Seriously, have you even thought about the game this weekend yet? I feel like with everything going on this week it's become an afterthought. Not to mention the fact that Pittsburgh is, um, actually pretty good. They're 7-1 and ranked 14th in the nation. WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? I need answers...
Thankfully, Lee from Eye Of A Panther was kind enough to provide those answers. Check them out below as you begin to prep for this weekend's showdown and if you feel so inclined swing by Eye to see my answers to his questions. You can tell me why I'm wrong. It's fun.
Pittsburgh is ranked 7-1 and 14th in the nation. Is this about what you were expecting before the season or is it ahead of expectations?
Well it's definitely ahead of my expectations. I don't remember off-hand, but I think I predicted 8-4 for Pitt at the beginning of the year. Now, that would be a huge disappointment if that happened. The funny thing about Pitt is that even when they have good years, they always have those games where they stumble and should win. Yes, the NC State game was a disaster, but so far, Pitt has gotten past some of the other games they might have lost in other years such as UCONN or Rutgers. If I had tried to predict the record at this point in the season, I probably would have said 6-2. That's not far off from 7-1, but it's HOW they've won that's been surprising. They've been dominant on both sides of the ball other than that nagging secondary problem that showed up a few times and really look tough to beat a times. I don't think any Pitt fan saw that coming - especially after the 3-0 bowl loss last year.
That one loss came to a 3-5 NC State team. What happened?
Well, as I mentioned above, Pitt always seems to have these types of games. They seem to lose games they shouldn't and probably win some they shouldn't as well. Pitt had a 14-point lead fairly late into the third quarter and imploded from there. The NC State quarterback played really well in the second half of that game our secondary was really off. To date, he was the best quarterback they faced and they struggled mightily to get pressure on him. He not only threw for over 300 yards but had about 100 yards rushing and Pitt never really could get a good handle on him. The defense also couldn't stop the big play. I think Pitt gave up something like 10-12 plays greater than 20 yards and had some stupid penalties to keep drives going as well. Offensively, Pitt just lost their inability to move the ball. Five of their last six possessions ended in punts or a turnover on downs.
Had Pitt not gotten to 7-1 at this point in the season, it might not have been that surprising. But the fact they've played so well since then makes it that much more difficult to understand. That loss gets more painful with each win that's come as the reality is that Pitt would likely be a top ten team at this point had they managed to hold onto that lead.
What has been the secret to Pittsburgh's success of offense this year? Defense?
Offensively, the secret has been balance - much more than I've seen in watching Pitt for about 15 years now. They've had excellent running backs in the past with Lesean McCoy and Kevan Barlow, but never had the passing game to complement it. Alternatively, with Larry Fitzgerald, the running game wasn't as strong as it could have been. Now, they have that ultimate mix of one of the top running games in the country and a quarterback, playing well, and more importantly, not making mistakes. Dion Lewis is good - make no mistake about it. But I have no question that he's been able to be as effective as he has because defenses can't simply stack eight in the box to stop him. A big part has been the playcalling of new Offensive Coordinator, Frank Cignetti. He's really used the tight ends well, evidenced by Dorin Dickerson's nine TD receptions and had a steady mix of run vs. pass.
Defensively, it's been the front four in my opinion. Pitt has put pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz all that much. It's rare for a team to blitz as little as Pitt does to lead the nation in sacks per game, which is what they do. That really frees up the linebackers to help out in pass coverage or get to running backs going to the outside. The secondary has had its share of issues, but has quietly played better as of late, even as the competition's gotten harder. I think it's a matter of just getting more comfortable.
What have the Panthers been working on with the bye week? And do you worry that's too much time to sit around with a trap game possibility ahead?
In other years, I think the bye week could hurt them with a trap game coming up. But they really have gone out of their way this week to say how they're not looking past it. Just about every team will say that, but I think it's true in this case, partially because of the NC State game. This team can have a really special season if they keep their focus and help get the team to that next level. If they were 5-3 at this point, I'd be much more concerned. Not to say this game doesn't scare me a bit, but I don't think Pitt will lose because of effort. If they do stumble in this game, and here's a novel concept, Syracuse will have to outplay Pitt. I'd be really surprised if Pitt doesn't come out to play - especially at home.
The local papers have mentioned that Pitt is working hard this week to keep it's passing game in sync and I think that's where the focus is for them this week, at least offensively. Defensively, it's still got to be in the secondary to avoid the lapses they've had early on this year. Yes, I'm sure Pitt expects it to be a little easier without having to deal with Mike Williams, but you could make the argument that they should be even more focused as Greg Paulus will likely be spreading the wealth a bit more, keeping more guys involved.
Dave Wannstedt. You pleased? Jury still out? Just love the mustache?
I'll take the most important part of your question first - Dave Wannstedt is one of the few people who can still kind of pull of the only mustache look.
I was not a big Wannstedt fan these past few years. I always thought he was a good recruiter and good 'people person', but wasn't sure if he was the right guy to lead this program. But after seeing not only the recruiting, but the results on the field, I've done a complete 180. There may be a time when that changes, but for now, it's hard to argue with his success. Going back to that statement game beating West Virginia on the road at the end of 2007, Pitt has been 17-5. Even his most fierce detractors have to be at least somewhat on the bandwagon at this point.
That said, I do think the jury is still out at this point if you take him by his word of what he wants to accomplish, which is to get Pitt back in the national spotlight among the best of the best. Pitt has been able to put together two strong years (at least to this point), but they've not yet gotten to 10 wins and have not been to a BCS bowl under his reign. That may change as early as this year, but Pitt still has a lot of work to do to accomplish his goals.
If I told you Pittsburgh would win the Big East but you won't beat West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl, would you be okay with that?
Absolutely. I may be a little different in my line of thinking, but I'd rather lose to West Virginia ten years in a row if it meant winning the conference every year. No Pitt fan wants to lose to West Virginia obviously, but it's about the big picture. People may pretend like rivalry games are the only thing that matters, but I would be a little surprised if fans would start giving up conference championships to beat a rival. If you take out the Big East implications saying that it would have been nice to see someone from our conference play for a national championship, why was the 2007 win for Pitt fans especially nice? Because it kept West Virginia from competing for a championship. That's the only reason you play. Oh, and don't forget that many people still have more of a hatred for Penn State than West Virginia, but that's another topic in itself.