Saturday, November 29, 2008

How Sweet It Is: Panthers Win the Brawl

I typically reserve my thoughts on specific games that occur over the weekend for my weekly "Weekend Recap" column, but I had to make an exception just this once. I mean come on, it's the Brawl! I just couldn't contain myself until Sunday night/ Monday morning, this is just too special. After watching the Panthers spend the first two years of the Dave Wannstedt era getting run over, around, and through by the Mountaineers, it has been a glorious sight the last two brawls to shut those Hoopies up. And although last season may have been sweet because the Panthers W knocked our rivals out of the National Championship and ended up costing them their coach, thus causing the Mounties more pain than ever before, this win is an even better feeling, at least for me. Last year, after the win, the season was over, and after the celebrating ended, and the fires in Oakland were put out, the Panthers were still 5-7 and staying home for the holidays yet again. This year, though, the Panthers just nabbed their 8th win of the season against the hated Mountaineers, are more than bowl-eligible, will likely slide into the low end of the top 25, and have put themselves in position for a pretty good bowl game if they can win in UConn next weekend. The Dave Wannstedt era, while it is still very much a work-in-progress, has finally delivered some of the fruit that was promised when he arrived on the scene in 2005. There are still times when Wanny and his BFF Matt Cavanaugh will leave Pitt fans scratching their heads with play calls and gameday decisions (like that maddening goal-line opportunity yesterday just before the half), but Wanny has shown he can win, as an 8 win (at least) season is nothing to sneeze at. And, if the Panthers can get another win to give them 9, this would equal the most successful season the Panthers have had in a year since Dan Marino was throwing the ball around back in 1982, as the only other 9 win season since then was Walt Harris' 2002 squad. And to be honest, I'm not sure I can rationally discuss a possible 10-win team yet, so let's not go jinxing it all up just yet.

So without further ado, here are some of my random thoughts from yesterday's game
-Thank the good lord for LeSean McCoy. That man is an absolute beast, and I still find it very difficult to believe he is going to pass up the NFL for another year, but it gets me all kinds of excited nonetheless. If this team didn't have McCoy and had spent the season substituting LaRod Stephens-Howling, Kevin Collier, Shariff Harris, and Chris Burns in for McCoy, this squad would be about 5-6, and hoping to knock off UConn next week to grab a spot in the International Bowl or something like that. And you've got to tip your cap to Wanny for getting McCoy to come here despite all the negative signs around the program at the time. I have no idea how the 'stache does it, but he is one tremendous recruiter.

-Speaking of recruiting, would it kill Wanny to find a better QB? Bill Stull scares the living daylights out of me, and I just really don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think he may have even regressed from some of the earlier games this year. I thought he showed some progress in 4 games in a row at midseason against Syracuse, South Florida, Navy, and Rutgers, and was even solid against Louisville after missing the ND game, but was dreadful against Cincinnati and nearly cost them the game yesterday against WVU. I mean at no point was he a guy who you could rely on to win the game for you, and his deep balls have consistently been miserable, but he was at least showing signs of being a good game manager until crapping out the last two weeks.

-My prediction for yesterday's game: Pitt 20 WVU 17. The Final Score: Pitt 19 WVU 15. That's pretty good.

-As I suspected, Phil Bennett clearly studied the game plan that Paul Rhoads put together in last season's Brawl. That Pitt defense, with the exception of that one absurd Pat White run, put the clamps on the vaunted Mountaineer run game, and dared White to beat them with his limp noodle throwing arm. White did an okay job throwing the ball around, and while his receivers had a few key drops that hurt them, White also very predictably made some very bad decisions as well. I also liked Jovani Chappel's quote after the game where he indicated that the Panthers basically knew what the play was going to be on Chappel's pick based simply on how the Mountaineers lined up out of the huddle. Not sure, but that might be an indication you don't have enough passing plays in your playbook.

-Hey, did you know Pitt had a ridiculously talented tight end? Because I sure didn't until I saw Nate Byham have the second best day for any Pitt offensive player yesterday with 4 big catches. So where the heck has this been all season long? I mean, for a struggling QB, isn't a good tight end often times a cure-all and a great security blanket? How has Matt Cavanaugh not called Byham's number more often and more consistently this season for Billy Stull. I mean what's the difference between hitting Byham underneath for 7-8 yards and him getting hit immediately and dropped and Bill Stull tossing one of his 50 bubble screen passes that typically go for about the same, and often don't even do that well.

-Speaking of Matt Cavanaugh, I know we will be coming off (at least) an 8 win season this year, and hopefully more, so there is no chance anyone on the coaching staff is let go, but I still don't think he's a good offensive coordinator. He tries to be too cute and tries to out-think his oppsosition too often. When your team stinks and you don't have enough talent at the skill positions to execute, I completely understand this mentality, as it gives you a way to make up the talent difference, but when you have a future NFL starting running back in your backfield, a deep, if not spectacular, corps of wide recevers, and the aforementioned underrated and underutilized tight end, the cutesy crap isn't necessary. The Byham case I just talked about is one example of this, but situations like the goal-line situation just before halftime yesterday are what really drive me crazy. That drive started with 4:27 to go in the half. The Panthers marched from their own 43 down to the 2 in about 3 minutes. On the drive, either Shady or Stephens-Howling had accounted for all but 4 yards on the drive. Yet, after going to Shady once for a yard on 1st and goal at the 3, Cavanaugh, instead of giving to his goal-line ace McCoy, went for the fade pattern in the end zone, which was promptly intercepted by West Virginia. How is that playing to Pitt's strengths? Is there any way that if you give that ball to McCoy 2 more time he doesn't get in? I mean WVU could have put 22 men on the field and stacked them all in the box, and I still don't think Shady gets denied twice. When you have Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress, or even Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald for that matter, the fade pattern can work when you are that close, because those receivers know how to play a fade, and those QB's know how to throw one (in Rutherford's case, I think that was the only pass he actually knew how to throw). But when you have a below-average QB with a history of making mistakes and underthrowing throwing to a true freshman wideout who, while wildly talented, is still learning how to play receiver at the college level, a fade pattern into double coverage probably isn't the best option.

-I was wildly impressed with the way Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Mick Williams, Rashaad Duncan, and the rest of that D-Line played yesterday. Sure Scott McKillop ended up with the big tackle numbers, as he always does, but those D-Linemen were the ones who made the plays. They were smarter than last week against Cincinnati, and instead of going for the big play sack and risking White or Devine breaking free if they got the ball past them, they instead were just as content at getting containment and stopping any chance of screens or outside runs around end. I think all four of these guys have what it takes to play on Sundays some day, and Romeus and Sheard both look like they could be pretty high draft picks if they can keep maturing.

-The Pitt secondary has taken a lot of heat this season, but I think they all did a pretty nice job yesterday, even the much-maligned Aaron Berry and Dom DeCicco. Berry, who has legit NFL talent, still looks like he is relying too much on his natural ability and not enough on smarts and technique, but I think maybe yesterday talent was enough to keep the Mountaineers at least in check. And DeCicco, who had a very nice interception that no really talked about, had probably his best game of the season. Too often he has been caught out of position or has come over to help too late in plays, but I didn't see any of that yesterday, and he also looks like he might finally be using his monstrous size to give him an advantage back there.

-I'll be back tomorrow night with the Weekend Recap, and will probably have a few more things Panthers to add, along with my typical coverage of the Pens, Steelers, Pirates and Pitt Basketball.

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