PITTSBURGH – Mike Shanahan isn’t picky. The Pittsburgh senior wide receiver will settle for a bowl game – any bowl game – if the Panthers can get eligible with a victory Saturday night at South Florida.
Yes, Birmingham included.
The Panthers (2-4 Big East, 5-6) have traveled to Alabama each of the last two Januarys for the BBVA Compass Bowl. There’s a shot they could make it three straight if they find a way to beat the reeling Bulls (1-5, 3-8).
As monotonous as it sounds, considering the bumpy path the program has traveled during Shanahan’s career, he’ll take it.
“Well, it’s a blessing to go anywhere, I guess,” Shanahan said. “But if we’ve got to go back there, we’ll try to win again. So, it’ll be all right.”
Playing good football hasn’t been an issue for Pitt this season. Playing good football consistently is another matter entirely.
The Panthers’ emphatic 27-6 thumping of Rutgers last Saturday was their second win over a ranked team this season and the fourth time they’ve played a quality opponent tight.
Pitt came closer than anyone else did this season of unseating top-ranked Notre Dame, falling to the Fighting Irish in triple overtime earlier this month. Yet the Panthers also have lost to the likes of Youngstown State and Connecticut while looking uninspired in wins over Buffalo and Gardner-Webb.
“Every game there’s a fine line, and you have to play good football and do the things that lead to winning games,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I think it is a fine line, and I’ve always believed that. I don’t know if it’s more now, than before.”
It’s one the Panthers need to be on the winning side of one more time to assure themselves of a fifth straight bowl berth.
The extra month of practice a bowl game would provide could do wonders for the underclassmen who will lead the charge next fall when Pitt moves from the Big East to the ACC.
It also would provide a nice send-off to a senior class that saw the program go through four different head coaches – six if you count interims – and a conference move that precipitated a realignment craze that is changing the face of college athletics.
“I think it would be good to know that we could overcome anything and still get to another bowl game,” Shanahan said. “I’ve gone to a bowl game every year since I’ve been here, so I want to keep that streak going this season.”
Even if it means knowing just how close an OK season could have turned into a special one. The losses to Youngstown State, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville were all winnable games.
It’s something Shanahan said the players try not to let get to their heads.
“I guess, when you look back a little this season there are a few games that could have gone either way,” Shanahan said. “There were some that we thought we should have won, but I don’t know why we didn’t win them. Maybe we just weren’t ready to win those games.”
If the Panthers aren’t ready to win on Saturday it will lead to a longer-than-expected offseason, though Chryst is optimistic his team is finally starting to get what it means to play consistently no matter the level of the opponent.
A .500 season and a lower-level bowl isn’t quite the special season the Panthers envisioned in August. Then again, for Chryst and a program that’s been in perpetual transition for two years, it’s a start.
“Coach Chryst already told us that he’d take care of us seniors if we make it,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know what that would entail, but I’m looking forward to it. So, we just need to go out with a win this week and see what happens with a bowl game.”
Player dismissed from team
Chryst has dismissed redshirt freshman defensive back Stephen Williams from the team for disciplinary reasons two days after city police charged him with assaulting a woman who claimed to be his girlfriend.
The 19-year-old Williams denied hitting the woman, though police say in a criminal complaint that he did acknowledge shoving the woman after she flagged down police Saturday about 2 a.m.
Online court records don’t list an attorney for Williams, who also did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Monday. He faces a preliminary hearing in Pittsburgh Municipal Court Thursday on a misdemeanor charge of simple assault.
Police say the woman had marks on her chest and claimed her hair and an earring had been ripped out. Police say Williams denied assaulting the woman or that she was his girlfriend.