Pitt football-Syracuse press conference

The University of Pittsburgh easily dispatched the Toledo Rockets last Saturday. Pitt (4-1) has a much stiffer test this weekend when they venture to New York to play Syracuse (3-2) at noon in the Carrier Dome. PantherDigest.com senior writer Dale Grdnic attended Head Coach Dave Wannstedt's press conference on Monday. Read on for details.

PITTSBURGH -- Despite overwhelming optimism heading into Dave Wannstedt's first season as the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh's football program opened with a dismal 1-4 start last fall and finished with a disappointing sub-.500 overall record.

The Panthers have made a 180-degree turnaround this season, though, with a 4-1 opening mark -- including a 1-0 record in the Big East -- and begin a stretch at Syracuse (3-2) Saturday at noon in the Carrier Dome where they face six Conference opponents in the final seven regular-season games.

"Except for the injuries, which obviously you can't control, I think we've made some progress to this point,'' Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference at the UPMC Sports Complex. "We've played smart.

"We haven't given up a bunch of big plays, and our special teams are really doing good. That's something you usually don't talk about.''

Wannstedt cited senior Adam Graessle's punting (43.2-yard average with eight fair catches and 13 inside the 20), as well as redshirt sophomore Conor Lee's field-goal kicking (4 of 5 made with a long of 47 yards last week after a chip-shot miss from inside 20 yards the week before).

But the punt and kickoff coverage units have also been solid with Graessle kicking off into the end zone 10 times (one-third of the kicks).

"It really (benefits) your defense to start on the 20- as compared to the 30-40-yard line,'' Wannstedt said. "(And) we've downed more punts this year inside the 20 already than what we did last year. So, I'm very pleased.

"(And) Conor Lee, you've got to give him credit. ... Those kickers, everybody's counting on them. They don't really get noticed until they miss, and then everybody's talking about it.''

The only negative aspect to Pitt's special teams, ironically, has been Darrelle Revis' punt returns. A dynamic returnman last fall, Revis has not broken loose yet and only averages. 4.5 yards per return.

"It'll happen,'' Wannstedt said. "You can't force those things. I think because it's Darrelle, everybody is expecting to see the home run. ... You need to have the right blocking, the ball needs to be kicked right.

"There are a lot of variables that go in to a great return. Last year, the one he returned for a touchdown, we had a block on. So, it'll happen. The biggest thing is that he makes good decisions back there.''

Wannstedt certainly couldn't be more pleased with how well Pitt is playing on offense, although he has been disappointed -- for the most part -- with the running game overall. But fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Palko, again the nation's most-efficient passer with a 191.32 rating, has his sights set much higher for the Panthers.

"I'm pleased with how we're executing thus far, but I know we're nowhere near being the type of football team that we can be,'' Palko said. "That's the scary thing. We can be a better football team than we are right now. It's a continual progress, but it's only been five games.

"We're happy to be 4-1, but ... I wish we were 5-0. That's in the past, though, and we can't look there. We just have to concentrate on each game in the future. And Syracuse is up next for us. So, that's pretty much how we're going to be handling the rest of the season.''

Two key injuries on the offensive line have forced some reshuffling there. Sophomore John Bachman, the backup at left tackle, blew out a knee early in the season to create some depth problems. And fifth-year senior right guard John Simonitis will have surgery Wednesday on his broken right leg. He, too, will be out for the remaining games this year.

Wannstedt believed that while injuries are rarely good, being able to play many young players should benefit the Panthers down the homestretch this season. Freshman Joe Thomas will start at right guard for Simonitis, and redshirt sophomore Dom Williams -- who moved to left tackle to back up Jeff Otah after Bachman's injury -- will go back to guard to spell Thomas.

"I really don't see it being a big problem, because (Thomas) is a guard, so he's right next to the center,'' Palko said. "If he was an offensive tackle, then I'd go into the game a little more worried. But he's right next to me and (center Joe) Villani, and the ball's going to be right there, too.

"So, I don't foresee any communication problems happening with him. And this isn't his first game playing. He has some playing experience, but he's going to have to step up and play well. And I know he will.''

Frosh Jason Pinkston, who got his first game action last week, is now the backup left tackle this week. And redshirt freshman Craig Bokor is the backup left guard to sophomore C.J. Davis.

"Fortunately, Pinkston got some playing time, which was good,'' Wannstedt said. "Dom Williams has played in the past. Bokor is doing a decent job. ... So, we have some younger players and there's not much experience there, but we do have some young guys that are eager to play.''

Another freshman who saw his first major game action last week was all-purpose back Dorin Dickerson. The blue-chip recruit was slowed by an ankle injury and position switch throughout training camp and the first few games, but he appears to be in Pitt's plans now. Dickerson currently is listed on the depth chart as the No. 3 split end behind junior starter Derek Kinder and redshirt frosh Cedric McGee.

"He's actually doing a little bit of both (running back and receiver),'' Wannstedt said. "Right now, he's third on the depth chart, so it's not like he's running second team. (And) we can use him on special teams, too.''

Two other young players, freshman DE McKenzie Mathews and redshirt freshman OLB Steve Dell, have had increased playing time recently.

"Dell played on three special teams,'' Wannstedt said. "He played some at linebacker behind Clint Session, and he's making progress. McKenzie, he was a guy kind of like Dickerson and Pinkston (redshirt or not to redshirt). Then, when (DE Doug) Fulmer got hurt, now all of a sudden he's second team.

"When you're second team, you don't have much of a choice, especially at that spot where we like to rotate guys. But he's doing well, and he played last week. I know this week will be exciting for him, going back home.''

Second-year Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, coming off a 1-10 debut season, compared the Orange with Pitt's second season under Wannstedt.

"(Pitt is) a year more into their offensive and defensive systems, and I think they have a lot of good people,'' Robinson said. "I like their receiving corps, and Tyler Palko is a very active guy. He does a lot of good things, and he's playing at a high rate of efficiency.''

* Mathews is from Syracuse and played scholastically for Christian Brothers Academy. Wannstedt said it's a few miles from the Orange campus.

* Along with Palko in passing efficiency and yardage (262.4 per game), Pitt players who lead the Big East include Kinder in receiving yards per game (97) and senior middle linebacker H.B. Blades in tackles per game (11.6).

* Blades also is fourth nationally, while Kinder is sixth in total receiving yards (485) and eighth in yards per game.

* With a series that dates back to 1916, Pitt will play one of its oldest and most historic Eastern rivals in Syracuse. Among Pitt's Big East foes, only the West Virginia series (which began in 1895) is older.

* Pitt seeks its first 5-1 start since the 2002 season. The Panthers have twice this decade opened a season with five wins in their first six games. The 2000 campaign is the other. * The Panthers also seek a 2-0 start to their Big East slate for the third time in five seasons. The other seasons were 2002 and 2003.

* The Panthers have defeated Syracuse in three of the past four meetings, including 34-17 last year at Heinz Field. Pitt, however, is just 3-9-1 in contests at the Carrier Dome, dating back to 1980 and lost in the last trip there -- 38-31 in double overtime. The Panthers also lost in two OTs, 24-17, at Syracuse in 2000.

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