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Wannstedt pinpoints Pitt’s gridiron struggles

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt conceded Monday that the Panthers fell far short of expectations, in part, because of key injuries and an underachieving running game.

“Coach said this season isn’t what we wanted it to be,” said junior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih.

Still, the focus is partly on Wannstedt’s job performance. For the third year in a row, the Panthers struggled down the stretch with the outright Big East championship within reach.

And for the second year in a row, Pitt was upended by rival West Virginia in the 103rd Backyard Brawl – a loss that leaves the Panthers (6-5, 4-2 Big East) in the unenviable position of having to win their final regular-season game at Cincinnati to secure a third straight winning campaign.

“It is clear what happened in that football game and why we didn’t win,” Wannstedt said, referring to four turnovers. “We moved on to Cincinnati as fast as we could.”

Yet, the loss to West Virginia still stings.

“A win over (Cincinnati) will ease the pain,” Alecxih said.

Randy Shannon, who coached under Wannstedt at Miami, was let go after Saturday’s loss to South Florida for failing to meet even loftier expectations. Wannstedt, though, appeared confident that he’ll be back for a seventh season with the Panthers.

“I’m not concerned with job security right now; we’re just trying to beat Cincinnati,” Wannstedt said.

Wannstedt, whose team is bowl eligible, confidently talked of the future.

“We’re not going to graduate very many players this year, and we have a great future ahead of us,” he said. “We have a lot of recruits committed and a good, young team coming back next year.”

However, Big East coaches predicted Pitt had a solid team returning from a 10-3 season in 2009, which included a victory over North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The Panthers were the preseason No. 1 in the Big East and only three weeks ago had a two-game conference lead over both Connecticut and West Virginia.

Now, Connecticut is in the driver’s seat. If the Huskies defeat South Florida, they’ll earn the automatic BCS bowl bid. But a loss coupled with a West Virginia win puts the Mountaineers in the BCS mix.

The Panthers must win, then pull for both South Florida and Rutgers. It’s a scenario in which even Pitt’s players view as implausible.

“Obviously it was a huge letdown, what happened last week, and we’re all crushed over it,” safety Dom DeCicco said. “But the past is the past, and all we can do is look forward.

“We still have a chance to win part of the Big East championship, and that’s all we have left. So, we’re going to go out fighting in this last game.”

For Wannstedt, the Panthers began to lose the fight when defensive end Greg Romeus was lost for much of the season after back surgery and linebacker Dan Mason suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“I really thought that we felt like we needed to get a big year out of Romeus,” Wannstedt said. “That was a little bit disappointing. We had a couple of little setbacks there, but then Brandon Lindsey and some guys stepped up on defense.

“Obviously, with Dion Lewis and the expectations there, with all they hype — I don’t think anything that was said or written was out of line with his performance last year. I think it was all legitimate. For whatever reason, we just never get on track with our running game.

“I look at it, and the whole thing with the development of a new quarterback, the three new linemen and the new tight end and a new wide receiver — I knew it would be difficult.

I knew we were a young team and that it would be a work in progress.”

Wannstedt’s take

From Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt’s weekly news conference:

On the cause of turnovers:

“I’d have to go through each turnover. I can tell you that Dion Lewis carried the football almost 300 times this year and lost one fumble in the bowl game against North Carolina – he fumbled out of the end zone. It’s not a fumbling problem with Dion Lewis, but for some reason he lost a couple on Friday. That’s not a problem with him.

On the play of quarterback Tino Sunseri:

“With the quarterback scenario, I think that Tino Sunseri really played well. When you look at the overall game, yes, the one turnover was costly, but he did a lot of good things in that game. I thought that he made good decisions and made some plays on his feet. I thought against the best defense in the conference, and one of the better defenses in the country, he stepped up and made plays. There were a lot of plays left on the field that we can improve on, and will.”

On correcting mistakes this far into the season:

“You have to keep coaching and keep believing that you’re going to eliminate those problems. Concerning the running backs, Dion Lewis has not been a problem. I’m not concerned about him. We need to stay on Ray Graham. He’s put the ball on the ground a few times the last couple of weeks; we know that, and he needs to correct that. Obviously the only solution over a long period of time is that if you put the ball on the ground, you can’t play. It’s as simple as that.”

On the importance of finishing with a winning record:

“It’s important to these kids – the seniors and the junior class who is getting ready to step into the future. They’re all well aware of it. Our seniors want to go out on a good note. There are all the reasons in the world to have a good week of preparation and to go out and win this game.”

On the mood in practice:

“It’s good. It was tough starting off for everybody, as I would have expected. We actually put the pads on, went inside the bubble and we got after it pretty well. In the last half hour of practice there was energy back and the kids were coming back. They were highly disappointed, as we all were. We have to move on.”


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