Pittsburgh Panthers Team Report

This might come as a surprise to some folks who aren't paying close enough attention, but Pittsburgh -- not national title hopefuls Miami and Virginia Tech -- is alone atop the Big East standings.

In the preseason, the Panthers -- led by a well-balanced offense -- were considered a trendy pick to win the Big East. However, a nagging calf injury to senior tailback Brandon Miree, that later was found to be a stress fracture in his right heel, has made Pitt's offense pretty much one-dimensional and as a result, the Panthers lost at Toledo and at home to Notre Dame ... and fell off the radar screen a bit.

"We're getting better," coach Walt Harris said Monday.

"It's frustrating we weren't able to do (early) what we've been doing recently in terms of good defense and running the ball a little bit better. We'll have to keep improving in those areas, if we want to keep winning."

That's because the Panthers, winners of three straight games, face their stiffest test of the season thus far when No. 5 Virginia Tech comes calling. How big a game is this? Well, ESPN will also send its "GameDay" crew to Heinz Field.

With Tech's top cornerback DeAngelo Hall suspended for the first half for his role in a fight with Miami's Antrel Rolle last Saturday night, many expect Pittsburgh to attack Tech through the air with senior quarterback Rod Rutherford throwing the ball early and often to Heisman Trophy hopeful Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will be in an interesting matchup this weekend with Tech's speedy defense and the Panthers will try to capitalize on Hall's absence in the first half as much as possible.

Rutherford has thrown for 25 touchdowns (with only five interceptions), with his life made much easier by Fitzgerald, who has caught 60 passes for 1,174 yards and 16 TDs. Pay too much attention to Fitzgerald and tight end Kris Wilson and wideout Princell Brockenbrough can hurt you, too.

Fitzgerald leads the nation in receiving yards per game (146.8), total receiving yards (1,174), scoring (12.0 ppg), receiving touchdowns (16) and total TDs (16).

While the passing attack will be a big part of Pitt's game plan, Harris believes that the Panthers (6-2 overall, 3-0 Big East) must generate some semblance of a running game -- something they've struggled mightily to do since Miree's injury -- to upend the Hokies.

Speedy Jawan Walker and junior power back Tim Murphy will continue to split the job of replacing Miree.

Defensive notes
Pittsburgh's defense is stepping up after a slow start, but has had troubles stopping the run -- something that will need to change with Virginia Tech's superb tailback Kevin Jones coming to town this week. To slow down Jones, Pitt tackles Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens must occupy blockers at the point of attack, freeing up seniors Lewis Moore and William Ferguson to make plays. The secondary has questions too, but there's talent here with senior cornerback Shawntae Spencer and ball-hawking safeties Tez Morris and Tyrone Gilliard.

Game within the game
Pittsburgh senior punter Andy Lee vs. Virginia Tech's vaunted punt block and punt return teams: How good is Lee? He's a legit All-American candidate with 16 punts inside the 20-yard line and 16 boots of 50 yards or more. Lee leads the Big East and is sixth nationally with a 45.7-yard punting average. It'll be interesting to see how well he punts against Tech's trademark pressure.

Big boosts
Virginia Tech is ranked No. 6 (7-1 overall, 3-1 Big East) at Pittsburgh is ranked No. 25 (6-2 overall, 3-0 Big East), With a win on Saturday, the Panthers' national profile would get a significant boost, and they would basically eliminate Tech from the Big East and BCS race. It would also be a further boost to Larry Fitzgerald's Heisman Trophy candidacy.

Quote to Note
"Larry Fitzgerald is as good a football player as I've been around. In fact, the only two players that I've seen who were as dominant as college players are Reggie White when I was an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee and Eddie George when I was an assistant at Ohio State." -- Harris, on his all-everything sophomore wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

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