With a ranked team to start the year, fans were hoping this was the breakout season Pitt had been waiting for. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Here are five things that went wrong.
1. The team believed its own press clippings. It seemed like every time the Panthers tried to build momentum this year, they fell flat on their face. First there was the Utah game. Then the Miami home game. Then the UConn game and, finally, the West Virginia game.
As Paul Zeise from the Post-Gazette pointed out back after the Rutgers game, Jabaal Sheard had a pretty telling quote about how the team needed to not get a 'big head.' I think this was a problem that dogged the Panthers all year long. They believed they were the best team in the conference, but didn't really feel as though they needed to go out and win it. I think that feeling sunk in even more once other Big East teams struggled this year. You can understand the Utah game, as it was an opener on the road with a new quarterback. Miami was just more athletic than Pitt. But there was no reason to lose the Notre Dame or UConn games. Pitt may not have been better than West Virginia this year, but had they taken care of UConn, they wouldn't have been in must-win mode against the Mountaineers.
I won't go as far as to say the Panthers didn't try this season. But I do think they let their guard down at times and didn't put away some teams they should have.
2. The loss of Dorin Dickerson. At the beginning of the year, I don't know how much his loss was expected to hurt the team this season, but there's no doubt that Pitt missed him. Dickerson would have provided a safety blanket for new QB Tino Sunseri, who struggled without him. Jon Baldwin and Mike Shanahan are pretty good targets, but Sunseri and Baldwin never really developed the chemistry they needed. Sunseri consistently overthrew or underthrew Baldwin on deep routes. Having a tight end like Dickerson would have provided another big target for Sunseri.
3. Stale offensive playcalling for the running game. A pro wrestler named Chris Jericho once claimed he knew 1,004 wrestling holds. He did this to say that he knew more holds than a guy named Dean Malenko, who was called "The Man Of 1,000 Holds." Seriously, bear with me. Anyway, Jericho's gimmick was that in reading a list of all of his holds, after every 3-4 he would say "armbar," continually repeating the same hold over and over, pretending the crowd didn't notice.
That's kind of the way I felt with Pitt's offense this season - seeing the same old thing over and over. With two great running backs in Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti got complacent and his play calls lacked originality. Pitt's bread and butter is a pro-style offense that leans heavy on the running game. That's fine, but so many times, Pitt simply rushed up the middle, even when defenses were primed to stop the run. Cignetti didn't call many pitches or screens, even though they mostly worked when he did. And at 6-foot-5, Baldwin is a beast. I would have liked to see the team do more with him on running plays like end-arounds or reverses. I don't know why Pitt used so few of these types of plays, but more were needed to free up the backs.
4. Special teams. Ugh, just thinking about this makes my head spin. We always hear that special teams are one third of the game. This season, it seemed like sometimes it was more than a third. The unit really let Pitt down this year, surrendering long kickoff returns, fumbled returns while receiving the ball, and missed field goals. A kickoff return touchdown was a huge reason Pitt lost against UConn. You can never really point to one play and say it made a game, let alone a season. But the UConn return and ensuing fumble are prime examples of why the Panthers will likely miss out on the BCS bowl game. The saddest thing is that I don't know if the unit will get better next year.
5. The secondary. After playing acceptably in the middle of the season, the secondary has been a disaster the last couple of games. Pitt was repeatedly flagged for pass interference penalties in the South Florida game and was torched for big plays in the rest of its Big East games, including a 71-yard TD by a West Virginia offense that hasn't been all that great this season. The unit was also repeatedly burned by receivers this season on plays where the quarterback wasn't able to make accurate throws. Pitt has some recruits coming in who should help, but that improvement might not come for two seasons.
You'll notice that head coaching is conspicuously left off of this list, other than the playcalling in the running game. Did Dave Wannstedt have a great year? Maybe not. But until he starts passing, catching, or running with the ball, it's going to take more convincing that he was a big reason the team couldn't win. Sure, there were the usual timeout gaffes and the poor management of the clock before halves, but I don't think he had nearly as much to do with Pitt's demise as the things in this list. At the end of the day, players have to make plays. Dave Wannstedt simply can't be blamed for giving up kick returns, fumbling the ball, or throwing interceptions.