What started as a nightmare has turned into a dream season for the University of Pittsburgh football team.
The Panthers opened the season with three losses in the first five games, including a dismal 31-3 blowout at Miami, and there was talk that coach Dave Wannstedt's job was in jeopardy. To add to the woes, star defensive end Greg Romeus went down with a back injury and looked as though he might be out for the entire season after having been named the Big East's co-Defensive Player of the Year last season.
But Wannstedt kept doing what he does. He kept faith in running back Dion Lewis, who gained 1,799 yards a year ago but got off to a slow start. And he brought along young quarterback Tino Sunseri and reconstructed his team.
The turning point came when he altered the offensive line, moving Lucas Nix from right guard to right tackle and inserting Jordan Gibbs at right tackle. That seemed to bring the offense together. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Jabaal Sheard took over the leadership from Romeus and Brandon Lindsey picked up the pass rush in Romeus' place.
The result has been that as the Panthers go into their off week, they lead the Big East and seem to have everything going in their favor.
They refuse to look at it that way, though.
"We're in good position," Sheard told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "but there is a lot of football left and we need to stay focused on each game."
There are no givens, of course, in the Big East, and Pitt's path is filled with tough situations. Three of the final four games are on the road -- at Connecticut, South Florida and Cincinnati -- with the lone home game being the Backyard Brawl meeting with a West Virginia team that may be playing for its season.
--P/PK Dave Hutchins has become one of the nation's top dual-threat kickers. As a punter he ranks fifth in the nation at 47.03 yards a punt and got off a 71-yard punt in the last game against Louisville. He is eighth in the nation in field goal kicking, making 14 of 19 (74 percent).
--A year ago, Pitt was a one-horse pony in the running game with RB Dion Lewis, a freshman, becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate and gaining 1,799 yards. This year he got off to a slow start and suffered a minor injury, opening the door for RB Ray Graham, who responded big time. Graham leads the team in rushing with 684 yards and a 7.3 average, having scored seven TDs, while Lewis has come on to gain 479 yards, 4.4 a carry, with five TDs.
--Sophomore QB Tino Sunseri has been efficient in coach Dave Wannstedt's offense as a first-year starter, having thrown 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He is averaging 209 yards passing per game while completing 65.9 percent of his attempts.
SEASON SUMMARY: Pitt came into the year as the preseason choice to win the Big East, but there was some panic when the team lost three of five games. However, coach Dave Wannstedt refused to panic, made some changes to the offensive line and waited for the players who had played well in the past to come around -- RB Dion Lewis and WR Jonathon Baldwin. That, along with the natural progression of young QB Tino Sunseri, got the offense back on track, and once conference play began Pitt was ready for it, winning the first three conference games by a combined 106-38.
LOOKING AHEAD: The road to the Big East championship is not an easy one for Pitt, despite the equivalent of a two-game lead with four to play. Three of the games are on the road and the other is against arch-rival West Virginia. But Pitt has everything cranked up and should be fresh off a bye week. Pitt will continue to be a run-first offense with RBs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham offering a dual threat while QB Tino Sunseri will begin throwing deep more often to dangerous WR Jon Baldwin. Perhaps the biggest boost could come if DE Greg Romeus returns from back surgery for the final four games, which will make the defensive line the best in the conference and the deepest, as his replacement, Brandon Lindsey, did a spectacular job of filling in.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will be business as usual around here, I promise that." -- QB Tino Sunseri, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on not getting big-headed while in first place in the Big East.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: After a slow start, the Pitt offense has come to life. A shakeup in the offensive line, moving Lucas Nix to guard and putting Jordan Gibbs at right tackle was the key moment, but it took young QB Tino Sunseri awhile to get a grasp on the offense and for star RB Dion Lewis and star WR Jon Baldwin to get untracked. Lewis' early-season problems did not slow the offense as his backup, Ray Graham, came on to become an exciting player who won Big East Offensive Player of the Week honor once and who is averaging almost 100 yards rushing a game. Baldwin, at the same time, came to life as a deep threat on the outside and now leads the Panthers in catches with 22, averaging 16.5 yards a catch with four TDs. The only real trouble is in the red zone, where Pitt has scored touchdowns on just 47 percent of their trips as opposed to 58 percent last year.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: There was worry about the defense when co-Big East Player of the Year from 2009, Greg Romeus, went down with a back injury that required surgery, but the Panthers have barely missed a beat in recent weeks. Romeus' replacement, Brandon Lindsey, has come on to record eight sacks while Jabaal Sheard shook off a summer transgression that led to his arrest and became the defensive leader while pressuring QBs with nine sacks. Add in Dom DeCicco doing his thing at safety, intercepting three more passes to give him 10 for his career and ranking second to MLB Max Gruder in tackles, and you have a defense that is the perfect complement to the offense.
--DE Greg Romeus returned to workouts this week after recovering from back surgery. It's possible he could play against Connecticut on Thursday, Nov. 11. "The plan is for him in to come in and get started," coach Dave Wannstedt said, "and see where he is at and see how he responds."
--FB Henry Hynoski suffered a mild concussion against Louisville and did not play the second half. He is expected back for Connecticut.