Wesley Carroll is a big threat for the Golden Panthers. The Fort Lauderdale native transferred to Florida International, after starting 13 games in two seasons at Mississippi State, earned SEC All-Freshman honors. This season, though his interception total (5) exceeds his touchdown total (4), Pitt considers him a threat.
"He's a proven player," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "He's done it at a very high level in the SEC. He sat out a year; probably helped him. He sort of got in a groove (against Maryland). Without turnovers, that could have been a different story up there."
Though he set a school record in the loss to Maryland last week, with 35 completions and 58 passing attempts, he threw two key interceptions that made the difference in the game. One came after a punt return, and the score 28-21 Maryland. Carroll's pass was deflected into the hands of a Maryland receiver, and the Terps answered with a touchdown.
Carroll answered with a long drive, taking the Golden Panthers inside the 10. Unfortunately, he threw an interception at the Maryland 6. Pitt has picked off four passes in three games, including three by Jarred Holley. Antwuan Reed forced and recovered a fumble in pass coverage, earlier this year. FIU's offense relies on Carroll spreading the ball to its different receivers. If Pitt's secondary plays opportunistic, they have a chance to take Carroll and his entire offense out of the game.
On paper, it might not look effective, but the Golden Panthers use the run to set up the pass. So far, in their first three games, they've averaged 133 yards on the ground as a team. Jeremiah Harden's 88 yards against Rutgers in the opener is the most by any back this season, but he has carried the ball significantly--averaging 18 carries through the first three games.
Harden is also a transfer from Syracuse. Like Carroll, he too sat out last year, and is now in the starting lineup for the Golden Panthers. He might even be more of a threat in the passing game. He's the Golden Panthers' leading receiver, with eight catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
"The first game, he rushed for, I think (88) yards against Rutgers," Bennett said. "He's been a factor. He's also been a factor catching the ball."
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
T.Y. Hilton is the big guy that everyone will have their eyes on. Hilton was limited with some nagging injuries as a sophomore last year, but still had 57 receptions for 632 yards and five touchdowns. In the kick return game, Hilton returned 22 kicks for 633 yards--an average of 28.8 yards a return.
So far this season, Hilton is the go-to guy again, but he has a sidekick in Greg Ellingson that is drawing some attention. Hilton leads the Golden Panthers with 16 receptions for 168 yards, and no touchdowns yet. He's averaging 23.9 yards a kickoff return.
Ellingson is the one Ricky Gary is concerned with.
"I think I'm going to draw (Hilton) a little bit because he's very athletic, quick," Gary said. "He's got speed, he's a great player. They got this other receiver, (Ellingson), I feel he can play anywhere in the country. He's a really good receiver."
Ellingson has eight catches for 159 yards and a touchdown, and leads the team in yards per catch (19.9).
Former walk-on Jonathan Faucher, is at tight end. Faucher was a walk-on for the last two seasons, then was put on scholarship in the offseason. He has three catches for 28 yards and a touchdown on the season, but all three came last week against Maryland, signifying an increased commitment to the tight end.
Both offensive lines are similar, in terms of experience. The experience for both teams, comes from different spots. Pitt's most experienced lineman is Jason Pinkston, followed by Lucas Nix--who was at tackle, but will start this game at right guard.
Brad Serini will make the 40th start of his career, against Pitt. He is joined inside by left guard Cedric Mack. The sophomore trio of right tackle Rupert Bryan, right guard Giancarlo Revilla and left tackle Caylin Hauptmann has exceeded expectations.
With a new offensive line coach in Alex Mirabal, the Golden Panthers offensive line has yielded just one sack in 123 total passing attempts. All things considered, they had to match up against defensive lines from Texas A&M, Rutgers, and Maryland that have produced four, five and five sacks respectively, for the season.
Pitt's defensive line was one of the few bright spots against Miami. Jabaal Sheard had what Dave Wannstedt called one of his best in a Pitt uniform, finishing with six tackles and two sacks. Sheard has picked up his game in the absence of Greg Romeus. It's not as if Pitt's defensive line effort is 'The Jabaal Sheard' show. Wannstedt seems comfortable with the rotation--using a total of nine defensive linemen in the last two games. It's been evident to this point, by FIU head coach Mario Cristobal.
"Pittsburgh, that's as physical a football team that we'll see all year," Cristobal said. "They are big, they are stout up front. Everybody talks about Jabaal Sheard, he is a phenomenal football player. But, the rest of their front four and their backups are equally as talented and effective."
If the offensive line was looking for a game to get itself together, this would be it. Florida International has struggled in recent years stopping the run. Three games into the 2010 season, it remains a problem. The Golden Panthers have yielded an average of 150 yards a game on the ground.
Of the top ten tacklers, only one is a defensive lineman, and that is defensive end Tourek Williams. Williams played in all 12 games as a true freshman last year, and has a sack and two tackles for losses this season.
Regardless of what the Golden Panthers, it is Pitt that has the most to prove in this matchup. Lucas Nix was moved to right guard on Monday, and Jordan Gibbs was bumped up to right tackle--a move made to give the offensive line a boost. It already looks better from a physical standpoint. With Nix and Jacobson--two of Pitt's most physical players--in the interior, that should open the run game. Gibbs, based on his size alone, will be tough to get by.
"As a unit, we got to get the best five on the field," Nix said. "Coaches feel that this puts the best five out there, just take it practice by practice. Yesterday we definitely made some steps. Gibbs is looking good."
One thing that has improved in the Golden Panthers defense, is that the linebackers are more active than they have been in the past. Toronto Smith and Aaron Davis each have a sack on the season, showing the Golden Panthers' tendency to blitz. All eight of Pitt's sacks have come from the defensive line.
Smith and Winston Fraser are the two primary linebackers to watch out for. Smith has 20 tackles on the season, with three tackles for a loss and a sack. Fraser has 16 tackles on the season, with 2.5 tackles for a loss.
The front seven has had trouble stopping the run, allowing 4.1 yards a carry for the season, and 6.0 yards a carry to Maryland last week. They've also given up six rushing touchdowns this season. What Florida International presents in its front seven, gives Pitt an excellent opportunity for a rebound game.
FIU's secondary is where all their tackles are made, which points to opponents running through the front seven. If FIU's secondary doesn't make the tackle, then the opposing running back is likely heading for the end zone. Of the team's top ten leading tacklers five are defensive backs, including leading tackler Jonathon Cyprien with 26.
Cristobal will try to use Anthony Gaitor in as many ways possible, the star of FIU‘s defense. Gaitor has an interception and a team-best two sacks from his corner position. He has made 38 career starts, and has 170 career tackles. He can be a shut-down corner for the Golden Panthers, or he can come off a corner blitz.