Big East Title Within Reach

No. 24 Pitt (4-1) enters its game against Navy (4-1) Oct. 18 at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md. are the Big East Conference's surprise leader as the college football season nears its midpoint.

Pittsburgh is 2-0 in league games, with wins at Syracuse and South Florida, and are ahead of Connecticut (5-1) and West Virginia (3-2) with one win each. Cincinnati (4-1) has not yet played a Big East game, while USF (5-1), Louisville (2-2), Rutgers (1-4) and the Orange (1-4) are winless through one game.

A big reason the Panthers are on top is that they are running the football well on offense and doing a better job stopping it on defense, just like Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt envisioned when he returned to his alma mater nearly five years ago. Wannstedt explained the turnaround.

"Our team has grown up a lot, and I'd like to think that started to happen after the disappointing opening loss to Bowling Green,'' Wannstedt said. "Sometimes, they were small steps, but we've continued to talk about the mental part of it. And when there was a challenge, we overcame it.

"It was a good experience to come from behind on the road, so we learned from that, too. ... Without saying it, people know about it and read about it, so it'll help recruiting-wise. But we won't talk about our national ranking or things like that. The only thing we can do is to go out and play.

"(And) the only pressure on us is to win,'' Wannstedt added, "and that'll be our focus next week. But it won't be because of ratings and expectations. We want to win the game for us so we can go to 5-1, and that's our focus.''

Pitt is third in total defense in the Big East, behind Louisville and USF, with 294.2 total yards allowed per game. And the Panthers are second in pass defense, trailing only Rutgers, with 176.4 yards given up per contest. Pitt also is tied with UConn for the top spot with 17 sacks, but in one less game.

"I think the mindset that we can't wait until a particular situation to make a play is something that we've tried to really emphasize with them,'' Wannstedt added. "They've got to play at a high level for 60 minutes, and I think last week's game was good for them.

"It was a good combination of run and pass (by South Florida). We used a lot of different personnel groups (on defense) and did a little more blitzing than usual, so that was a good game plan to really grow. They had more responsibility, and I think they handled it well.''

Individually on defense, fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop leads the Big east with 52 total tackles, 10.4 per game, which is more than two ahead of second place. Another fifth-year senior, outside linebacker Austin Ransom, is tied for ninth with 7.2 stops per game. McKillop and sophomore defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are in the top 10 in sacks.

"Both Jabaal and Greg have made some progress, and I think for us to play good defense our linemen have to be a major part of it,'' Wannstedt said. "We count on those guys to make plays, not just take up blocks, and I think for Jabaal and Greg as first-year starters ... both are extremely athletic kids, and they work very hard.

"Greg Gattuso, our D-line coach, has done a nice job with them. But the whole group, really. We try to keep them fresh by rotating and playing a lot of people, but we haven't come close to reaching our full potential there. As long as we continue to make progress every week, then we at least feel good that we're heading in the right direction.''

The Panthers lead in fourth-down conversions with eight made in 10 attempts and are tops in red-zone offense with a perfect 17-for-17 on 12 touchdowns and two field goals.

"I'd say we're getting better (on the offensive line), but I wouldn't say that we're dominant by any means,'' Wannstedt said. "But we are getting better. We're not turning guys loose in the backfield very much like we used to ... so, our pass protection is better.

"And we're developing a sense of confidence running the ball. So, we're coming along, but we have to continue it. ... For us to be successful throwing the football, we're not a big drop-back team, so there's going to have to be some play-action pass. And the only way to do that is to run the ball.''

And as the Panthers continue to improve, they won't be able to surprise an opponent any more.

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