A season that almost never was for Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard has turned into a dream year.
The senior defensive end leads the Big East in sacks (1.12 per game), tackles for loss (1.56 per game) and forced fumbles (0.50 per game) and is ranked second in the nation in forced fumbles, seventh in sacks and 16th in tackles for loss.
He has done that despite losing his bookend partner on the other side of the line, All-American defensive end Greg Romeus, who has been out with an injured back, allowing teams to concentrate on stopping Sheard.
It is a season that almost wasn't, for he was arrested in August and briefly suspended from the team, making the events of this week mean all that much more.
Sheard was named one of three Pitt captains.
"When they said my name, I was so shocked, I was just stunned by it because I figured with what I went through in the offseason, they would give it to someone else," Sheard told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I was so honored; this is the best honor I could achieve because when I went through that situation, I felt like I let my teammates down, my coaches down and my family down and I just wanted them to forgive me.
"For them to elect me shows me that they view me as a leader on this team and, while I am not perfect, I take that very seriously. And because of my experience, I can -- and I do -- share it with younger guys and caution them how quickly all of this football, school and everything else can go away."
On July 18 Sheard was arrested for his role in an altercation outside a bar on the South Side. He was charged with two felonies, which were later dropped, and pled guilty to a summary charge of disorderly conduct and paid a fine.
That was nothing, though, compared to the phone call he had to make.
"My mom has always been there for me and it was the worst feeling in the world having to make that call," Sheard said. "But she said to me, 'It isn't the mistake you make, it is how you respond,' and that really just became the way I viewed it -- I needed from that point on to make sure I worked hard to regain the respect from my teammates and coaches and let people see that wasn't the kind of person I am.
"And that is why I had to apologize to my teammates -- the worst thing I could do to them is put the team in jeopardy, I just wanted them to know I made a mistake but I would make up for it."
--The Panthers under Dave Wannstedt are 3-8 in games coming off an open week or with 11 or more days to prepare. To be honest, off weeks often are tried to be scheduled prior to big games.
--P Dan Hutchins ranks fourth in the nation with an average of 47.03 yards per punt. He is eighth in field goals per game, hitting 14 of 19 this season.
--DT Myles Caragein's 56-yard fumble return against Louisville was the longest by a Pitt player in nine years, since DE Brian Guzek brought one back 80 yards at Temple.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh and Connecticut are tied 3-3 (last meeting, 2009, 24-21 Pitt).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Pitt's offense is now running on all cylinders, having scored 106 points in its last three games. QB Tino Sunseri has been the lead player and he has learned to spread the ball around. In the past two games he has completed more passes to tight ends and running backs (18) than to receivers (16). Against Rutgers he completed seven to FB Henry Hynoski and eight to his top WRs Jon Baldwin and Mike Shanahan. "As you grow and mature and play in this position, you learn what you are seeing and begin to trust in what you are seeing," Sunseri told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It is about taking what they give you and understanding that, if they are going to keep giving you the little stuff, you keep on taking it, and then, all of the sudden, here comes a big play down the field." At the same time Pitt now has two reliable, top-flight running backs in Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt may get back a key element to its defense this week in DE Greg Romeus, out since the Utah opener with back surgery. Romeus is hoping to see some action after returning to practice, but Brandon Lindsey has done a marvelous job filling in with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss. The heart of the defense has been DE Jabaal Sheard's pass rush that resulted in nine sacks and in the play of S Dom DiCicco, who is second on the Panthers with 50 tackles while pulling in three interceptions.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Jabaal Sheard is having a phenomenal year. You have to really appreciate what he is going through to get to the passer. He just keeps coming and coming. He's rushing the passer as good as any defensive end in the country. He is focused every week and working extremely hard." -- Coach Dave Wannstedt on his best pass rusher who has rehabilitated from an arrest and has been the object of offensive coordinators since DE Greg Romeus, last year's Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year, was injured.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pitt at Connecticut, Nov. 13 -- Pitt beat UConn, 24-21, in a hard-fought battle last season at Heinz Field. The Panthers trailed, 21-6, with less than four minutes left in the third quarter. The 18-point comeback was the largest in coach Dave Wannstedt's five years at Pitt. PK Dan Hutchins was the hero, hitting an 18-yard field goal as time expired. The Panthers ran the ball for 221 yards and gained 489 yards of total offense against a defense that was ranked No. 4 in the nation and giving up only 232.1 yards per game. UConn this year has been nowhere near as efficient, ranking 60th in the nation while giving up 364.25 yards per game. The Huskies, however, are flying high after beating West Virginia in their last game Oct. 29.
KEYS TO THE GAME: As so often is the case, if Pitt can establish the run they should have a good day. Coach Dave Wannstedt's pro-style offense makes teams stop the running game first, then takes advantage of a rapidly improving passing game built around QB Tino Sunseri and deep threat Jonathan Baldwin. The Panthers' offensive line, revamped after three games, has become quite efficient. On defense Pitt has survived the loss of star DE Greg Romeus, who may get some playing time this week. Pitt holds a big advantage in special teams with K/P Dan Hutchins one of the nation's top dual-kickers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
DE Greg Romeus -- You have to watch the sidelines, but if the Panthers can get their star DE back on the field this week for any amount of time they will consider it a plus for the stretch run. Romeus has played only one game and had surgery on a back injury. A year ago he was co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
RBs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham -- The duo combined for 211 rushing yards against UConn last year, Lewis breaking loose for 158 of those yards. Lewis has come back from a slow start that erased him off the list of Heisman Trophy candidates but now seems to be getting into the stride he had last year when he rushed for 1,777 yards. Graham picked up the slack as Lewis struggled and actually has shown himself to be one of the nation's top running backs, too.
QB Tino Sunseri -- This first-year starter seems to improve with every game and recently has been a force to match the running game. Sunseri has been most adept at spreading the ball around among his receivers while still finding a way to hit his big playmaker in Jon Baldwin. His growth has allowed the offensive unit to advance over the last few games.
--Senior DE Greg Romeus, last year's Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year, is back practicing after back surgery and may be able to play in this week's game. He played only in the opener this year against Utah and recorded four tackles.
--Starting FB Henry Hynoski, who went out with a concussion in Pitt's last victory, is expected back for Connecticut after a week off and not practicing.