There were gasps throughout the Big East when Pitt, the preseason favorite and the team most felt would give the conference its best chance at national recognition, got off to a slow start.
The gasps, however, were not from inside the Pitt program, but from those looking from the outside in.
"I look back on it, and the only ones who were really talking about it were the media because we had some high profile players in key positions," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The message being sent in here was we had the least number of returning starting players in the Big East and this was the youngest team I've had since I've been at Pitt."
"Our players understood we were going to be a football team that was a work in progress and that they had to step up and fill the holes of the guys who had graduated," he said.
There was a new quarterback and a new offensive line, and those are projects, not instant fits no matter how many star players a team has in other positions.
"I felt we could have won one of those non-conference games early," Wannstedt said. "I was a little disappointed, but was I surprised? No, not at all. I knew what we were dealing with."
And now things are coming together and Pitt is playing like the conference favorite, the only team yet to lose in conference play, and putting all the pieces together on both offense and defense.
--Pitt's defensive line has been so strong this season that it has not had to blitz very much. The result is that, incredibly, the defensive line has accounted for every single sack this season. Junior DE Brandon Lindsey leads the way with eight to top the Big East, and DE Jabaal Sheard is right behind with seven. Junior DT Chas Alecxih is third with 4.5.
--Sophomore FS Jarred Holley is among the top interceptors in the country, averaging 0.57 picks per game to tie for the Big East lead. He ranks sixth nationally with four this year. Holley has seven interceptions in his career.
--Pitt is coming off a game in which it compiled 513 total yards against Rutgers, the Panthers' first 500-yard game since Sept. 23, 2006, when they had 506 yards in a 51-6 win over the Citadel. The last time they had compiled 500 yards against FBS opponent was Sept. 6, 2003, when they had 522 in a 43-3 win over Kent State.
SERIES HISTORY:Louisville leads Pittsburgh, 7-6 (last meeting, 2009, Pitt 35-10).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The biggest change in the Panthers as they have come on to be the only unbeaten team in Big East Conference play is that they have regained their deep passing connection to dangerous wide receiver Jon Baldwin. It did not come easily, but Baldwin has gone past 100 yards in two of the last three games and scored a touchdown in both of those games. He had to hang in there to get to where he is now, and that is on the same page as sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri.
"We have been trying to make that connection all year," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "You call plays, you have them drawn up, but most of the time the defense dictates whether the play has a chance to be successful or not. We had opportunities one-on-one in past games but weren't as precise with the route and the throw as we want to be."
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Pitt defense has become a typical Dave Wannstedt defense. It lives off the pass rush of its two defensive ends, Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey, who are Nos. 1 and 2 in sacks in the Big East. Pressure from the front four allows Pitt to drop a lot of players into coverage, making passing tough. But teams have got to try to throw the ball because the Panthers are the toughest team to run against in the Big East and among the 10 toughest in the nation.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't give the ball to Dion 40 times and not block anybody and expect him to be Superman. There's a process to it." -- Coach Dave Wannstedt, on waiting for the offensive line to develop before he could get his star running back, Dion Lewis, untracked.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Louisville at Pittsburgh, Oct. 30 -- The lone undefeated team in Big East play, Pitt eyes a third consecutive conference victory when it hosts Louisville at Heinz Field. The Panthers are trying to achieve a 3-0 Big East start for the second straight year. The Panthers are 24-10 over their last 34 games, the program's winningest stretch since the 2001-04 seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME: A key matchup will be the Pitt defense vs. Louisville senior tailback Bilal Powell. The Panthers boast the nation's No. 9 rush defense (first in the Big East), yielding just 92.43 yards per game. Powell leads the Big East and ranks fourth nationally with 143.29 rushing yards per game. The Pitt passing game has been spectacularly accurate the past two contests. In victories over Syracuse and Rutgers, first-year starter Tino Sunseri has completed 75 percent of his passes for 588 yards and seven TDs with just one interception.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RBs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Lewis came into the season as the nation's leading returning rusher after having gained 1,799 yards last year but struggled early, opening a chance for Graham to play, and he responded spectacularly. Now Lewis is back and coming off a big game against Rutgers last week, giving the Panthers a great 1-2 punch. Graham, a sophomore, still ranks seventh in the country in all-purpose yards with an average of 170.67 a game and is averaging 107.5 yards rushing per game. At the same time, Lewis, just a sophomore, has already moved into the Pitt's top 10 career rushers.
--DEs Brandon Lindsey and Jabaal Sheard. The bookends of the Pitt defensive line are having huge seasons and will be tested by Louisville's running game. Lindsey is filling in for the injured Greg Romeus and leads the Big East with eight sacks, including three last week. Sheard is right behind him with seven sacks to rank 10th nationally while he has recorded 30 tackles, 10 for losses, forcing two fumbles and recording one. The two are tied for the conference lead in tackles for losses at 1.43 a game.
--WR Jon Baldwin. Baldwin has come to life after a slow start and is again producing big, game-changing plays. He has 19 catches in his career of 40 or more yards, six of them coming this season and four of those scoring touchdowns. Louisville will have to be careful with him, as last year he hauled in a 71-yard TD against the Cardinals.
--Highly regarded DE Bryan Murphy shed his redshirt on Saturday against Rutgers. A 6-foot-3, 245-pound product of New Jersey's Don Bosco Prep, he had worked his way into the defensive line rotation before fracturing a foot in camp. Murphy played behind Jabaal Sheard and is expected to back him up against Louisville.
--DE Greg Romeus, the Big East's co-Defensive Player of the Year last season, continues to recover from back surgery, but the late addition of Murphy to the playing rotation seems to indicate there will be no quick return for him.