We recently got a Pittsburgh blog over in these parts, Cardiac Hill, and it's perfect timing for us as we prepare for the Syracuse-Pittsburgh game this weekend. I spoke with Anson over there abt the upcoming game, who to look out for on the Pitt side of the ball, their expectations and his thoughts on Dave Wannstedt. His answers are below, and be sure to check out Anson's article for SB Nation Pittsburgh as well about Pitt's chances for winning the Big East. And if you want to see my answers to his questions, stop on by Cardiac Hill to read them.
Pitt, Pitt, Pitt...picked to win the conference and all of a sudden you guys are staring at a 2-3 start. Epic disaster? Tiny disaster? Or you saw this coming?
If I can, I'd add another option somewhere in between tiny disaster and epic disaster - let's call it simply, disaster. The problem with Pitt's start is not so much the actual start itself as it is with all of the preseason hype surrounding the team heading into this year. Everywhere you looked it was "Top 15" here, "Best in the Big East" there. While everyone openly acknowledged the fact that the team was going with a new starter at QB, had only 2/5 of an offensive line coming back, and had serious questions in the secondary, very few thought it would affect the team this much. Most (including myself, by the way) brushed off those questions with answers like, 'Yeah, but we have Dion Lewis, Jon Baldwin, and Greg Romeus.'
Then what happens? Romeus goes out for most of the year, Lewis struggles behind a new offensive line, and that new QB can't find Baldwin with a road map or doesn't have enough time to get him the ball. While Pitt has lost to a top ten team, a top 25 team, and a decent Notre Dame team on the road, it's still a bitter pill to swallow knowing they couldn't win any of those games. So based on the season as it actually stands, I'd call it a tiny disaster since Pitt can still win a very weak Big East. But based on the preseason hype and what everyone hoped the team would accomplish, probably a little worse than that.
Dave Wannstedt reminds me a lot of Paul Pasqualoni. He'll get you 7-9 wins a season and a Big East title every once in a while. However when expectations are at their highest, he can't seem to get it done. And only when those expectations are diminished does the team do its best work. Agree? Disagree? Somewhere in the middle?
I'd probably agree with some of that, but I do think Wannstedt is a slightly better recruiter than Pasqualoni was. Pitt had a pretty good class last season and should have a top 15-25 class next year if everyone signs. And every year he's done well in recruiting, getting a few five-star guys, even when the team was pretty bad in the beginning of his tenure. Wannstedt's kind of a tough nut to figure out, but I always explain it this way: He's the type of guy you love to have in your program in some capacity - kids love him and he recruited well even when Pitt wasn't doing so well on the field.
That said, I don't know if you want him as your head coach. He always seems to disappoint when the chips are down. If it wasn't kicking to Mardy Gilyard and turning even more conservative than he already is during last year's Cincinnati game then it's burning timeouts to think over decisions when it said decisions should have already been decided upon (i.e. the end of the Notre Dame game). Things like that don't always come back to bite him, but sometimes it will. Personally, I think he has the team on the right track and I'd probably keep him around. But at some point, he's going to have to win a few big games.
What the heck is going on in that backfield of yours? Who will we see getting the bulk of the carries against us, Dion Lewis, Roy Graham or an even mix of both?
Based on what Wannstedt repeatedly says in the press conferences, Pitt will play both but go with the hot hand. I've written about this before, but he hasn't exactly held true to sticking with the guy who looks the best. That said, I expect a pretty even distribution with Lewis maybe getting a bit more. Last week it was something like 13/8 in favor of Lewis. Graham has done enough to warrant getting some carries and I personally think Wannstedt is a little more high on Lewis, so I expect him to get some no matter what. Really, if they're both producing, I don't think it matters a whole lot. But it has been an interesting story to follow this year since Lewis was so highly touted coming into 2010.
Much like fellow sophomore Ryan Nassib, Tino Sunseri has had good and bad moments this season. How do you like Sunseri's progression so far? Is he still going to be your guy under center when he's a senior?
Personally, I like what Sunseri's been able to do. People forget that he's played against three pretty good teams and on the road last week at Notre Dame, had maybe his best game yet. The reason I'm pretty high on Tino is that he just doesn't make too many mistakes. Playing behind a sometimes suspect offensive line and taking all the snaps for the first time in his career, he has three interceptions and one of those wasn't even his fault as the receiver fell down.
That's not to say he doesn't make mistakes like overthrowing receivers, but given the circumstances, he's performed pretty well in my opinion. His deep ball needs a lot of work and sometimes he's not the most accurate, so I could see him getting passed up by a younger player if he doesn't get better. I've heard the team really likes freshman Mark Myers and he could be in the mix after this season.
On defense, who are the players that will strike fear into the heart of the SU offensive line all day?
Normally two would be DE Greg Romeus and MLB Dan Mason, but both are injured. Romeus was (and still possibly is) a first-round NFL Draft Pick and Mason, while only a sophomore, is a beast and flies to the ball. DE Jabaal Sheard is really good and with five sacks is up somewhere near the conference in that category. Brandon Lindsay, helping to fill in on the line in Romeus' absence has played really well, too, and has four sacks. Even if neither is able to take down the quarterback, they've done a pretty good job in applying pressure as well.
The Pitt-Cuse rivalry is arguable the most underrated one in the Big East. What's your most memorable moment from the series?
Well, for Pitt, it wasn't really a happy one. But Syracuse beat up on Pitt pretty bad in 1998, Donovan McNabb's senior year. I knew he had a big game, but I had to look up the numbers. He threw for over 200 yards, rushed for about 100, and had three total touchdowns. I remember thinking that even though he was kind of a scrambler, I thought he could throw well enough to have a decent NFL career. He actually turned out to be better than I thought he would and really was a dropback passer much more than a running QB. If you're asking for a positive moment, I'll go with the 2003 game at Heinz Field when Larry Fitzgerald was chasing the Heisman had about 150 yards and two touchdowns, - the first of which tied the NCAA record for most consecutive games with a TD catch. Pitt won 34-14.
Do Pittsburgh fans see Syracuse as a tradition rival?
To be honest, I don't think so - and that's kind of a shame. Syracuse has given Pitt a lot of trouble over the years, but because the Orange have been down for most of the last ten years or so, I don't think casual Pitt fans (especially the younger ones) give much thought about them. In seeking a bitter rival, Pitt fans' attention of course has gone to Penn State and West Virginia for the most part. The Penn State stuff is starting to subside just a bit...especially since West Virginia has gotten really good. But in terms of rivalries, I don't know that Pitt fans look at Syracuse as a traditional rival as maybe they did in the 1990s.
What has to happen for this season to be considered a success for Pitt fans? Big East title or bust?
As you put it - Big East or bust...plain and simple. Some people have been able to overlook Pitt's slow start because the conference season hasn't yet begun. But if Saturday rolls around and Pitt ends up with an "L", look out. The team is definitely losing some steam around the area, but if it wins a few Big East games in a row, I expect interest will pick up again. But there's nothing else to salvage at this point other than a BCS appearance. If Pitt loses even one more game and it keeps the team from finishing first in the conference, I don't even think a bowl win and 9-4 season can seem like a good year. And, truthfully, that's the way it should be.