Friday October 3rd, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. -- Jan Wannstedt planted a kiss under that glorious soup-strainer above her husband's lip late Thursday night. "What does this mean for your bye week?" she asked her husband. "It means I'm going to see my grandson in Chicago," Dave Wannstedt replied.

Oh, Thursday's 26-21 win at No. 10 South Florida (Recap | Box Score) means much more than one happy kid in the Windy City getting a visit from grandpa. It means Wannstedt's Pitt team, left for dead after an opening week clunker against Bowling Green, sits in the driver's seat in the Big East after two conference wins - both on the road. It means the Panthers, architects of three consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks and three consecutive wins against ranked teams, might be made of the kind of stuff it takes to survive a potentially wild conference race. It means, at least for a few weeks, Wannstedt can forget the words Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson spoke after a 27-17 loss Aug. 30 to Bowling Green.

"In these situations, nobody's more disappointed than Dave and our team at the results of the game," Pederson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "But I also know there isn't any group that's going to work harder to get us back on track than Dave and his coaches and the team. For Dave, this isn't really a job, this is a passion. He's dedicated to building a winning program here and he has all of our support as he works at that."

For those who don't speak athletic director, allow me to translate: "That was an absolute stinker, and I can't take many more of them. Dave and his staff had better pull off a couple of whopper upsets or hang around the Big East race until at least late November or he's out of here, no matter how wonderful his mustache is."

Thursday qualifies as one of those whopper upsets only because of USF's lofty ranking. Pitt certainly was the better team Thursday, and the balance of the season may prove that Pitt is superior overall. USF certainly has the talent to win every Big East game remaining on its schedule, but so do Pitt, West Virginia and Connecticut. It may only take 5-2 to win this league, and Pitt grabbed a major head-to-head tiebreaker Thursday.

Representatives of all four BCS bowls were wined and dined Wednesday by USF officials, and Thursday was supposed to be another nationally televised step toward USF's ascension to college football's upper crust. Thanks to an upcoming open date and a home date Oct. 18 with conference doormat Syracuse, the Bulls should have finished Thursday in prime position. Heavyweight matchups in the next two weeks undoubtedly would have knocked teams from the top 10 and allowed 11-year-old USF to climb into the top five for the second consecutive season.

"We just made a lot of mistakes," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "We were fortunate to be in that game that close, to be quite honest with you." Now, the Bulls will have to claw their way back, and that could prove difficult if Wannstedt is correct about his team.

"It's a great win, but we're going to play a couple of games clean," Wannstedt said. "When that happens, we can improve. We've got a lot of room to get better."

The Panthers certainly didn't play a clean one Thursday. They fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter after USF's Charlton Sinclair scooped up a blocked punt and rumbled 26 yards for a touchdown. "When you get a blocked punt," Wannstedt said, "you should lose the game."

Fortunately for the Panthers, tailback LeSean McCoy and linebacker Scott McKillop wouldn't let them lose. McCoy carried 28 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns. After a slow start, the sophomore has rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games. "The coaches have just been so patient with me," McCoy said. "It kind of took me a little bit to get going. All the big-time players have got to keep swinging. Coach has been telling me that." Meanwhile, McKillop made 12 tackles - including three for loss - to lead a defense that, on most plays, rushed four and used six defensive backs to help contain Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe, a wizard at using his feet to set up his arm.

In fact, one vintage Grothe play in the fourth quarter seemed to seal the Panthers' fate. After USF gained 64 yards on eight consecutive rushing plays, Grothe took a shotgun snap and bolted left. He slammed on the brakes just short of the line of scrimmage, set his feet and lofted a perfect fade into the hands of Jessie Hester for a 22-yard touchdown that allowed USF to take a 21-20 lead with 5:57 remaining.

If the Bulls could make one stop and a first down, the new clock rules would have allowed them to bleed away any chance Pitt had. But Delbert Alvarado's kickoff trickled out of bounds, and the Panthers got the ball at their own 40. Here is where offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, a popular whipping boy after the Bowling Green loss, earned a game ball. "[USF] thought run, run, run," McCoy said. So what did Cavanaugh call? He ordered Oderick Turner to run into the gaping chasm between USF's front seven and its secondary. Quarterback Bill Stull hit Turner in stride, and Turner blazed to the USF 22. McCoy reeled off a 19-yard run on the next play and followed up with a 3-yard touchdown run. The drive that turned around Pitt's season? Three plays, 60 yards, 74 seconds.

Still, the Panthers needed to stop the Bulls' offense, which had humbled them at the line of scrimmage a possession earlier after adjusting blocking schemes on the fly. The Panthers' defense made its own adjustments during that 74-second march.

"It was like a chess match," McKillop said. Pitt let USF take a pawn by allowing a 6-yard pass on first down. The Panthers took a knight when they stopped tailback Mike Ford for a 1-yard gain on second down. Checkmate came on one of Pitt's "two blitzes" - Wannstedt's estimation - when Grothe was called for intentional grounding as McKillop flung him for a 14-yard loss.

"There was a lot of opportunity for that thing to flip the other way," a proud Wannstedt would say later. "I really can't explain the character and the heart of these guys. We just kept coming back and coming back."

Now, after three comebacks in a row, the Panthers can enjoy a week off. Wannstedt can visit his grandson. McCoy can rest his weary muscles. McKillop can study Fischer vs. Kasparov to try and pick up tips for Pitt's Oct. 18 visit to Navy. When they reconvene, they'll do so not as the team that laid an egg against Bowling Green but as the one that controls its destiny in the Big East.

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