Pitt currently stands at 2-3 and is now preparing for its first conference game of the year. Well, at least it's an easy one, right? Yeah, not so much. The Panthers will head to Syracuse to take on an upstart Orange team that is 4-1 and fresh off a road win at South Florida.
The team has somehow crammed a year's worth of action into only a few months. For starters, the team has had its share of off-field issues, dismissing one player, suspending two, and demoting another. There have been controversies about who should start at quarterback, who should start at running back, and of course, the usual 'Fire Dave Wannstedt' discussions. There have been three losses on national television, and a rushing performance that nearly broke a school record more than 30 years old. That rushing performance, by the way, was by the backup running back. And don't forget about injuries, the most significant of which was the loss of potential All-American and NFL first-round draft talent Greg Romeus for most of this season. It's been a crazy ride so far and we're only in October.
At times, Pitt has looked sharp and focused. But the fact remains that the team is still without a quality win. The Panthers have lost all three of their challenges, even looking downright ugly at home against Miami. Despite the adversity, Pitt can still accomplish its goal of a Big East Championship by winning the conference. Here are five things the team will need to do to gain the conference's BCS bid.
1. Continue its success on the ground. Pitt's bread and butter is running the ball and playing good defense. The running game started spotty as starter Dion Lewis struggled a bit. Backup Ray Graham came in and produced three consecutive 100-yard performances, including that monster 277-yard game against Florida International. This week at Notre Dame, both backs played well, averaging more than five yards per carry. It doesn't really matter who gives the production - only that it's there. Pitt will continue to use two backs unless one really starts to falter.
2. Quarterback Tino Sunseri needs to continue to improve. Thus far, Sunseri has looked good for the most part, and his effort against Notre Dame was probably his best yet. The best thing about Tino may be the fact that he simply doesn't make many game-changing mistakes. Sure, he overthrows receivers occasionally and really struggles with a deep ball. But the bottom line is that he gives the team a chance to win and has gotten better as the season's gone on. Pitt's success as a team will depend greatly on Sunseri's ability to make plays.
3. Stop the coaching gaffes. There have been several coaching mistakes this season and we saw another this weekend, even though it didn't necessarily stop the team from winning. Trailing by six while deep in its own territory and with a few minutes left in the game, Pitt was determined to go for it on 4th and short. Head coach Dave Wannstedt ultimately made the right decision to punt the ball away, but the team burned a crucial timeout in order to get its punt team out on the field.
Pitt ended up not needing to burn any timeouts, as Notre Dame did a fine job of stopping the clock on its own with a dropped third down pass. But if Pitt had needed that extra timeout either to stop the clock or move down the field on its own possession, it would have been a costly mistake. The coaching staff needs to think ahead and manage the clock a bit better.
4. Special teams must improve. It's easy to point to the Notre Dame game this weekend and say the special teams need to improve, but Pitt has had special-teams issues before. Against Miami, Cam Saddler botched a punt and killed what little momentum Pitt was building. And in addition to missing a short field goal in the Notre Dame game, Dan Hutchins is 0-for-3 in field goals longer than 40 yards. Pitt will eventually need to convert a longer field goal at some point in the season and the team hadn't had success in that area.
5. Stop the penalties. The Panthers are one of the most-penalized teams in the country, averaging more than eight per game. The young offensive line has struggled with false starts, and the defensive line has been offsides many times. The players simply need to play smarter and with composure.