The Pittsburgh Panthers look good.
Sitting at a respectable 6-1 after a quality 24-17 win over Rutgers this past Friday night, the Panthers appear to be hitting their stride, much to the delight of their head coach.
The much maligned Dave Wannstedt is finally enjoying the fruits of his recruiting as he has some truly talented players roaming the field in Pittsburgh. The talent he has amassed looks to be generally on the level or above the level of the other seven teams in the Big East Conference, which contrary to general national opinion is quite good.
After posting a winning record in the 2008-2009 season, for the first time in his brief time at Pittsburgh, Wannstedt and his Panthers are poised to move beyond the 9-4 mark they set last year.
Starting the season 3-0 before losing a nail-biter to North Carolina State was a good first step for the Panthers. Since that 38-31 loss at Raleigh, the Panthers have gone 3-0 in the conference beating Louisville, Connecticut and Rutgers in consecutive weeks. Three of their first six wins were against likely bowl teams which does away with the stereotype of a soft Big East schedule.
At 6-1 with five games to go, the Panthers could conceivably win all five of their remaining games and get the BCS bowl bid of the Big East Conference. However, in their way stands the meat of their schedule. The next two weeks, the Panthers host South Florida followed by Syracuse. Those two games can and should be won by Pitt. The final three weeks of the season however will likely prove to be much trickier.
Pitt has a home date against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (Who will likely be ranked in the polls by then) on 11/14, followed by a road trip to Morgantown to play the hated rival West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl and finally, a potential battle for the BCS bowl berth if not more against current #5 in the BCS poll, Cincinnati. This is not a stretch to be taken lightly.
While the remaining schedule could be dicey for the team, the true story has been the emergence of Dion Lewis.
The true freshman running back, lightly recruited out of prep school, arrived at Pitt this past offseason well aware of the open competition that was the running back position. Left vacant by the early departure of redshirt sophomore LeSean McCoy to the NFL this past offseason, the running back job was wide open.
Lewis has filled the void admirably and is ranked third in the nation in rushing yards averaging 131 yards per game, more than LeSean McCoy averaged during his two years on campus.
Lewis has received his share of the accolades so far this season as well he should, but lost in the shuffle has been the play of senior QB Bill Stull.
Stull, like his coach, was a target of criticism and ridicule over the past couple of years but in his senior season, he has really stepped up. Stull has been completing over 66 percent of his passes for just over 200 yards a game and most importantly, his TD/INT ratio has been terrific throwing 14 touchdowns to only three interceptions.
Perhaps the only legitimate criticism that could be leveled at him at this stage of the season would be that he hasn’t gotten the ultra-talented sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin more involved in the passing game. Aside from that however, Stull has done more than enough, giving the Panthers a chance to win every game.
The offense of the Panthers has gotten most of the notoriety early but if the string of success is to continue, it’s the defense that will need to really continue their play. Star DE Greg Romeus has been great, as has LB Adam Gunn with the two of them combining for 12.0 sacks already this season but with high powered offenses in four of their remaining five games, the Panthers and Coach Wannstedt will need the strong play to continue.
At No. 20 in the recently released BCS Standings, the Panthers are seeing some of the respect they deserve for their early season success. However, the tough part of the season really starts now and it will be up to Stull, Lewis and the rest of the team to see if they can keep this level of success going.
Here’s guessing they do.