listed on the UConn two-deep, so Pitt was not prepared for that.

Stat of the half: Endres is 12-of-16 for 160 yards. Pitt had been stacking the box to stop the UConn running game, which worked for most of the half. But the Huskies got the passing game working late, and it's why they lead at the half.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- So Jonathan Baldwin can't be stopped anywhere on the field. And Pitt gets down to the 3-yard line on first-and-goal.

Surely, the 6-foot-4 receiver with incredible leaping ability will get a look, right?

Nope. The Panthers never went his way on four cracks from the 8 in the NC State loss, and they didn't call his number just now against UConn. Instead, Bill Stull threw an interception while looking for Dorin Dickerson.

Baldwin is your best and most athletic player. Try a fade route or something to get him the ball.

Pitt leads 3-0 but should be ahead 21-0. That may come back to haunt the Panthers later.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- As expected, Connecticut is having success running the ball. Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman are averaging five yards per carry between them.

But here's the Huskies' continuing problem: They've got no passing game to release the pressure on those guys. Pitt knows it, and it is putting eight and even nine guys in the box to stop the run. UConn thus far has not been able to make the defense pay for that.

Cody Endres has tried to go deep a couple of times to Brad Kanuch, but Kanuch has been doubled covered as Endres' throw took a long time to get there. Given the way Pitt's offensive line is controlling UConn, the Huskies are going to have to do more than just pound the ball on the ground.

UConn-Pitt warmups

October, 10, 2009

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Connecticut quarterback Zach Frazer has been moving around and throwing without any limitations. Frazer, who was injured in the North Carolina game, is wearing a large brace on his right knee.

Frazer was working with the second-team center, so it doesn't look like Randy Edsall will pull any surprises and start him over Cody Endres. And he shouldn't since Endres has been better than Frazer this season.

Another guy who is back for UConn is freshman tight end Ryan Griffin. He could prove to be an effective weapon in the passing game today.

For Pitt, Elijah Fields has not been out there working with the other defensive backs, making me wonder how much, if at all, the safety will play today.

UConn-Pitt pregame ponderables

October, 10, 2009

Posted by's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Greetings from Heinz Field, where it's a lovely fall day. About 55 degrees and sunny, perfect for football.

We should have a good one here between Connecticut and Pittsburgh, the Big East's two biggest smashmouth teams. Expect lots of running and good, hard-hitting defense.

The key might be who can make the most plays in the passing game, and Pitt seems to have a big edge with its superior talent at wide receiver. On the other hand, UConn has an excellent secondary. The Huskies don't have a great passing game, but the Panthers' pass defense has been leaky. So it's a great matchup all around.

Two players to watch are Pitt's Greg Romeus and UConn's Lindsey Witten. They are two of the best defensive ends in the Big East, and both could be high NFL draft picks next spring.

One of the Huskies' advantages is that they had a bye week after playing an FCS team, so they should be well-rested and healed. Pitt is a little banged up after games at NC State and Louisville; starting safety Elijah Fields (ankle) won't start and will be replaced by Jarred Holley, while receiver/kick returner Cam Saddler is out with an ankle injury of his own.

Much more to come as the afternoon moves along.