I had an opportunity to watch the Pitt Panthers take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish yesterday. Beings that I work most Saturdays, it's rare for me to be able to watch a college football game these days, but my boss was feeling generous and allowed me to view it.
In hindsight, I kind of wish I only heard about the details, afterwards, because it was another in a long line of recent frustrating losses by the Pitt football program.
After last week's heart breaker in Iowa, a win over the tradition-rich and popular Fighting Irish Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field would have been a nice feather in the cap for Todd Graham and the (aspiring to be) high octane Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Panthers certainly had their chances to not only win yesterday's game, but do so in impressive fashion.
Unfortunately for Pitt fans, their team let the Irish off the hook by committing too many costly mistakes at key moments that, in the end, were the difference between a two or three score victory and the eventual three-point loss.
One key moment occurred in the second quarter with the Panthers trailing, 7-3. Pitt had the ball inside the five yard line, facing 3rd and 1. Instead of trying a quarterback sneak or just pounding it up the middle with stellar tail back Ray Graham, they tried a sweep to the right and Graham lost about three yards. Instead of a fresh set of downs inside the one-yard line, the Panthers were forced to settle for a field goal.
Another critical error (in my opinion) was the false start penalty on a Pitt offensive lineman one play after Graham's forty-yard run out to near mid-field shortly after an interception deep in Pitt territory thwarted a potential Notre Dame scoring-drive.
But, for my money, the most devastating blow for Pitt was the dropped pass by receiver Devin Street on a perfectly thrown ball by quarterback Tino Sunseri late in the 3rd quarter. Pitt was already up, 12-7, and would have had the ball deep in Irish-territory, and who knows? I know the Pitt defense has come under great scrutiny early this season--particularly after last week's meltdown in Iowa--but the way the unit was playing yesterday, I think a 19-7 lead would have been a pretty safe one.
Sadly, we'll never know. Instead, Notre Dame eventually took the lead on a touchdown pass and two-point conversion mid-way through the 4th quarter and held-on for the 15-12 victory.
Maybe in a close-game like yesterday's, the difference in talent was ultimately the key, but I don't know if that had much to do with it. The Irish certainly have more talent than the Panthers, but the difference isn't as great as people may think, at least not these days.
I think the difference in yesterday's game was the players' continued difficultly with trying to learn a totally new system under a new head coach.
For years, under former coach Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers were a conservative program that tried to play things close-to-the-vest and, perhaps, the players that Wannstedt recruited reflected that style. Under Graham, they're now being asked to do things in a totally new way, and it's going to lead to some frustrating results.
Remember the first year or two of Wannstedt's time as coach when he transitioned the football program away from Walt Harris' finesse passing-style offense into the pro-style attack? It was like trying to pound the cliched square-peg into the cliched round-hole.
It wasn't until Wannstedt started bringing in his own recruits that his philosophy started to pay dividends.
I know it's frustrating to hear if you're a fan of Pitt like I am, but it's probably going to be the same way under Graham. I don't know if he has the players that he needs for his high octane approach on both offense and defense, at least not yet.
Of course, the worst part about yesterday wasn't the fact that the Panthers lost another close game, it was the fact that they lost to Notre Dame.
Notre Dame fans are everywhere and they're generally insufferable.
The Irish clearly aren't what they once were to college football. They rarely ever sniff the top 5 these days and haven't been a major factor in the National title picture for many years. Yet, their ratings are still huge, their fan base is still rabid and entitled, and the program gets the royal treatment everywhere it goes.
It sorts of reminds me of how Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were still adored years after the prime of their careers, or how Frank Sinatra was still selling out Las Vegas casinos when he was in his 60's. None of them were really relevant in the main-stream anymore, but they were still treated like superstars and had an inflated sense of self-worth. That's Notre Dame football these days.
Unfortunately, in the college football world, Pitt is to Notre Dame what Steve and Eydie were to old "Blue Eyes" back in the day. They're a football program trying to hang on and, for now, must come to terms with being a second banana.
Let's hope Todd Graham and the ACC are the tonic the Pitt football program needs to some day break out of the shadows of the likes of Notre Dame and be the star of their own show.