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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/18/2006 01:32:00 PM

Proving Time for Pitt

Oakland Arena
With players who will listen, Dave Wannstedt has enjoyed much success in his second season at Pitt.
By this point in the season, you'd like to think you have a pretty good grasp on how good a team is, particularly when that team is 6-1. But I have to admit, I still have no idea how good this year's Pittsburgh Panthers are -- and I'm not sure they do, either. "Maybe we're just getting lucky," joked quarterback Tyler Palko when I spoke with him last Sunday.

In Year Two of the Dave Wannstedt regime, Pitt has already won more games than it did all of last season, but the teams it has beaten have a combined record of 13-27. Their one loss came against 3-4 Michigan State. This weekend, however, the Panthers have a chance to prove themselves when they host undefeated, 19th-ranked Rutgers. Yes, it's true, Rutgers, which boasts the nation's second-ranked defense (221.3 yards per game) and fourth-leading rusher (Ray Rice), has become a measuring stick for other Big East teams. "We’ll find out this week what kind of football team we've got," said Wannstedt.

One thing we do know about Wannstedt's second Pitt team is that it fits the personality of its coach far more than last year's 5-6 train wreck. Suffice to say, you won't find a much starker contrast in philosophies than those of Pittsburgh native Wannstedt, a former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins head coach who preaches old-school, conservative smash-mouth football, and the coach he replaced, Walt Harris, a West Coast passing guru whose teams ran a wide-open offense. It wasn't that long ago that Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald were lighting up the Heinz Field sky, and apparently Wannstedt's first team was reluctant to shed that identity. "There was a lack of trust with the new coaching staff," said Palko.

While declining to name individuals, it's clear Wannstedt didn't mind seeing some of last year's seniors move on. "The leadership of this [year's] team is solid," he said. "There's no individuals concerned with how many catches they're getting, how many runs, how many sacks. And that starts with Tyler Palko and H.B. Blades."

Indeed, Palko, who struggled in the new offense for much of last season, currently leads the nation in pass efficiency. In a Wannstedt-style offense, however, that doesn't mean he's throwing for 300 yards a game -- quite the contrary, he's had 172, 177 and 172 his past three outings. "When you look at the Ben Roethlisbergers, the Tom Bradys, it's all about moving your team down the field, not turning it over and finding a way to get your team in the end zone," said Wannstedt. "That’s what he’s doing."

Blades, meanwhile, continues to show why he's one of the nation's premier linebackers, ranking fourth nationally in tackles (78), while cornerback Darrelle Revis has returned two interceptions for touchdowns for the nation's 11th-ranked scoring defense (13.3 points per game).

But now it's time to find out how the Panthers measure up against the Big East's "big three," Rutgers, West Virginia (Nov. 16) and Louisville (Nov. 25), all of whom come to Heinz Field. Personally, I'm still skeptical. I think it may be another year or two before Wannstedt -- who has recruited extremely well so far -- is truly able to mold the team to his liking. He seems determined to stick to his run-first ways, even though Pitt didn't run the ball particularly well prior to its past two games.

He could certainly win me over this weekend, however. If ever there was a time for the Panthers to display their newfound physicality, it will be Saturday. The running game will be tested by the nation's 10th-ranked rushing defense. Blades and Co. will be tested by Rutgers' backfield tandem of Rice and fullback Brian Leonard. By the time it's over, we really will know what kind of a team Pitt has.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments |


Posted: 3:40 PM   by Matt
They certainly have a lot to prove in the matchup against Rutgers. At the same time, let's be honest when we say that until those teams face off against a Louisville or West Viginia, which have at least some level of established play, they won't have really proven anything. All this game really is going to determine is which of the two of them has the best chance to sneak into the Big East Championship unexpectedly.
Posted: 3:49 PM   by Dave (USF Bull)
Don't forget, they still have to come down to our house, where we gave Louisville the shock of the century. USF is historically strong at Ray Jay, and Pitt is our homecoming game. Watch out, Tyler, because speed kills.
Posted: 4:13 PM   by Anonymous
Don't be fooled. Pitt stinks. They are a second rate Big East team.
Posted: 4:14 PM   by Craig in Ouray
While I agree that Pitt has much to prove, I think it's a shame that Palko is not getting more credit and praise for his season thus far. Yes, Pitt's schedule has been weak (not completely their fault that the UVa and MSU programs have tanked in the past couple of years...when the schedule was set, those teams were typically found in or close to the Top 25). However, regardless of their schedule, Palko has been phenomenal and deserves more credit for the season he's having. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say he'll be a far superior NFL QB than Troy Smith, Chris Leak, or some of the other "top" QBs in the NCAA this year.
Posted: 9:19 PM   by Anonymous
"Second rate Big East team"? That's redundant.
Posted: 9:29 PM   by Mountaineer in LA
I'm so glad Pitt and Rutgers (and even South Florida) have stepped up this season to improve the depth of the Big East. I'm proud of the conference this year and can't wait to see how everything turns out. This will be a great undercard game to the WVU-Louisville game in November.. Let's gooooo MOUNTAINEERS!
Posted: 11:41 PM   by Anonymous
Good point about Pitt having to go to USF to play and how tough it is to play there. Why the last time Pitt played at USF, they were lucky to escape with a 43-14 win. Plus, Pitt only won at home last year 31-17, so I'm sure they're shaking in their shoes at the thought of playing a team that beat UCF on a late TD by seven, what with Pitt only having been able to beat UCF by 45 and all.
Posted: 9:02 AM   by Anonymous
Palko will be an absolute steal, as a 3rd Round Draft pick, for an NFL team.
Posted: 10:48 AM   by Anonymous
Dissect it any way you prefer, the biggest story in college football this year has got to be the emergence of the Big East. Pillaged and left for dead by the mercenary ACC just two years ago, the Big East has not only improved but boasts a higher power rating than the fizzling ACC. WVU and L’Ville are top notch and Pitt, Rutgers and USF will go to bowls. Cincinnati and Syracuse are improving steadily. The Big East has turned BEAST and will only get better.
Posted: 11:23 AM   by Ken (Panther Fan)
First off, there is no sneaking into the Big East Championship. Since there are no divisions or game, you are the champ if you beat the other teams on the field. Whatever team gets there this year, they've probably beaten three other Top 25 teams and deserve to be there.

That being said, this week will prove a whole lot for both teams. Pitt got torched by Michigan State's running game, and needs to watch out for Rutgers. More importantly will be how Rutgers can defend against the pass. Palko's got a lot of targets and he hasn't made many mistakes lately.
Posted: 11:26 AM   by g.l.
I agree with Anon, South Florida is a joke. Pitt will beat this third tier team by 30 points. While the Big East has been a pleasant surprise this year, only four teams are worthy of note...Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers (Although I am still not convinced with Rutgers. Let them beat one of the aforementioned teams first). Pitt rolls over Rutgers by 20 this weekend. Remember, Pitt’s only loss was to a pre-collapse, pre-Notre Dame, Michigan State team. I think Pitt is a quality football team this year. My opinion is that they are the real deal. Of course, I am sure South Florida fans will tell me my opinion is not worth a hill of beans. LOL Nothing personal, of course, I just try to be honest. Everyone thinks his or her team is better than it sometimes is and it is my job to say…Hold on now…you stink. LOL
Posted: 11:38 AM   by Anonymous
I'm not sure what it is that a team can prove by beating Rutgers. I mean, who has Rutgers beaten so for? Illinois? North Caroline? Sure, those are major conference teams but they are still lousy. Does a team "prove itself" by beating South Florida? I realize that Rutgers being undefeated is a good story and all but proclaiming Rutgers as being part of the Big East's "big three" is going to far. Rutgers is not yet in the same league as West Virginia and Louisville
Posted: 11:51 AM   by Anonymous
I agree with Stu that Pitt may be a year or two away from very big things, but they are a threat this year -- especially with Palko and their receiver play. Also, people who haven't seen him yet will be impressed by LaRod Stephens-Howling's quicks. This kid has a major burst, and could break hearts in the Big East this season...though he is small and a bit fragile.
Posted: 11:54 AM   by Pete
As a Rutgers Alumni I am very excited about the program and where RU is headed. As good as we are Pitt will be the biggest test of the season and if we have a dominant showing that will determine how strong we finish the season. Our defense is ridiculous and I can't wait to see them make some big plays on Saturday.

Posted: 12:13 PM   by Chris Monti
As a Rutgers fan, I hope RU can win their 3rd straight road game versus Pitt this weekend. However, even with a win over Pitt, I don't believe Rutgers will be able to be anointed as a "great" team....yet. No matter who wins this Saturday's game, either team will need to go 10-2 and pick up a win vs. Louisville or WVU to be classified as a "great" team. If either team goes 8-4 or 9-3, they should be making plans for a mediocre December bowl game or perhaps the Jan. 6th game in Toronto (International Bowl).
Posted: 12:46 PM   by Anonymous
First of all, play this year has already demonstrated that a "second rate Big East [football] team," much like in Basketball, is better than a "first rate" ACC team. Big East football is back. Recruiting continues to be strong for the conference and still garners top prospects (e.g.: Pitt's 10th ranked recruiting class this year). I am, of course, a Pitt fan, and; I will never discount the ability of a Pitt team to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," but; this will be a good game, regardless...Bubs
Posted: 1:53 PM   by K
Pitt does indeed have a lot to prove. But I do not think they are that bad either. As for the comment about the Big East being a second-rate conference, guess what, they are at the very least as good as the Big Ten. At least until proven otherwise, there is no reason to think that WVU is not as good as Ohio State. Louisville is better than Michigan, Rutgers is as good as Big Ten number three, Penn State. Then you have the Big Ten version of Pitt, Wisconsin. They have only played one good team and lost. They will probably go 10 and 2 but are still not good. The Big East is here, they may not have the depth of the ACC yet but at the top they are better. Heck, they are already just as good as the Pac-Ten and are already better than the Big XII.
Posted: 1:59 PM   by Anonymous
USF is a much better team than people think. They have an awesome quaterback in Groethe and a speed burning defense. I agree that Pitt is good, but I think they're going to be in a dog fight when they come to Tampa.
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