It begins this week when the Panthers come off their first Big East Conference defeat at Connecticut and hit the road again to Tampa to play South Florida, a trap game of sorts with the annual Backyard Brawl against a desperate West Virginia team on the other side of the game.
Coach Dave Wannstedt has his team focusing on South Florida and is doing so by emphasizing that the mistakes made in the UConn loss must be corrected.
"When you look back on (the Connecticut game) and give up a touchdown on the kickoff, which in my mind is like a turnover, then have two other turnovers -- an interception and a fumble -- it's very difficult to overcome that and beat anybody," Wannstedt said. "It's my job, our job as coaches, to keep working with the kids to correct those mistakes, and I know we're capable of doing it.
"Leading up to that game, we played three games in a row where we were focused and, for the most part, protected the football. So we know we're capable of doing it. We just have to get back to coaching them up and having an emphasis on what wins games. We must fix the mistakes that need to be corrected."
Being in front heading down the stretch is a luxury, and a BCS bowl is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but getting there won't be easy because the Panthers have some problems.
Running back Dion Lewis is running far better than he did early this season, but he has not been the dominant, ball-controlling force he was as a freshman, although the development of Ray Graham has eased the effect of that.>
Pitt had hoped to have its best defender, defensive end Greg Romeus, back for the stretch, but it will have to go without him. Lost early this season to back surgery, he came back, played one game and suffered an ACL injury that ended his career at Pitt.
--Pitt has performed well on the road, going 10-6 over its last 16 road games. The six losses have been by a margin of just 4.7 points per game.
--Pitt ranks among the top teams in the country in time of possession, averaging 32:04 per game. That is second in the conference and 15th nationally. Only once this season has an opponent possessed the ball more than Pitt, that being Florida International, which won the time of possession battle narrowly, 30:08 to 29:52.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads South Florida 4-3 (last meeting, 2009, 41-14 Pittsburgh).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Pitt's offense has taken some time to come together this season, beginning with a new quarterback in Tino Sunseri playing behind a line that had to be restructured after a couple of games. Sunseri has hit his stride over the past five games, completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,203 yards with nine touchdowns against four interceptions. At that same time, RB Dion Lewis, a freshman All-American, took a while to get into gear but now is running well, if not spectacularly. He is among Pitt's top 10 all-time rushers as just a sophomore but is sharing the load with Ray Graham, another sophomore who has emerged as a star. The strong running game is always the anchor of a Dave Wannstedt offense, built around a quarterback who plays mistake-free football and occasionally throws deep, using the weapon that is Jon Baldwin at wide receiver.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt's defense begins with a pass rush that remained awesome even as top pass rusher, DE Greg Romeus, the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year last season, has battled injuries. Pitt still ranks 14th nationally and second in the conference by averaging 2.78 sacks a game. Every sack has come from the defensive line, led by senior DE Jabaal Sheard and junior DE Brandon Lindsey -- Romeus' replacement -- each with nine. The pass rush has helped create turnovers; Pitt over its last four games is plus-4 in that department with four fumble recoveries and five interceptions. Pitt also has been tough to run against, giving up just 111 yards a game to rank 11th nationally.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have to regroup. We have a big game, a tough game. South Florida is bowl-eligible. They will be cranked up. We know we have a big challenge coming up, again on the road." -- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, about going to South Florida after the Panthers suffered their first Big East loss at Connecticut.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at South Florida, Nov. 20 -- Pitt looks to remain atop the Big East standings when it visits South Florida. USF is riding a three-game conference winning streak. A victory would make Pitt bowl-eligible for the third straight season. The teams have met seven times, with Pitt winning four. The last time the Panthers traveled to Tampa, they won a nationally televised Thursday night game over the No. 10 Bulls, 26-21. Pitt must bounce back from its first conference loss of the year at Connecticut.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pitt's talented defense, second only to West Virginia in the conference, must deal with South Florida QB B.J. Daniels, a gifted athlete who at his best can dominate games and frustrate pass rushers. A year ago Pitt buried USF 41-14, scoring 31 first-half points. USF could neither throw nor run, Daniels gaining 50 of the Bulls' 122 rushing yards but throwing the ball only eight times for just 54 yards and getting intercepted twice. Pitt was able to both run and throw, gaining 214 rushing yards and 272 passing yards. Jon Baldwin had a huge day with six catches for 144 yards. The coaching change to Skip Holtz, however, makes much of that irrelevant, and the Panthers really are starting from scratch against a team that is rolling at 6-3 with three straight victories.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Jonathan Baldwin -- Baldwin continues to be the Panthers' big-play receiver. A year ago, against South Florida, the Bulls could not handle him as he collected a career-high 144 yards on six catches, including a 40-yard touchdown. Baldwin has 20 career catches of 40 yards or more, seven of them this season and four for touchdowns.
RB Dion Lewis -- Lewis continues to come back to form after a dismal start. Lewis gained a lot of prominence against South Florida last season when as a freshman he rushed for 111 yards to surpass 1,000 on the season. He finished, of course, with 1,799 rushing yards, second in Pitt history to Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett's 2,150 yards rushing in 1976. After a slow start, Lewis has gained 350 rushing yards in the past four games with five touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards a try over that time.
DE Jaabal Sheard -- One of the Pitt tri-captains, Sheard has emerged out of the shadow of the injured Greg Romeus to become a leading candidate for Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Sheard leads the Big East in sacks and forced fumbles and is second in the conference in tackles for a loss. If Pitt is to pressure USF QB B.J. Daniels, Sheard will have to perform in a big way.
-DE Greg Romeus spent a long time rehabbing after back surgery following the season's second game. He returned to start against Connecticut last week and had three tackles before leaving the game in the third quarter with a right knee injury that turned out to be a torn ligament, ending his season and college career.
--P/PK Dan Hutchins was named one of 10 semifinals for the Ray Guy Award, presented annually to the nation's top punter. He ranks sixth in punting nationally with a 45.54-yard average.