- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

PITTSBURGH | Dave Wannstedt, a Pittsburgh graduate, probably would have booed, too, if he had been sitting in the stands.

Only one game into the season, Pittsburgh’s coach already is dealing with what has become a worrisome problem during his four years at the school: an underachieving performance against a team the Panthers should have beaten.

Their 27-17 loss to Bowling Green, the Panthers’ first in 24 home games against Mid-American Conference schools, not only dislodged Pittsburgh from the Top 25, it again raised questions about Wannstedt’s in-game coaching skills and whether Pittsburgh will turn the corner with Wannstedt as coach.

Pittsburgh was 32-18 and won two of its four bowl games in the four seasons before coach Walt Harris was eased out and Wannstedt took over after the 2004 season. In the four seasons since, Pittsburgh is 16-20 - 13-20 against Division I-A opponents - and has yet to have a winning season or go to a bowl.

Equally troubling to Pittsburgh rooters and the players themselves are the losses that are downright inexplicable: to Bowling Green, a team that trailed 14-0 and was outgained 137-6 in the first quarter; to undersized Navy a year ago; to Ohio U. in 2005, a game in which Pittsburgh was a four-touchdown favorite; to Connecticut a year ago, when Pittsburgh was favored but lost at home by 20.

“It was probably justified,” Wannstedt said of the booing that filled Heinz Field after Pittsburgh couldn’t score in the second half and committed four turnovers against Bowling Green. “I mean, let’s be real. We expected to go out there and play good and win the game, so when people are disappointed they are going to express it.”

The surprising loss could cause ripples the rest of the season.

First, it will make it difficult for Pittsburgh to go to a quality bowl game even if the Panthers bounce back and play as expected.

“We’re upset, and we’re disgusted about what happened,” quarterback Bill Stull said.

Second, it could affect attendance; the announced crowd of 45,063 was about 20,000 below Heinz Field’s capacity. A loss so damaging dampens enthusiasm and may hurt ticket sales for upcoming games against Buffalo (1-0) on Saturday and Iowa on Sept. 20.

Third, the defeat quickly unravels most of the positives that emerged from the Panthers’ one proud moment since 2004, their 13-9 upset of then No. 2 West Virginia on Dec. 1.

“We have something to prove,” tight end Nate Byham said. “We definitely have something to prove, especially after this loss, but the ability is there for us to play with anybody.”

That’s the ongoing story line at Pittsburgh: The Panthers can beat anybody, but they do so all too infrequently.

With Wannstedt going into the fourth season of his five-year contract, this figured to be the pivotal season in determining whether he stayed. Counting his aborted final season with the Miami Dolphins in 2004, Wannstedt has a 17-28 record in his last five seasons.

But Wannstedt was given an extension through 2012 on the day of the West Virginia game last season, which means Pittsburgh must buy out four seasons if it decides he shouldn’t return in 2009.

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