PITTSBURGH (AP) – Dave Wannstedt never saw it coming.

Two weeks ago, the new Pitt coach and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were pictured side-by-side on a magazine cover as the new faces of Pittsburgh football. Wannstedt’s early recruiting class was hailed as Pitt’s best since the 1970s. Preseason interest and ticket sales were at 20-year highs.

That No. 23 national ranking? Just the start of good things – or, as Wannstedt said, great things – to come at a school he felt was ready to win like it hasn’t since the days of Dorsett and Marino.

Then they started playing the games.

The Notre Dame loss was bad enough, 42-21 to an unranked team in a sold-out Heinz Field. Worse still was how badly Pitt was outplayed, by a team it beat on the road last season, and outcoached, by Charlie Weis in his first game on a college sideline.

If Notre Dame was a bad game, last Friday’s 16-10 overtime loss at Mid-American Conference bottom-feeder Ohio U. was an abomination, arguably one of the three worst losses in school history. Only a 2001 defeat to Division I-A newcomer South Florida and a 1984 defeat to Temple, two years removed from Pitt being No. 1 in the country, were worse.

And, for all the rah-rahing about n’er-do-well Ohio winning before an excited, loud crowd – the kind of atmosphere that exists at most college campuses every weekend, not just once in a lifetime – Pitt knows it lost the game more than Ohio won it. Two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Tyler Palko, who lit up Notre Dame for five TD passes and was intercepted only twice in his final six games last season, will do that.

Now, with Nebraska on the road coming up Saturday and Pitt’s first 0-3 start since 1984 looming, Wannstedt must be wondering how it all went so wrong so quickly. The season isn’t lost, but is fast slipping away. So is all the good will and excitement he generated after his hiring. He also risks losing some of those early commitments from a prized 2006 freshman class if this persists.

“We’ve got to find a way out of it,” Wannstedt said Monday. “We started slow and that’s where we are right now.”

As one headline read Saturday, Pitt’s Wannstedt Era is quickly looking like the Wannstedt Error. Counting his 1-8 record before he resigned as the Dolphins’ coach last season, he has lost 10 of his last 11 games.

And Walt Harris, the man shoved out by athletic director Jeff Long despite five consecutive bowl appearances, including last season’s Fiesta Bowl? Don’t think it wasn’t noticed in Pittsburgh that his Stanford team went on the road and beat Navy 41-38, the kind of score Harris was known for at Pitt.

Wannstedt, whose Dolphins teams won 10 or more games three times in four seasons from 2000-03, isn’t worried about losing his new players’ confidence or respect. (No doubt he hid any newspapers mentioning the Dolphins’ 34-10 rout of the Broncos under new coach Nick Saban.)

“If we had never done this before or never had success doing it, or had offensive schemes that hadn’t been successful or the guys that are teaching had never done it … it’s not an issue,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a little frustrating. When you don’t have success, there’s a lot of what Bill Parcells says – there’s a lot of exit doors.”

Kind of like the one Pitt showed Harris?

What most concerns Pitt followers is the breakdown of what always was its strongest asset during the Harris days: an innovative, well-executed and tough-to-stop passing game.

Palko, now in former Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh’s system, doesn’t resemble the player he was a year ago, when he became the first Pitt sophomore quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season.

With defenses keying on his only reliable receiver, Greg Lee, Palko looks lost without Harris’ guidance and game-planning. He also can’t like what Wannstedt said Monday about putting an even greater emphasis on running the ball.

“We’re confident we can run the ball. We’re going to line up and run the ball,” said Wannstedt, who committed before the season began to being run-oriented. “We’re not going to back away from anything.”

But if Ohio U. is enough to bring down Pitt a week after Northwestern scored 38 points and had more than 500 yards against the Bobcats, what will the Panthers do at Louisville? West Virginia? Or Nebraska?

Wannstedt isn’t thinking about benching Palko; the quarterback’s only backups are two freshmen who were in high school a year ago.

“I’m Tyler’s biggest supporter. He’s our guy. I believe in him and he’ll bounce back this week, but we’ve got to be honest about things,” Wannstedt said.

Right now, these numbers don’t lie: Pitt is No. 95 in total offense and No. 92 in passing among the 116 Division I-A teams, despite possessing one of college football’s best pitch-and-catch teams in Palko to Lee. That improved running game? No. 75.

Perhaps the one number that could get Pitt’s offense straightened out is that at the Stanford University football office. Ask for coach Harris. If somebody at Pitt hasn’t thought about calling it, perhaps they should.

“We’ve all got a lot of work to do,” Wannstedt said.

AP-ES-09-12-05 1747EDT


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