Is Pitt Back On Track?

So, the Pitt football team won another game it was supposed to win, but where does it go from here?

The simple answer is anywhere that it wants. Pittsburgh is 4-1 overall -- the fifth time it reached that mark this decade -- and on the verge of being nationally ranked, if not this week then the next with a win against Connecticut (3-1) in a Big East game televised regionally by ABC-TV.

Pitt faces the Huskies Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, and this is the point where it gets a little dicy for the Panthers. The program was 5-1 in 2000 before three straight losses took it out of the Conference race and 5-2 in 2002, but lost a crucial matchup at Notre Dame.

Pitt also started the season with a 4-1 record in 2006 and 2008. There was an early loss in each year, but a defeat to Rutgers derailed both campaigns. That's why this week is so critical for the Panthers. That early loss it out of the way, so to speak, and Pitt has a chance to get on a roll.

That's just what this season needs. The 2009 Panthers have not been consistent at all this year -- coming out strong but fading in the second half, playing well on offense only to be shredded on defense and finally finishing on a high note at Louisville Friday night -- so it's about time to put it all together.

A complete game, playing well for four quarters on offensive, defense and special teams. What a novel idea, but the time is now for Pitt with the Big East schedule in full force now and winnable games on the horizon. It shouldn't be that difficult, because it already has been done in portions this season.

Both the offense and defense have had their moments this season, and with individual play raised by just a few on either side there could be more consistency. Special teams, at least the return units, will be hampered by Cam Saddler's injury. But the coverage teams and kicking have been solid.

On offense, quarterback Bill Stull has surprised many fans and maybe even a few teammates with his play. While there still have been some mistakes and poor decisions, those too can diminish with every success. And with 11 touchdowns and just one interception, Stull has been highly successful so far.

A large reason for his strong play has to go to the offensive line. That unit has rarely allowed him to be hit and sacked even less. And when left tackle Jason Pinkston was called for a holding penalty against the Cardinals, that was the first one this season.

Seniors Robb Houser, Joe Thomas and John Malecki have been solid on the interior, while tackles Pinkston and sophomore Lucas Nix have meshed well with the guards next to them. Senior tight end Nate Byham must be included in this group. While he hasn't caught a lot of passes, he has become a devastating blocker, and that will get him to the next level even faster than gaudy stats.

Another reason for Stull's success has to be first-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Sure, Stull has put in the time, and is reaping the benefits. But Cignetti clearly has helped him along by using all the personnel available. Now, if somebody can get him to limit the screens a bit and the quick outs, which Stull still struggles to complete and has since his arrival, the offense could be even more potent.

And let's not kid ourselves, the Panthers have some offensive firepower. They can grind it out with running backs Dion Lewis, Raymond Graham and Henry Hynoski -- who it wouldn't hurt to get another touch or two -- or strike quickly with wideout Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Dorin Dickerson.

Fifth-year seniors Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee mostly have been possession receivers, but redshirt freshman Michael Shanahan also could be added to the mix and Byham also could be added to the mix to make the passing game even better. With teams keying on Baldwin and Dickerson, Byham could break loose any time now.

Defensively, the Panthers have been a mystery this season. One game they play well, while the next they get shredded. The D-line played its best overall game against Louisville with an amazing six sacks. Pitt has 23 sacks in five games this season, nearly five per game, so the pressure has been there from Gus Mustakas, Mick Williams, Myles Caragein, who has improved daily, and ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus.

The linebacking corps, except for sixth-year senior Adam Gunn, has been inconsistent. Gunn played well in the three games he's been active, while outside linebackers Greg Williams and Max Gruder have made some players but not much of an impact. More was expected from second-year starter Williams, while Gruder has done all right for a redshirt sophomore first-year starter. But some are calling for him to be replaced.

The secondary has been hampered by injuries to sophomore Andrew Taglianetti and now Elijah Fields, whose status for the future is unknown. Fields replaced Taglianetti two games into the season. Redshirt freshman Jarred Holley, who got some playing time anyway, could play even more if Fields is out for an extended period.

Former running back Chris Burns can add depth while learning the safety position on the run. A key to Pitt's safety play is junior Dom DeCicco, a strong finisher last season, but slow starter this fall. He also has not played up to expectations with sloppy tackling and poor decisions./p

The cornerbacks, specifically senior starters Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel, need to tighten their defense. Missed tackles, loose coverage and missteps have been their problems throughout this season. Backups Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary have been upgrades, at times, but the overall play needs to improve.

So, what does it all mean? Pitt can still have a good season and reach its ultimate goal, win the Big East title and go to a BCS bowl game with continued improvement and a few breaks here and there.

But don't buy those Orange Bowl tickets just yet.

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