College Football Notebook: Pitt and Penn State

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Pitt

Two teams from Miami, Florida visited Heinz Field in consecutive weeks, yielding dramatically different results. The 19th ranked Miami Hurricanes whooped on the Panthers 31-3, and the score was an accurate depiction of the game.  The offense was inept the entire night, and even when the score was 10-3 at halftime, it seemed as if the seven point lead was insurmountable.

The play of quarterback Tino Sunseri’s play continued to be below adequate, as did the running game. The blowout loss on national television was definitely an embarrassment for a team which was once ranked 15th in the country. Backup quarterback Pat Bostick didn’t really provide a better showing than Sunseri, lobbing two interceptions to the Hurricanes. The bright spot, if any, was Ray Graham rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries. Injuries sustained by the Panthers, including Dan Mason’s grisly knee dislocation, prompted ESPN to call the game “a real tragedy for Pitt”.

The Florida International Panthers entered Heinz field on October 2, 2010 probably feeling pretty confident that they could compete with Pitt, especially considering the problems that the Panthers had faced both offensively and defensively en route to a 1-2 start. Until the fourth quarter, when the score was 23-17, many Pitt fans felt as if the season was completely lost. That was until Ray Graham broke a 76 yard touchdown run, only part of a record setting 276 rushing yards, second most in Pitt history only to Tony Dorsett. Graham’s monster game spurred the Panthers to a 44-17 victory, making most fans forget the alarming start.

Dion Lewis’ disappointing 2010 season continued with a minor shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the Florida International game. His struggles this year have mostly been due to the continued ineptitude of the offensive line, which encountered a major overhaul when Greg Gaskins was replaced by Lucas Nix at guard. Ray Graham has stepped up in his absence, and if the current trend continues, it would not be out of the question for Graham to completely replace Lewis as the feature back.

The Pitt coaching staff  still has some issues that need to  be resolved, most glaring being the lack of discipline on the field. 10 penalties against Florida International was concerning given the fact that it was the fourth game of the season, and issues such as offsides and illegal formations  are usually ironed out in the first game or two.

After a third of the season has passed, the 2010 Panthers are still a very difficult team to judge. They appear to be a team that possesses arguably the best talent in the Big East, but at times it seems as if that talent cannot be disciplined to play a full 60 minutes of football. This is one of the classic signs of a young team, a team which is very capable of winning the Big East despite a less than stellar start.

Penn State

With every new football season in Happy Valley comes high expectations, and this year was no exception.  Despite being one of the youngest teams in college football with fifty freshmen, including starting quarterback Rob Bolden, many fans were expecting the 14th ranked Nittany Lions to once again be in the mix for the Big Ten Championship and a BCS Bowl.  After the first five games of the season it doesn’t appear that will be likely, and you shouldn’t be surprised.

Any realistic fan should have been able to see a down year coming for Penn State.  A Penn State “down year” is something that many college teams would be satisfied with, but the extraordinary amount of success achieved under Joe Paterno has made anything less than ten wins in a season a major disappointment.  By looking at the schedule before the season started, you had to believe it would be a struggle to reach that point.  With road contests against #1 Alabama, #2 Ohio State, and #17 Iowa it seemed very realistic to believe that the team would be 9-3 at best come season’s end.  Now we are almost halfway through the season and the schedule has become even more challenging, with the Big Ten having perhaps their strongest and most competitive year since 2005.  As it stands now, Penn State will play a total of six games against ranked teams adding #16 Michigan State, #17 Michigan, and #25 Northwestern to the three previously mentioned teams.  That means exactly half of their games will be against ranked teams, making it very tough for such a young and inexperienced team.

So far the Nittany Lions have beaten the three teams they were supposed to beat in Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple.  That being said they have also struggled with the two ranked teams they have played so far with 24-3 losses at both Alabama and Iowa.  This has dropped Penn State out of the top twenty five rankings for the first time since October 2007, ending the fourth longest streak for a team being consecutively ranked week to week.  Though this has caused an uprising with many Penn State fans that have started to blame the coaching staff for the poor offensive performance, there is no need to push the panic button.  It is true that the offense has struggled, particularly in the red zone, but you have to remember that Alabama and Iowa have two of the best defenses in all of college football.  You also have to take into account that Joe Paterno is starting his first true freshman quarterback since his tenure started in 1966.  This means that there will be a learning curve for young Bolden, and it could at times be rough for him this season.  That being said, I think he shows tremendous potential and will be a star quarterback over the next three years. 

Penn State is not a bad team.  This will be a trying year for the legions of fans that expect to contend for a national championship every year, but I still see them protecting Beaver Stadium and winning nine games this season.  That will be good enough to go to a respected New Year’s Day Bowl Game and will help carry momentum over to what should be a very promising next season.   

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Preseason predictions in college football many times seem to be completely wrong, leading some to question the logic of the many sports magazines and websites such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Such appears to hold true with the Pitt Panthers football team in their first two games.  The 15th ranked Panthers (1-1) opened the season with unimpressive showings against Utah and New Hampshire. The formidable rushing attack from 2009 was nonexistent, with one-time Heisman candidate Dion Lewis gaining 103 yards in 35 attempts in the two combined games.

The interior of their offensive line, guards Chris Jacobsen, Alex Karabin, and Greg Gaskins, have been the core of the problem.  They have consistently been blown off the ball, missed assignments, and generally have made offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s job a nightmare.

The opening night loss against Utah was marred by penalties, poor execution, and blown coverages on defense. It seemed somewhat amazing that it took the Utes overtime to beat the Panthers 27-24.

Week 2 brought a relatively easy 38-16 win against FCS New Hampshire, although the defense still looked vulnerable at times against the pass, which wasn’t helped when Greg Romeus went down with a back injury which will likely take upwards of six weeks to recover.

Coach Dave Wanstedt lacks of control over his team. The Panthers have been in the media for all the wrong reasons with the misdemeanor arrests of defensive end Jabaal Sheard, running back Jason Douglas, and lineman Keith Coleman. These are not just embarrassments to the team, but also affect the whole school by displaying an almost thug-like mentality. Hopefully Wanstedt can reinforce to his players that they are representing not only themselves, but also the university. An upcoming game with the Miami Hurricanes will be a tough test, and if their play has not improved dramatically, they will lose. Badly. Panther fans can only hope that the first two weeks are no true reflection of the team because if that is the case, it will be a long season for the panthers.