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September 1, 2008
Monday with Mike: Wrong turn for Panthers
Sometimes when you think you've turned the corner, all you've done is taken a wrong turn ... into a cul-de-sac.
That appears to be the case for Pittsburgh, which ended last season with a monumental upset of West Virginia and began this season in the top 25. But the Panthers fell 27-17 to Bowling Green in their opener Saturday, and now all the questions about the direction of Dave Wannstedt's program are being asked again.
"We were really excited for the season, the fans, and having a healthy roster. It's tough," sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy told reporters after the game. "A loss like this is tough."
Pitt started well – 83 rushing yards in the first quarter – and led 14-0 early in the second quarter. But turnovers proved to be the Panthers' downfall. Pitt outgained Bowling Green 393-254 but committed four turnovers.
Despite the presence of McCoy, Pitt rushed for just 46 yards in the final three quarters. Quarterback Bill Stull, who missed all but one game last season with a thumb injury, was 29 of 51. However, Stull threw for just 264 yards, and the lack of a vertical passing attack continues to be a problem for offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and the Panthers. The longest completion went for 18 yards to tight end Dorin Dickerson.
The Panthers led 7-0 and had a chance to put the Falcons away in the first quarter, but Wannstedt twice chose to punt inside Bowling Green's 40 – once on a fourth-and-7 from the 34 and once on a fourth-and-5 from the 35.
"We were playing good defense then, and we played the field-position game," Wannstedt told reporters. "If you follow their offense and their history, they're a veteran group and they know what they're doing. They're a group that has scored a lot of points and knows how to do it. So the strategy was to force them to go the long way, if we could.
"We were out of field-goal range; it would have been a matter of throwing it, and we chose to play field position."
Pitt had been 25-2 against MAC teams, including 24-0 at home. Another MAC team is the opponent this week, with Buffalo coming in after a demolition of UTEP. Obviously, a season-opening loss isn't the end of the world, and Pitt still easily could contend in the Big East. But a loss to the Bulls, and Wannstedt and Cavanaugh may need to start calling moving companies and finding a new cul-de-sac.
Among the highlights and lowlights:
Arkansas scored with 1:49 left to ease past Division I-AA Western Illinois (beating I-AA teams was the norm for the new coaches, with six wins coming over I-AA programs). Bobby Petrino's Hogs threw for 318 yards but ran for just 76 – and they allowed 157 rushing yards and committed three turnovers. Man, you wonder what Mitch Mustain could've done in Petrino's offense. Alas, he's the third-stringer at USC.
Duke routed I-AA power James Madison 31-7 for David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils snapped a nine-game losing streak, won their opener for the first time since 2002 and scored their most points since 2005.
Greg McMackin's debut at Hawaii was ugly. Florida rolled 56-10, scoring twice on interception returns and once on a punt return to romp past the Warriors. Hawaii has been outscored 97-20 in its past two games – losses to Georgia and Florida.
June Jones and SMU sprinted out to an early 13-0 lead, then fell apart as Rice hammered the Mustangs 56-27. Rice had 466 total yards and threw six TD passes.
IN THEIR WAKE
The only ACC team that truly played well in the opening week was Wake Forest, which blasted Baylor 41-13 in Art Briles' first game as the Bears' coach. It was Baylor's 13th consecutive loss to a ranked opponent and dropped the Bears to 2-39 against top-25 teams since the Big 12 started in 1996.
Wake quarterback Riley Skinner threw for 220 yards and three TDs to key the rout. In the process, he became the winningest quarterback in program history, with 19 victories as a starter. "The history here, that's not too impressive of a record," he said. "Hopefully we can add on to that a little bit more."
If he does add to the record, he might become the most famous alum of The Bolles School in Jacksonville since singer Gram Parsons. Skinner doesn't wow you with great stats, but he's efficient – he led the nation with a 72 percent completion rate last season and hit 75 percent of his throws (27 of 36) against Baylor. He also seems to come up with the big play whenever Wake needs it.
The Demon Deacons get another new coach this week, when they play host to Houston Nutt and Ole Miss. After that, it's a week off before they play at Florida State. Given the state of the ACC, it wouldn't be a surprise if Wake beats FSU for the third consecutive season. If that happens, the Demon Deacons' home game Oct. 9 against Clemson could end up deciding the Atlantic Division title.
"I told our players that they're just going to have to expect that the stakes are going to keep going up every week," coach Jim Grobe said after the win over Baylor.
A quarterback who needs to take some lessons from Skinner is Mississippi State's Wesley Carroll. Like Skinner, Carroll went to a private-school powerhouse – Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas – in Florida. Like Skinner, Carroll was the quarterback of a team that went to a bowl last season. And like Skinner, Carroll is at the controls of an offense that lacks explosiveness.
But unlike Skinner, Carroll has a propensity to make mistakes and not make enough big plays to make up for them. Saturday, Carroll tossed three picks and shared time as Mississippi State fell 22-14 at Louisiana Tech.
Mississippi State didn't get a first down in the fourth quarter, when backup quarterback Tyson Lee, a walk-on from a junior college, was in the game. Mississippi State – which was the first SEC team to ever play at Louisiana Tech – won the yardage battle 348-269 but couldn't overcome five turnovers.
"We are an undisciplined team, no doubt," Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom told reporters afterward. "That was very obvious."
Carroll is asked to be the caretaker of an offense that likes to rely on the run. But that rushing attack was stymied Saturday, and the Bulldogs' severe lack of playmakers on the outside caught up to them. In their six losses since the start of last season, Mississippi State has averaged 83.5 rushing yards. In their eight victories in that span, the Bulldogs have averaged 171.8 rushing yards.
The Bulldogs went bowling last season for just the second time this decade, but the loss means they have a thin margin of error this season as they attempt to get another bid. This Saturday's game against Division I-AA Southeastern Louisiana looks like a sure win, but then come three games – vs. Auburn, at Georgia Tech and at LSU – that could determine the course of the season. Winnable games also remain against Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ole Miss, but unless the Bulldogs find a way to run the ball against teams that know the run is coming, they will be in trouble.
Michigan had no losses to non-"Big Six" schools from 1985-2006. Now the Wolverines have lost their opener to non-"Big Sixers" in back-to-back seasons.
Did anyone else find it ironic that East Carolina beat Virginia Tech on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown with 1:52 left? Virginia Tech prides itself on its special teams, and before the winning TD the margin was two points - thanks to a blocked extra-point attempt being returned for a score by Tech's Stephan Virgil in the third quarter. "It hurts to lose on a blocked kick at the end," said Hokies coach Frank Beamer, whose team managed just 243 total yards. "There's no excuse for that." ECU gets another chance for an upset when it plays at West Virginia this Saturday.
Saturday wasn't a good day for Heisman hopefuls and their lower extremities. Florida receiver Percy Harvin didn't play against Hawaii because of a heel injury, Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin left in the second half of a win over Illinois because of an ankle injury and Ohio State tailback Chris Wells suffered an injured foot in the Buckeyes' win over Youngstown State.
Stanford got off to a good start in Year 2 of the Jim Harbaugh era Thursday night, upending Oregon State 36-28. Running back Toby Gerhart was the spark, rushing for 147 yards and two TDs on 19 carries. Gerhart missed all but one game last season with a knee injury but returned with a vengeance against a Beavers defense that had an all-new front seven. Gerhart, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound junior, is the leading career rusher in California high school history with 9,622 yards for Norco High, which is about 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Four of Stanford's next five games are on the road, starting with this week against Arizona State. Getting the win over Oregon State was vital if the Cardinal hopes to go to a bowl game this season.
Losing to Division I-AA Cal Poly wasn't exactly the way embattled San Diego State coach Chuck Long wanted to start the season. Poly won on a last-play field goal and outrushed the Aztecs 263-27. (Notre Dame opens with San Diego State this week.) There were 32 games matching I-A and I-AA opponents over the weekend, and Poly's victory was the only one by a I-AA school.
All three service academies run a variation of the option and all three had big-time success on the ground this week, combining for 1,201 rushing yards. Air Force had 433 in a rout of Division I-AA Southern Utah, Navy had an incredible 558 in a rout of I-AA Towson and Army had 210 in a loss to Temple.
Back in April, we called the Oklahoma-Chattanooga the most embarrassing game of the season. Final score: OU 57-2. Chattanooga finished with 36 yards of offense (on 53 plays) and one first down; the Mocs were 0-for-16 on third-down conversions, 3-for-17 passing and punted 13 times. The Sooners called off the dogs after taking a 50-0 lead into the halftime intermission. In two weeks, Chattanooga plays at Florida State.
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: South Carolina's defense dominated North Carolina State in the opener last Thursday, while Vandy's rushing attack led the way in an upset of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Vandy won in Columbia last season.
Buffalo at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.: Pitt self-destructed in its loss to Bowling Green and gets another MAC team this week. Buffalo quarterback Drew Willy does a nice job directing the Bulls' offense. He has a streak of 251 pass attempts without an interception, the longest in the nation.
Minnesota at Bowling Green, 7:30 p.m.: Minnesota scored late, then barely held on to beat MAC bottom-feeder Northern Illinois on Saturday. Bowling Green is better than NIU and gets the Gophers at home. BG can open the season with back-to-back wins over "Big Six" schools.
For the second season in a row, Wyoming beat Ohio University by a point. Last season, the Cowboys won 34-33. This season, the Cowboys won 21-20.
Florida punter Chas Henry had no touchbacks among his 37 punts last season. Three of his four punts Saturday against Hawaii resulted in touchbacks.
Apparently, "UTEP" means "we do not play defense" in some foreign tongue. The Miners were whipped 42-17 by Buffalo in their opener; it's the seventh time since the beginning of last season that UTEP has allowed at least 40 points and the 23rd time since the beginning of the '05 season they've allowed at least 30 points. Put another way, UTEP has allowed at least 30 points in 23 of its past 37 games – 62 percent. It's also 22 of its past 31, which is 71 percent.
Former five-star linebacker Willie Williams now is at his fifth school. Williams was one of the top players in the class of 2004, out of Miami's Carol City High. After a well-documented recruiting saga – which included news that he had been arrested 11 times – he signed with Miami. He then left for West Los Angeles CC, and later signed with Louisville. He was dismissed from Louisville after an arrest last September, then resurfaced at Division II Glenville (W.Va.) State. He left Glenville State last week for Union College in Barbourville, Ky., an NAIA school. Apparently, he would've been ineligible under NCAA rules, causing him to leave Glenville for Union.