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BIG EAST Strange season had it all for Pitt



Published: Tue, January 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Panthers began the year 2-2 but regrouped to go 8-4.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- By the end of a quirky Pitt football season that couldn't have started or ended much worse, yet still turned out to be a surprising success, it seemed nothing was a good fit.

Coach Walt Harris took the Panthers (8-4) to their first BCS bowl amid the best three-year run by any Pitt football coach in a quarter-century, yet was deemed expendable by the school's administration and was hired by Stanford. Harris' reign ended and new coach Dave Wannstedt's era began the moment time ran out in Pitt's 35-7 Fiesta Bowl loss to Utah on Saturday.

The game proved that, just as many of the Bowl Championship Series critics contended, a multi-loss team such as No. 19 Pitt didn't fit into in one of the major bowls. After seeing Utah's speed, physicality and playmaking skills, the Panthers had no room to argue that point.

Yet the loss, as overwhelming and as ego-deflating as it was, didn't diminish how far the Panthers came in a season in which they nearly lost to Furman and Temple yet somehow beat Notre Dame, West Virginia and Boston College to reach their first major bowl game in 21 years.

A leader in Palko

No player better illustrated Pitt's turnaround from a 2-2 start to a 6-2 finish than sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko, an outspoken team leader who always seemed to say the right thing.

Well, almost always -- his vulgarity uttered on network television minutes after he became the first QB to throw five touchdown passes against Notre Dame required an immediate apology and deflected attention from his outstanding play in Pitt's upset win.

Palko barely completed a pass in a memorably bad opener against Ohio. But within weeks, he was a dangerous playmaker who finished the season with 3,067 yards passing and twice threw five touchdown passes in a game.

What especially encouraged the Panthers was they enjoyed a better season than forecast with a mostly underclassman team. Wannstedt inherits 16 starters, nine on offense, and both specialists.

A look ahead

Wannstedt, aware of the turnaround performed by Harris during his predecessor's eight seasons on the job, has had little but praise for Harris.

But he pointed to weaknesses in the running game, which never developed in Harris' finesse-style West Coast offense, and line play.

Under Wannstedt, Pitt likely will run the ball much more -- they had only 17 yards on 30 carries against Utah -- without diminishing Palko's ability to get the ball downfield. Top receiver Greg Lee (67 catches, 1,286 yards, 10 touchdowns) returns, as do two promising receivers who sat out the season with injuries, former starter Princell Brockenbrough and the highly recruited Terrell Allen.

Also returning are linebackers Clint Session and H.B. Blades, whose father, Bennie, is a former NFL player who was coached by Wannstedt at the University of Miami.

"We're going to have high expectations next year," Palko said.




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