PITTSBURGH -- Air Wannstedt? Don't laugh, but after two games in Dave Wannstedt's second season as the head coach, the University of Pittsburgh leads the Big East and is second nationally in passing efficiency.
"I really don't think our game plan's going to change,'' Palko said. "I think we came out and threw the ball well, but I think we could have thrown for aÂ lot more yardage against Cincinnati. But we got a big lead and got more conservative. And it's tough to run when they have nine guys in the box.
"So, that's not saying we don't have a running game. It's just tough to run when they have two more guys than we do in the box. So, I'm excited about it, but it's one of those things that can change. I have to make sure I'm smart with the football, and our offensive line has to continue to do what they've been doing. And, obviously, our receivers.''
Palko should pad the stats he has built up in two games against Michigan State this week. The Spartans visit Heinz Field for a noon kickoff. The fifth-year senior quarterback is second to WVU's Pat White in the Big East and nation in pass efficiency by completing 65.1 percent of his passes (28 of 43) for 550 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception.
Palko's top wideout has been junior Derek Kinder. A former running back, Kinder has seven catches for 249 yards (an amazing 35.6 per catch) and three touchdowns. His scores are from 80, 78 and 55 yards. He leads the Big East and is sixth nationally with 124.5 receiving yards per game.
"He's been quite a surprise, but he's maturing, making big plays and is getting better with every game right before our eyes,'' Pitt receivers coach Aubrey Hill said. "You can see his confidence growing and see it in his big plays on the field. But what's great about him is that he's a team guy.
"I emphasized to Derek to work on deep balls in the spring and summer, when he had more time to be with Tyler. He showed some flashes in preseason camp, but he really started to get into a groove right before the first game. So, it's not a total surprise. He's worked hard at it.''
While its passing game clicking on all cylinders through two games, Pitt's running game has been weak. The Panthers have run for 197 yards through two games.
"I think one of the lessons from a year ago, as I evaluated it in the offseason, you probably have to be a little bit more flexible in college than what you have to be in the pros,'' Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference. "We haven't scratched the surface of where I see a real running game, but we're still running it 35 times in a game.
"There's something about still running the ball. We'd like to be making five or six yards a carry, but we're not. We're making two or three. I think we're still benefiting as a team by running the ball. We'll just keep working on it. There's no easy solution. I believe that if you keep doing something you will get better at it. So, we'll keep running. "At the same time,'' Wannstedt added, "we're not going to be hard-headed on this thing.
Tyler's (Palko) playing smart, and we've got some weapons there, so we're not afraid to throw it. I think we've shown that. But we're going to continue to try to keep that balance.''
That won't be easy, but Wannstedt won't give up.
"We have a lot of work to do there,'' Wannstedt said. "(The problems), a lot of times, are from backs making cuts. Inexperience. A lot of times it's linemen. C.J. (Davis) is a second-year starter, and Joe Villani is in his second year. ... We've got Jeff Otah, who showed up here in June.
"He had no spring practice. He's like a freshman. I think we're ahead of where we were a year ago. The one stat that hasn't showed up, that's kept us alive, is that we have not been sacked like a year ago. What it does is keep us moving forward. We might not make any yards or we might make just two yards, but we're not going backwards. ... So, we're playing better.''
Pitt also ranks second in rushing and total defense in the Big East, 10th and 16th, respectively, nationally, with 43.5 and 223.5 yards per game.
Senior MLB H.B. Blades was named the Big East defensive player of the week for making 14 tackles and recovering a fumble at Cincinnati. He is second in the Big East and sixth nationally with 13.5 stops per game.
H.B. is playing better, I think, than he did last year,'' Wannstedt said. "Why? I would say the plays that he's making, but it's only been two games. But we're probably playing as good a run defense as we've played in a long time, and you have to credit the guys up front.
"They haven't gotten the big runs on us or the consistent runs. H.B. is going to be involved in just as many tackles, it's just that they aren't going to be 10 yards down the field. That's the biggest difference.''
The 6-foot, 240-pound Blades has a team-high 27 total stops this year and continues to climb Pitt's all-time tackles list. With 313 career stops, he ranks 11th all-time at Pitt and should finish in the top three.
A two-time first-team All-Big East selection, Blades is eyeing national accolades this year. He has been named to four major award watch lists, including the Butkus Award (top linebacker), Rotary Lombardi Award (top lineman-linebacker), Bronko Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player) and the Ronnie Lott Trophy (top defensive player).
This is the second consecutive week the Panthers have been honored by the Big East. Senior OLB Clint Session earned defensive honors in Week 1.
If Stephens-Howling misses a second straight game with the ankle problem, redshirt freshman Shane Brooks should get the start again.
"If (Simonitis) can't play, we'll move Joe Thomas to the right side,'' Wannstedt said. "He's been working on the left side, so when it happened so quick we stuck Dom Williams in there, and Dom did a nice job. But Joe brings a little bit more physical play to the picture and our offensive line.''
Also, freshman Dorin Dickerson is splitting time at running back and receiver this week, and Wannstedt said he is getting closer to being ready to play. Dickerson is rounding into game shape after missing most of the preseason with an ankle injury.
"We're swapping him,'' Hill said. "One day (RB coach David Walker) is fortunate, and the next day I'm fortunate. (But) Dorin has been picking things up very well, and he's going to be a great player.
"He just had the injury bug during camp, but he's coming along. So, I feel really good about the group (of newcomers). They're coming together, and ... they have been very coachable.''
Along with passing efficiency, Pitt leads the Big East in kickoff returns (27.3-yard average), fourth-down conversions (1-for-1), field goals (2-2), PATs (9-9) and red-zone offense (4-4).
* Pitt's home game with the Citadel Sept. 23 will start at 1:30 p.m.