Big East Preview, Part 3

This is the third in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at resurgent Pittsburgh. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


Pittsburgh is resurgent again.  The Panthers (9-4, 5-2 Big East) finished the 2002 season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1989.  Their nine wins were the most since 1982.  A 38-13 Insight Bowl victory over Oregon State gave Pittsburgh it first back-to-back bowl wins since 1981.  Their three successive bowl appearances are the most since 1983 ended a nine-year streak.  And Pittsburgh was on the brink of accomplishing even more as its margin of defeat in four losses totaled only 24 points, including a 7-point loss to Miami that saw Pitt throwing into the end zone as time expired.  Head Coach Walt Harris has Pittsburgh on the threshold of its traditional excellence.  Last year, Harris silenced the criticism that his teams too often lost games to opponents who had no business beating the Panthers.  The only question that now remains is whether Harris can stop self-destructing and start winning these close games. 

This is a season of opportunity for Walt Harris, Pittsburgh, and the soon-to-be-rebuilt Big East.  With Miami and Virginia Tech completing their final season in the Big East, a champion other than those two programs will provide credibility to the rebuilt conference.  And Pittsburgh, which loses only 7 starters – and no kickers, either – off of a team that was on the brink of national success, is poised to achieve just such a feat.  For Walt Harris, a Big East championship would provide a springboard to other coaching opportunities at a time when the fate of the Big East is uncertain.  For Pittsburgh, a Big East championship would announce that Pittsburgh once again is a force with which to be reckoned in college football.  For the Big East, a Big East championship for Pittsburgh would show that there is more to the Big East than merely Miami and Virginia Tech.  So, Pittsburgh is faced with a formidable challenge to realize a monumental opportunity.  Here's a look at the Pittsburgh Panthers that would be kings. 


Pittsburgh lost only 3 starters from a unit that struggled early in the season but finished very strong:

  • 26 points per game (#6 in the Big East and #70 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 358 yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #78 in Division 1A)
  • 143 rushing yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #64 in Division 1A)
  • 215 passing yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #59 in Division 1A)

The receiving corps has been the strength of the Pittsburgh offense under Walt Harris, as was exemplified last season when the Panthers replaced two-time First Team All-Big East and former Biletnikoff Award winner WR Antonio Bryant almost seamlessly.  Pittsburgh has since lost starting WR Lamar Slade (48 receptions for 649 yards and 4 TDs) and primary backup WR Roosevelt Bynes (18 recpeptions for 404 yards and 3 TDs), who was expected to replace Slade but instead transferred to Florida Atlantic University.  Freshman All-American, Big East Rookie of the Year, and First Team All-Big East So WR Larry Fitzgerald (69 receptions for 1,005 yards and 12 TDs), who filled Bryant's considerable shoes with a freshman record setting performance, returns as the Panther's marquee offensive player.  Fitzgerald led the Big East in receptions last season.  Two-year starter RS Sr TE Kris Wilson (18 receptions for 389 yards and 2 TDs) also returns.  With the departure of Bynes, RS Jr WR Princell Brockenbrough – a highly-touted JUCO transfer who missed last season while recovering from an ACL injury – will likely start opposite Fitzgerald.  Sr Yogi Roth, So Billy Gaines, RS Fr Joe Stephens, and converted DB RS Sr Chris Curd will compete for the backup WR roles.  RS So TE Erik Gill returns as Wilson's backup.  If Harris can find another WR to complement Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh will have the best receiving corps in the league. 

Second Team All-Big East RS Sr QB Rod Rutherford (192 of 367 for 2,783 yards, 22 TDs, and 12 INTs), previously known more for his running in a backup role (182 carries for 398 yards and 6 TDs last season), blossomed into a dangerous passer.  So QB Tyler Palko returns as the backup but saw limited playing time last season.  While his passing skills are impressive, Rutherford has a tendency to make critical mistakes in big games.  Pittsburgh will go as far as Rutherford can lead them. 

Pittsburgh lost two starters from an experienced OLine.  The departure of First Team All-Big East and four-year starter RG Bryan Anderson will leave a considerable void.  Two-year starter C Chad Reed was also lost.  Second Team All-Big East, former Freshman All-American, and two-year starter RS Jr LT Rob Petitti, two-year starter RS Sr RT Matt Morgan, and two-year starter RS Sr LG Dan LaCarte will provide an experienced core.  Former starter Sr RG Jon Schall and RS Jr C Justin Belarski will likely replace Anderson and Reed, respectively.  RS Sr LG Penny Semaia, RS So C Rob Frederick, RS So RT Dale Williams, RS Fr LT Jason Capizzi, and RS Fr RG John Simonitis are the likely backups.  The OLine is experienced and again should be the key to a well-balanced offense. 

Pittsburgh returns intact its two-deep at running back.  RS Sr TB Brandon Miree (214 carries for 943 yards and 4 TDs) and RS Sr FB Lousaka Polite (52 carries for 216 yards and 2 TDs) will again start.  Miree finished the season with 100-yard efforts in four of his final five games, which included an MVP performance in the Bowl.  Jr TB Raymond Kirkley (45 carries for 152 yards) and So TB Jawan Walker will battle for the backup job.  RS So FB Tom Murphy will backup Polite.  The running game again will provide balance for the passing game. 


Pittsburgh lost only 4 starters from the leagues best defense:

  • 18 points per game (#1 in the Big East and #14 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 296 yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #12 in Division 1A)
  • 118 rushing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #24 in Division 1A)
  • 178 passing yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #18 in Division 1A)

The Pittsburgh DLine played surprisingly well last season considering it replaced two starters and unexpectedly lost three additional anticipated starters – none of whom apparently will return.  First Team All-Big East RS Sr DE Claude Herriott (78 tackles, 20 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and 7 FF) emerged as the leader of the young DLine that lost only starting DE Brian Guzek (62 tackles, 9 TFLs, 6 sacks, 4 FF, and 2 FR).  RS So DT Vince Crochunis (71 tackles, 9 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 FF) and RS So DT Dan Stephens (52 tackles and 4.5 TFLs) return as the starters.  RS So DE Thomas Smith (10 tackles) will likely start opposite Herriott.  RS Jr DT Jake Holthaus (18 tackles and 5.5 TFLs), RS So DT Charles Spencer (20 tackles), So DE Andy Alleman, and RS Fr DE Vernon Botts will be the backups.  The DLine, which may be the best in the Big East, will help a very green LB unit develop quickly. 

Pittsburgh's secondary was debilitated similarly to the DLine last season as it replaced two departed starting safeties and two injured anticipated starting safeties yet still performed exceptionally.  First Team All-Big East and two-year starter CB Torrie Cox (82 tackles and 2 INTs) led a CB group that held the secondary together.  Cox, backup CB Shawn Robinson (26 tackles), and backup CB Taron Gray (4 tackles) are now gone.  Three-year starter Sr CB Shawntae Spencer (51 tackles and 3 INTs) returns as the leader of the secondary.  Second leading tackler RS So FS Tez Morris (119 tackles and 2 INTs) and Jr SS Tyrone Gilliard (49 tackles) are now experienced starters.  Sr Tutu Ferguson (33 tackles), a converted CB who played FS last season after the rash of preseason injuries decimated the depth chart, will return to CB where he will likely start.  RS Sr SS Corey Humphries (15 tackles), expected to start last season before a spring camp ACL injury sidelined him for much of the season, will be the most experienced backup.  RS Fr SS Sam Bryant will backup Gilliard while So CB Bernard Lay and Jr CB Marcus Furman, a converted WR, will likely backup Spencer and Ferguson.  Harris has an experienced secondary, which he will need to backstop a very inexperienced LB corps.

Departures most heavily stung the Pittsburgh LB corps.  All-American, two-time First Team All-Big East, and three-year starter MLB Gerald Hayes (133 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, and 2 FF) and three-year starter WLB Brian Beinecke (79 tackles, 12 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, and 2 FR) are gone.  Backup MLB Scott McCurley (13 tackles) and backup SLB Mike Jemison (14 tackles) also departed, with Jemison transferring to Division II Indiana (PA) University.  Third leading tackler RS Sr SLB Lewis Moore (94 tackles and 7 TFL) will anchor the LB unit.  RS Jr WLB Malcolm Postell (15 tackles) will replace Beinecke.  RS Fr MLB Azzie Beagnyam will likely beat RS So MLB Joe Dipre for the starting job since Dipre missed last season while academically ineligible.  RS Fr WLB Charles Sallet and RS Fr SLB Brian Bennett will backup Postell and Moore.  Pittsburgh has boasted one of the league's best LB units for two years.  Inexperience will likely cause a substantial drop in performance. 


The Panthers return First Team All-Big East Sr P Andy Lee (43 yards per punt) and So PK David Abdul (13 of 20 FGAs and 28 of 29 XPAs).  Pittsburgh must replace departed KR Torrie Cox (23 yards per return).  Sr CB Shawntae Spencer will likely handle kickoff returns.  So PR Billy Gaines (5 yards per return) will likely reclaim his starting job after a broken foot ended his season early.  An excellent kicking game and a strong return game will help Harris camouflage a potentially suspect defense. 


Pittsburgh has a full 12 game schedule with 6 home games.  Pittsburgh starts the season late and ends early.  That gives the Panthers only one bye week – in early October.  The Panther's non-conference schedule is challenging – road trips to College Station and Toledo and a visit from Notre Dame.  The conference schedule is favorable, with the toughest competition – Miami, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse – at home and rebuilding Boston College and West Virginia on the road.  Consistency will be the key to the Panther season because the visiting opponents are tough and road games wins won't come easily.  The November schedule will ultimately determine the fate of the Panther's season.   

September 6

Kent State

September 13

Ball State

September 20

@ Toledo

September 27

@ Texas A&M

October 11

Notre Dame

October 18

@ Rutgers

October 25


November 1

@ Boston College

November 8

Virginia Tech

November 15

@ West Virginia

November 22

@ Temple

November 29




I predict Pittsburgh will finish the season with a 10-2 (6-1) record.  The schedule is ideal for an experienced team, with tougher opponents primarily at home and easier opponents primarily on the road.  Texas A&M is always a tough opponent in College Station and Pittsburgh will again fall short against the Aggies in another defensive struggle.  Notre Dame is dangerous but Pittsburgh is much more talented than Notre Dame and won't beat themselves again this year, as they have in the two previous matchups.  Conference road games at Boston College and West Virginia, both of whom are rebuilding, will be tough but Pittsburgh should win.   Home games against Virginia Tech and Miami will be the most important conference games for Pittsburgh, as a sweep could vault the Panthers into a first place finish and Orange Bowl bid.  The home field advantage in November will be crucial for those games.  Pittsburgh will only split, though.  The Panthers will beat Virginia Tech, against whom they have won two straight, but will lose a heartbreaker to Miami in the season finale.  A loss that will cost Pittsburgh its chance at a Sugar Bowl appearance for the national championship.  Pittsburgh will be third in the Big East pecking bowl pecking order behind Virginia Tech and Miami.  As a result, Pittsburgh will again travel out west for a second consecutive appearance in the Insight Bowl against the #4 PAC-10 team, the Oregon Ducks. 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 4.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the maturing Syracuse Orangemen.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 

Please send any comments to  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.

Scarlet Report Top Stories