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Special Teams Falters, Pitt Loses To Notre Dame

Well, thought this would be a close loss (23-20, to be exact) and that's exactly what we had. Pitt ended up losing 23-17 and in the end, came up a few plays short.

Everyone knows the old adage about special teams accounting for 1/3 of the game. The easy thing to do would be to look at Pitt's special teams and blame them for the game. While the special teams weren't the only reason the Panthers fell short, it was certainly one of them.

Dan Hutchins missed a short 27-yard field goal in the second quarter and with the first half coming to a close, holder Andrew Janocko had another issue on the hold as he successfully caught the snap, but bobbled the ball setting it up. Janocko is also known for his botched hold in the Cincinnati game last year. Like that one, it wasn't the only play that cost Pitt the game. But you have to wonder at what point will Hutchins worry about the hold being accurate. In the press conference afterwards, Wannstedt obviously wasn't pleased with the kicking:

Q. You had some problems on field goals today. What happened with them?

COACH WANNSTEDT: You know what, on one our holder dropped the ball. I mean, he spun the ball and he lost control of it. I really don't he's been doing it for four years. And Hutch is as good a dependable kicker as we've got and he just pushed it to the right. Bad day, bad day kicking field goals.

Pitt also had its miscues in the punting game. Wannstedt somewhat mysteriously called for a fake punt after Pitt's drive att he beginning of the third quarter. While Pitt was down 17-3 at that point, the team hadn't shown such an inability to move the ball for him to gamble with the ball around Pitt's 35-yard line at that point. Pitt couldn't convert the fake and Notre Dame added another field goal. On the other side, Notre Dame's punting game was spectacular, pinning the Panthers at or inside the ten three times in the second half.

Of course, Pitt could have stopped all the talk about missed field goals had it converted touchdowns instead. On the team's first two drives, it got down to Notre Dame's ten-yard line and couldn't get into the end zone. In a game like this, you can't give up opportunities like that and Wannstedt knows it:

"We're moving the ball. We get down in there. We have to settle for attempted field goals. We don't finish the drive,'' said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who'd beaten Notre Dame in thrillers the previous two seasons.

QB Tino Sunseri also agreed with that:

"We have to come in and understand that we had the game, but we have to capitalize in the red zone whenever we're down there," Sunseri said.

Speaking of Sunseri, I again played pretty well and considering it was a road game against a decent team, had maybe his best game of the season. He wasn't great, but he's clearly doing enough to remain the starter and gives the chance a fair shot to win. He completed about 70% of his passes, had 272 yards, ran for a score and passed for another. On the play to Baldwin, he really showed he's maturing. He could have taken the safe play and ran for the first down, but he kept the play alive long enough to see Baldwin uncovered and found him on the 56-yard touchdown strike.

The one thing that bothers me (other than the fact that he stares down receivers at times) is that on several occasions this year in third down situations, he's thrown several balls to receivers well short of the first down markers. The receiver is forced to then make a play or Pitt turns the ball over. He had a few such plays today. Sunseri still also struggles with the deep ball and I don't know if that will be fixed this season. But all things considered, it's hard to argue with what he gave the team today.

The flipside to Pitt's mild success passing the ball was that both Dion Lewis and Ray Graham saw less touches, even though both made the most of them. Each back averaged more than five yards per carry, but Lewis only ran 13 times and Graham, eight. We did get a glimpse of the 'old' Lewis when he broke a 30-yard run, but in all, Pitt didn't run the ball as much as they typically would like. Part of that was due to the flow of the game and the different situations the team found itself in.

It's hard to determine exactly where Pitt is at this point. Paul Zeise of the PG makes a reasonable point about the Panthers, going back to last season, are 1-5 against quality opponents. The team has lost all three of its challenges this season and won its two easy games. I think it's safe to say the team can still win the conference, but based on what we've seen, will need to play better to do so. It sounds cliche, but the team must keep improving.