Big East Preview, Part 2

This is the second in a six part preseason preview of the Big East. I'll continue my tour with a look at the enigmatic Pittsburgh Panthers. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


The 2003 season was a tremendous disappointment for Pittsburgh (8-5, 5-2 Big East).  With a veteran team and a favorable schedule, the Panthers were poised for a run at a BCS bowl and possibly even the national championship.  But, under Head Coach Walt Harris, Pittsburgh has developed a reputation for losing games to opponents who had no business beating the Panthers.  Two such non-conference losses crushed any national championship aspirations by early October.  The Panthers later stumbled at West Virginia and then lost to Miami in the season finale with a share of the Big East crown on the line.  A 23-16 loss to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl was the final insult.  The disappointment continued into the off-season as Pittsburgh lost several blue chip recruits as a byproduct of the reorganization of the Big East.  Harris has succeeded more through talent than through coaching at Pittsburgh.  Could these recruiting tremors be the beginning of the end of Harris' regime? 

Under Harris, Pittsburgh has built its success on a potent passing offense and a fierce defense.  The Panthers run a pro-set offense, occasionally deploying 3WR.  This offense was extremely one-dimensional last year with a blistering passing attack and an anemic running game.  The defense employs a 4-3 scheme with a safety often aligned in an eight-man front.  The Panther defense is typically athletic and aggressive.  But, last season, a young and inexperienced LB corps compromised an otherwise veteran defense and the Panthers were unusually soft against the run.  Harris lost 12 starters plus one kicker off a veteran team.  Harris must rebuild the depleted ranks, find new playmakers as well as leaders, and fix the problems that plagued the team last year.  This season will be a true test of Harris' coaching ability.  He has underachieved with outstanding talent.  How will he face adversity?  Here's a look at the enigmatic Panthers of Pittsburgh. 


Pittsburgh lost 8 starters from a one-dimensional offense that could be equally devastating or amazingly impotent:

  • 118 rushing yards per game (#7 in the current Big East and #95 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 288 passing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #14 in Division 1A)
  • 406 yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #34 in Division 1A)
  • 30 points per game (#2 in the Big East and #35 in Division 1A)

Two-year starter, two-time First Team All-Big East honoree, former Freshman All-American, former Big East Rookie of the Year, Big East Offensive Player of the Year, unanimous All-American, and Biletnikoff Award winner WR Larry Fitzgerald (92 receptions for 1,672 yards and 22 TDs), who added a brilliant chapter to Pittsburgh's recent WR legacy, took his considerable schools to the NFL as a first round draft choice.  He led the Big East in receptions each of the past two seasons and led the nation in receiving yardage last year.  Three-year starter, Second Team All-Big East, and NFL 2nd round draft choice TE Kris Wilson (44 receptions for 643 yards and 9 TDs) also departed.  To make matters worse, returning starter RS Sr WR Princell Brockenbrough (35 receptions for 616 yards and 4 TDs) may miss the season with a chronic knee injury and backup WR So WR Terrell Allen, an otherwise likely contributor this year, will miss the season with a wrist injury.  Former backup WR So Greg Lee (10 receptions for 211 yards) and JUCO transfer Jr Jason Gaffney will likely start.  RS Jr WR Joe Stephens will occupy one backup role; true freshen WRs Andre Broussard, Kelvin Chandler, Derek Kinder, and Marcel Pestano will compete for the other backup job.  Former backup TE RS Jr Erik Gill will replace Wilson as the starter but barely played last season.  RS So TE Steve Buches will backup Gill.  Harris must find his next blue chip WR because injuries have decimated his veterans. 

Two-year starter and two-time All-Big East (First Team last year) QB Rod Rutherford (247 of 413 for 3,679 yards, 37 TDs, and 14 INTs plus 136 carries for 150 yards and 2 TDs) left Pittsburgh as its third best career passer behind Alex Van Pelt and Dan Marino.  Backup QB RS So Luke Getsy and former backup QB RS So Tyler Palko, who redshirted last season, have combined to complete only five passes in two seasons.  They will battle for the starting job in place of Rutherford.  Pittsburgh will pay the price this year for Harris' failure to develop his two young QBs during the past two seasons as Rutherford logged the lion's share of snaps and the backups were relegated to running the fetal position offense in garbage time. 

Pittsburgh lost three starters from a veteran OLine that underperformed last year – three-year starter RT Matt Morgan, three-year starter LG Dan LaCarte, and two-year starter C Jon Schall.  Schall opened the season as the starting RG but injuries at center prompted his relocation.  Backups RG Penny Semaia and RT Nick Pietracatello are also gone and while backups RS Fr LG Zack Slates and RS So LT Jason Capizzi left the team prematurely.  Three-year starter, two-time All-Big East (First Team last year), and former Freshman All-American RS Sr LT Rob Petitti returns to anchor the OLine.  RS So RG John Simonitis, who opened the season as the backup RG but moved into the starting lineup after a rash of injuries at center, is also back.  Former starting C RS Sr Rob Frederick, who began the season as the starting center but was hobbled with a fractured left foot, will switch to LG and replace LaCarte as the starter.  RS Sr C Justin Belarski, who replaced Frederick as the starting center last season but was likewise hobbled with an injured left foot, will reclaim the starting center job.  RS Fr RT Mike McGlynn will replace Morgan; backup RT RS Jr Dale Williams returns in the same role.  Former backup LG RS Jr LG Matt Maiers, who suffered a season-ending right knee injury early last season, will move over to RG and backup Simonitis.   Former backup DTs RS Jr Kevin Harris and RS Jr Charles Spencer switched to the OLine in spring camp; Harris earned the backup LT job behind Petitti while Spencer, who missed camp with a shoulder injury, is expected to backup Frederick at LG.  RS Fr C Chris Vangas will backup Belarski at center.  Harris has done some major reshuffling of the OLine to address the performance issues of – and attrition to – a unit whose run blocking and pass protection were dead last in the Big East.  With an inexperienced QB, the OLine must pull its weight. 

Two-year starter and 7th round NFL draft choice TB Brandon Miree (115 carries for 573 yards and 6 TDs plus 16 receptions for 130 yards) and four-year starter FB Lousaka Polite (70 carries for 258 yards plus 25 receptions for 222 yards) have departed.  Backup TB and heir apparent Jr Jawan Walker (107 carries for 407 yards and 3 TDs plus 13 receptions for 111 yards) apparently will be academically ineligible this year.  RS Jr TB Raymond Kirkley – who opened the 2002 season as the starter, was relegated to the backup role by midseason, and redshirted last season – will likely assume the starting role in place of Walker.  RS Jr Marcus Furman, who switched to CB last year but missed the season with a hip injury, has returned to TB and will backup Kirkley.  Former backup FB RS Jr Tom Murphy (29 carries for 79 yards plus 7 receptions for 48 yards) will replace Polite and will also likely see action at TB.  RS Fr FB Mark Yezovich and RS Fr FB Mike Hull will compete for the backup job behind Murphy.  The running game was awful last year and personnel changes will compromise Harris' attempts to rejuvenate his backfield.  Not that the running game was ever more than an afterthought to Harris. 


Pittsburgh lost only 4 starters from a very disappointing defense that saw plenty of roster shuffling that was not injury-induced:

  • 185 rushing yards per game (#6 in the current Big East and #87 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 218 passing yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #54 in Division 1A)
  • 403 yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #79 in Division 1A)
  • 24 points per game (#2 in the Big East and #53 in Division 1A)

The Pittsburgh LB corps was a relatively green group on an otherwise experienced defense last season.  As a result, the Panthers only lost three-year starter and leading tackler MLB Lewis Moore (137 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 FF, and 3 FR).  Second leading tackler RS So SLB Brian Bennett (118 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 2 FF) returns as the starter; backup SLB So HB Blades (57 tackles and 4.5 TFLs) also returns.  RS Jr WLB JJ Horne (41 tackles, and 3 TFLs), who switched from SS early last season and eventually displaced the incumbent late in the season, returns – as does former starter RS Sr WLB Malcolm Postell (63 tackles and 5 TFLs).  So MLB Clint Session (39 tackles and 7.5 TFLs) will replace Moore in the starting lineup. RS Fr MLB Chris McKillop will backup Session.  Pittsburgh has boasted one of the league's best LB units in recent years.  A young but more experienced unit has a high standard to which it must aspire. 

The Pittsburgh DLine was surprisingly soft last season though it was a veteran unit.  Two-year starter, former First Team All-Big East, and 5th round NFL draft choice DE Claude Herriott (35 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 2 sacks) is the only departed starter.  Two-year starter RS Jr NT Vince Crochunis (54 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks), two-year starter RS Jr DT Dan Stephens (46 tackles and 4.5 TFLs), and starting DE RS Jr Thomas Smith (44 tackles, 8 TFLs, and 2 sacks) all return.  RS So DE Azzie Beagnyam (31 tackles and 3 TFLs) will replace Herriott in the starting lineup; former WLB RS So DE Charles Sallet (5 tackles) will backup Beagnyam at DE.  RS Sr DT Jake Holthaus (15 tackles and 2 TFLs) and RS Sr DE Keith Hill (16 tackles) return in their backup roles.  Backup DT RS Jr Charles Spencer (19 tackles), who switched to the OLine, is the only backup missing off the two deep.  Former DE Jr Andy Alleman (8 tackles and 2 TFLs) will replace Spencer as the backup NT.  Pittsburgh will reply upon its defense to carry an overhauled offense this year.  The veteran DLine, whose performance dropped precipitously last year, must regain its form if the Panthers are to maintain their upper division status within the Big East. 

The Panther secondary saw more lineup shuffling for performance reasons than did the rest of the team combined.  Only departed four-year starter, third-leading tackler, and 2nd round NFL draft choice CB Shawntae Spencer (82 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 FF, and 2 FR) maintained his starting job last year.  RS So CB Reggie Carter, who saw little action as the fourth CB last year, will replace Spencer.  RS Fr Mike Philips will backup Carter.  CB Tutu Ferguson (62 tackles and 3 INTs), who displaced the starting CB after one month, is also gone.  Former starting CB Jr CB Josh Lay (37 tackles and 2 FR), who lost his job to Ferguson last year, was supposed to replace the departed Ferguson; however, Lay may not be academically eligible this season.  RS Fr Kennard Cox and true Fr Allen Richardson, a January enrollee, will battle for the backup CB job behind Lay or, if necessary, the starting job in place of an ineligible Lay.  Backup FS Corey Humphries (59 tackles, 2 INTs, and 2 FF), who displaced the starter for the final three games last season, also departed.  Former two-year starter RS Jr FS Tez Morris (81 tackles) should reclaim his starting job.  RS Fr FS Jameel Brady will backup Morris.  Two-year starter Sr SS Tyrone Gilliard (64 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 FF), who lost his starting job for the bowl game, should reclaim the starting role.  Backup SS RS So Sam Bryant (20 tackles), who started ahead of Gilliard in the Continental Tire Bowl, returns probably back behind Gilliard.  Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach Paul Rhoads has a huge challenge to mold a strong secondary from green CBs and safeties whose performance resulted in demotions last year. 


Harris won't find any help on his special teams, which were decimated with unexpected losses.  Departed three-and-a half-year starter, two-time First Team All-Big East, two-time Big East Special Teams Co-Player of the Year, and NFL 6th round draft choice P Andy Lee (44 yards per punt), a devastating field position weapon, leaves a gaping hole in the kicking game.  A hole that is compounded by the unexpected loss of two-year starter Jr PK David Abdul (9 of 18 FGAs and 49 of 51 XPAs), who in May suffered a severely fractured right leg in a car accident.  So P Adam Graessle will replace Lee while JUCO transfer Jr PK Josh Cummings will assume Abdul's duties.  PR Tutu Ferguson (10 yards per return) departed while So KR Terrell Allen (24 yards per return), who tore a wrist ligament during spring camp, will miss the season.  RS Jr TB Marcus Furman will handle both KOR and PR responsibilities.  As with the offense, Harris will need young players across the breadth of his special teams to emerge as playmakers. 


Pittsburgh has an 11 game schedule with 6 home games.  The Panthers play twice on Thursday – at night at Connecticut and against West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl on Thanksgiving.  Pittsburgh gets two bye weeks – one in late October and another before the Backyard Brawl.  The Panther's non-conference schedule is challenging – road trips to Tampa (South Florida) and South Bend (Notre Dame) and a visit from Nebraska.  The conference schedule is very favorable, with the toughest competition – West Virginia, Boston College, and Rutgers – at home and struggling Syracuse, newbie Connecticut, and hopeless Temple on the road.  Pittsburgh may not be favored against all of its guests but nonetheless could sweep its home schedule.  The road games are formidable with visits to South Florida, Connecticut, Syracuse, and Notre Dame.  The key to the season is the three-game stretch against Boston College, Rutgers, and Syracuse that will decide Pittsburgh's place in the Big East pecking order.  The Panther schedule has a very steep yield curve with the better teams at home and the lesser teams on the road.  It could be feast or famine for Harris, depending upon how well he rebuilds him team.


September 4

@ South Florida

September 11


September 18


September 25


September 30

@ Connecticut

October 9

@ Temple

October 16

Boston College

October 23


November 6

@ Syracuse

November 13

@ Notre Dame

November 25

West Virginia



I predict Pittsburgh will finish the season with a 7-4 (5-1) record.  Pittsburgh will lose the opener at South Florida, whose tough defense will prove decisive against Harris' inexperienced offense.  Nebraska's notorious Black Shirt defense will also manhandle the Panther offense and allow the Cornhusker offense, which will be painfully transitioning into the west coast offense under new Coach Bill Callahan, to do just enough to earn a road win.  Consecutive games against Furman, Connecticut, and Temple will allow Pittsburgh's offense to get untracked.  Though rebuilding, Pittsburgh has more than enough talent to beat Big East newbie Connecticut in East Hartford.  The home field advantage and desire for vengeance will carry the motivated Panthers past similarly rebuilding Boston College in the Eagle's last Big East game versus Pittsburgh.  The Panthers will show Rutgers that Pittsburgh's 42-7 halftime lead was more indicative of the talent gap between the programs than was the 42-32 final score.  A win at Syracuse, who has more problems than does Harris, will extend Pittsburgh's season winning streak to six games.  Harris twice could not beat Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham while Pittsburgh was loaded and Notre Dame was retooling to run the west coast offense; improved Notre Dame will again prevail but now won't need a Panther meltdown to win.  West Virginia will win the victor-take-all Backyard Brawl as the Big East's two best teams battle for the BCS bowl bid. 

As a result, Pittsburgh will be eligible for the Gator Bowl as the #2 Big East team.  Under the Big East's arrangement with Notre Dame, the Gator Bowl will be able to take a 7-4 Fighting Irish team ahead of Pittsburgh.  However, Notre Dame and the Big East also have an arrangement with the Cotton Bowl, which can select Notre Dame or a Big East team ahead of the #3 SEC team once.  With only two seasons remaining on the current contract, the Cotton Bowl will seize the opportunity to select Notre Dame.  Leaving the Gator Bowl available for Pittsburgh.  The Panthers will face the #2 ACC team, the Miami Hurricanes in a matchup of former Big East foes. 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 3.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the always-consistent Boston College Eagles.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.   

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