Before the 1981 season it looked as if Pittsburgh had a bad case of the shorts. Although the Panthers still had junior Quarterback Dan Marino, a Heisman Trophy candidate, they had lost 15 other starters from last year's 11-1 squad that had finished second in both national polls and led the country in total defense. In all, 19 players from the '80 team, including first-round draft picks Hugh Green, Randy McMillan and Mark May, had signed NFL contracts. "Take the guys we lost, draft to fill a few gaps and in two years you'd have a Super Bowl defense," said Defensive Coordinator Foge Fazio wistfully.
Florida State also found itself shorthanded. The Seminoles, coming off a 10-2 year, had lost 14 starters, eight of them pro signees, and of the players who were returning, the most highly regarded was a punter, Rohn Stark. Worse, Florida State faced a schedule that called for successive road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU. "Our Oktoberfest," Coach Bobby Bowden labeled it. "The alumni love it—but they aren't the ones who get fired."
Nonetheless, going into last Saturday's game at Pitt Stadium, the Seminoles were 4-1 and coming off upsets of Ohio State and Notre Dame, while Pittsburgh was 4-0 and had extended the nation's longest major-college winning streak to 11. Suddenly Florida State-Pitt was important enough to attract scouts from five bowls—including the Sugar, Cotton and Orange—and stir up talk of a national championship for the winner. "We ain't plowed but half the field yet, and the soil's going to get harder," said Bowden, well aware that the Seminoles' 36-22 defeat of Pittsburgh in 1980 probably had cost the Panthers the national title. "We've both been overlooked," said Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill before the game. "Whoever wins this one is Cinderella for this season."
For the Seminoles, the clock struck midnight shortly after the 1:30 kickoff time Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh not only piled up 503 yards of total offense and forced five turnovers, but by averaging nearly 30 yards per punt return, the Panthers also effectively neutralized Stark, who had kept other Florida State opponents bottled up with his booming kicks, which had been averaging 45.5 yards. Junior Halfback Bryan Thomas, who is known around Pittsburgh as the B.T. Express, became the first Pitt runner since Tony Dorsett to gain 200 yards in a game, finishing with 217 on 23 carries, and Marino passed for 251 yards and three touchdowns despite a bruised right shoulder. When it was over, the Panthers had won 42-14. "What we've got," said Fazio, "is a bunch of apprentices trying to imitate their old teachers and doing one hell of a good impersonation."
Unfortunately for the Panthers, during the first 9½ minutes on Saturday they bore all too striking a resemblance to the team that had turned the ball over seven times in Tallahassee last October. Marino's first pass was intercepted, and on the next series, Pittsburgh fumbled away a punt on its own 33. Marino, the nation's leading passer going into the game, was excusably rusty; he had sat out Pitt's win over West Virginia a week earlier because of the soreness in his shoulder and had thrown only lightly in practice. His teammates were simply too tense, though also with good reason: They're young—only four seniors start—and the Florida State game was easily their biggest so far in '81. With apologies to the Cincinnatis and Syracuses on the Panthers' schedule, the game with the Seminoles counted for one-half of Pitt's season. The other half: the Panthers' Nov. 28 matchup with Penn State.
It was left to senior Linebacker Sal Sunseri, whom Fazio calls "the heart, soul and brains of our defense," to put an end to Pitt's jitters. With Florida State fourth-and-one on the Panthers' two-yard line following the fumbled punt, Sunseri remembered something: "In that situation they always go to the fullback, [Mike] Whiting. I've seen it on all their old films." Ah yes, the films, but we'll get to that later. Sunseri immediately began yelling to his teammates, "Watch Whiting! Watch Whiting!" They did, along with the 55,112 spectators who saw Whiting charge straight into the maw of the Pitt defense and gain six inches. At that, the Panthers were being uncharacteristically charitable; through their first four games they had allowed an average of four inches per rush to lead the nation in stinginess. Thus inspired, the Pitt offense proceeded to take the ball 99 yards in the other direction and score the Panthers' first touchdown on a 22-yard pass to Fullback Wayne DiBartola.
After losing nine of 1980's defensive starters, Fazio and Sherrill have rebuilt the Pitt defense into a smaller and more cohesive unit, but they essentially left its style unchanged. "I classify defenses as either 'read' defenses, which sit back and react, or 'pressure' defenses," says Bowden. "Pitt plays pressure defense—aggressive, swarming, blitzing, forcing you into mistakes. Whatever you're doing, you better do it fast or else you'll be looking at second-and-15."
"Their secondary never really gets tested," adds West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen, whose Mountaineers were shut out (17-0) by the Panthers. "A quarterback has to rush and throw before he gets buried."
Replacing defensive ends Green (now starting for Tampa Bay) and Ricky Jackson (now with New Orleans) are 6'6", 220-pound freshman Chris Doleman (all right, they're not all smaller), who leads the Panthers with seven sacks, and junior Michael Woods, who dumped the passer on three successive downs in Pitt's 42-28 win over South Carolina. Both spent much of the afternoon in the Florida State backfield, as did Linebacker Rich Kraynak, the game's leading tackier with 13. Woods, like Green, is from Natchez, Miss., and by Green's account is the quicker of the two. One explanation for which might be that Woods's North Natchez High coach carried a lead pipe around during practice.
Pitt's middle three defensive linemen, Tackles Dave (The Freak) Puzzuoli and Bill Maas and Middle Guard J.C. Pelusi, have been so effective that they've acquired the nickname the Pac-Men. "You know, like the video game with those little monsters that eat the dots, except our guys eat offensive backs," says Sunseri. Puzzuoli, who is variously described by teammates as "a psycho," "a madman" and just plain "crazy," is a proper successor to Tackle Greg Meisner (now of the Rams), who last year ate a live worm to win a $3 bet. "Puzzuoli would've eaten the $3, too," says one of his Panther teammates.