Wednesday, September 07, 2005

cleansing the palate | by Jay

Just a few final thoughts on the Pitt game before we move on to the next dish (fricassé of skunkbear, if all goes well).

Walking out of Heinz Field after the game, I felt a lot like Paul McCormick. You remember him from Saturday night, right? As the random fan selected to participate in the Giant Eagle Foods Pigskin Challenge at halftime, all McCormick had to do was throw a football through a 12-inch circle from about forty yards away.

He took a step, launched the ball, and threw a perfect strike. McCormick went nuts. His family nearly tackled him out of sheer elation. Heinz Field erupted. The Giant Eagle rep grimaced. McCormick had just won five hundred thousand dollars. His face was lit up brighter than the Panthervision jumbotron.

Even sans winning a half-mil, I knew where McCormick was coming from. Saturday night was downright ebullient -- and shocking. Pregame anxiety, exacerbated by the opening touchdown pass to Greg Lee, soon gave way to a buoyant euphoria that carried me all the way back to the hotel bar until 3am, when the night staff at the Omni finally had to chase the last of the diehard celebratin' Irish back up to their rooms. Sunday morning we arose with a giddiness, pouring over the Pittsburgh papers at breakfast and rehashing the wonder of the night before. It wasn't a dream.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye -- or one shortened offseason -- our team completely transformed, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. Suddenly, our offense looked crisp and confident. Our defense: hard-hitting and energetic. We were imaginative (but not gimmicky) and kept the Panthers off-balance on both sides of the ball all night long. The offense featured a little bit of everything: runs up the middle, runs around end, quick outs to receivers (followed by a few brutal stiff-arms), draw plays, screens, hitting the tight end over the middle, crossing patterns to the wide receivers, quarterback scrambles, a fake reverse/pass, and even a direct-snap to the running back. Six different players ran for at least twenty yards; seven different receivers caught balls. Almost everything worked; we ran and passed with equal confidence. Thus prompting my friend to address the offense, like a son confronting his dad who had walked out on the family: "Where the hell have you been for the last ten years?"

Somewhat overlooked in the postgame hoopla was the defense, which mugged Palko for five sacks, held Greg Lee catchless for the last 20 minutes of the game, and most of all, allowed only one touchdown until garbage time. Pitt was supposed to be one of the better offensive teams on our schedule, and our guys consistently punched them in the mouth. Unheralded defenders like Ambrose Wooden and Chris Frome showed that this defense, while unproven, has a mean streak and a seemingly endless reservoir of energy. When the Duke, instead of pulling up, layed out a Panther receiver well after the play had been broken up (in the third quarter, no less), a certain word crossed my mind. All right, I'll say it -- we were simply nasty out there.

Joe Starkey, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, had the most fitting lead:

Eight months ago, Weis and his New England Patriots' offense carved up the NFL's No. 1 defense in the AFC title game. On Saturday night, Weis conducted an Irish pig roast, with Pitt's defensive line turning on the spit.

And with that came a sudden, violent end to the Dave Wannstedt Feel Good Tour.

Speaking of the 'stache, I don't think you could feel anything but pity for the Pittsburgh faithful, a loyal, vocal fan base who haven't sniffed a national championship since 1976. In fact, the showcase Pittsburgh put on Saturday night before and during the game was a cavalcade of Panther stars, and very impressive. Dorsett. Marino. Colvert. Ditka. These guys are legitimate football heroes, and not just to Pitt fans. It's a solid legacy. And the feeling of pride in the team and the tradition was palpable, especially with Wannstedt coming back home. There was a lot of pro-Wanny signage in the stadium, and I even spotted some T-shirts for a tailgater called "the Wann-Stache Bash." Along with Matt Cavanaugh, a couple of Panthers were finally taking over the reins; the resurgence begins now.

There was some talk last week that Heinz Field was going to be at least fifty percent Irish, but in truth, ND could claim only about a fifth of the stadium, if that. I sat in a section of Pitt season ticket holders, and as the former stars paraded onto the field, the place exploded. Pitt was fired up. Three minutes into the game, on the Greg Lee touchdown, my eardrums were blown out.

And that was the loudest it ever got. By halftime, Pitt fans were quietly, disgustedly filing out in droves, leaving behind only pockets of incredulous, shellshocked holdouts amid the pools of exhilarated Irish. A couple of wisecracking Pitt fans behind me, who had been screaming at the tops of their lungs at kickoff, turned on their new coach with a biting (and hilarious) scorn. "This is a HUMILIATION." "We fired Walt for THIS?" "Hey Rhoades, take some notes." When Darius Walker was stopped for no gain on one play: "Hey Wanny, that was SARCASTIC. Weis is MOCKING you." And so on. Even "Bring back Paul Hackett" was heard a few times.

I couldn't help but feel some sympathy; after all, I knew where these guys were coming from.

Late in the game, Pitt had a chance to down a punt at the one yard line, and the ball squirted out of Adam Gunn's hands and dropped plaintively across the goal line, resulting in a touchback. That's how it went all day long for Pitt, and it seemed to symbolize the deferred dream of Panther football, so celebrated at the outset of the game: a fleeting glory, just within recent memory, just on the fingertips, but slowly slipping away.

Onward to week 2.

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