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 the prowling Pittburgh Panthers. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


The 2004 season for Pittsburgh (8-4, 4-2 Big East) was bizarre.  A disappointing 2003 season, recruiting failures, and a new Athletic Director combined to put Head Coach Walt Harris on tenuous ground despite five consecutive bowl appearances.  An early season loss to an atypically bad Nebraska team at home, an OT nail-biter against Division I-AA Furman, and an nationally televised meltdown at Connecticut made Harris dead coach walking.  On the ropes, the Panthers miraculously rebounded to win six of their next seven games, with the only loss in 2OT at Syracuse.  Wins over Boston College and West Virginia (and a better BCS ranking than runner-up Syracuse) gave Pittsburgh the tie-breaker in a four-way tie atop the Big East standings.  And the Big East's automatic BCS bid.  Pittsburgh lost to Utah, 35-7, in the Fiesta Bowl.  Not surprisingly, Harris left the program that didn't want him, taking the open job at Stanford.  Pittsburgh hired former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Dave Wannstedt to take the reigns at his alma mater.  Wannstedt has vowed to reclaim western Pennsylvania at Pittsburgh's turf.  He has re-energized a program often lacking passion under the stoic Harris. 

Wannstedt inherited a program known for a prolific passing attack and a tough defense.  New Offensive Coordinator Matt Cavanaugh has implemented the west coast offense, which should not be a big adjustment from Harris' system.  However, Cavanaugh will re-emphasize the running game, often an afterthought under Harris.  Defensive Coordinator Paul Rhodes, the lone survivor off Harris' staff, apparently will change the defense from an overshift 4-3 (a NT over the center and a SLB on the line of scrimmage over the TE, giving the scheme a 5-2 look) to a straight 4-3 with a balanced DLine and LBs (much like Rutgers).  The Panthers were efficient on both offense and defense, scoring more and yielding fewer points in proportion to yardage gained/allowed.  Wannstedt lost only 6 starters off a promising young team.  If he can harness and lead that talent more effectively than Harris, he could surpass Harris' best season in his inaugural year.  Wannstedt must rebuild the depleted ranks, find new playmakers as well as leaders, and fix the problems that plagued the team last year.  Here's a look at the prowling Panthers of Pittsburgh.   


Pittsburgh lost 2 starters from a one-dimensional offense that was nonetheless effective though uncharacteristically lacking depth at WR and relying more heavily upon the TEs and RBs:  

  • 98 rushing yards per game (#6 in the old Big East and #105 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 260 passing yards per game (#3 in the old Big East and #24 in Division 1A)
  • 358 yards per game (#6 in the old Big East and #72 in Division 1A)
  • 27 points per game (#3 in the old Big East and #48 in Division 1A)

Second Team All-Big East QB RS Jr Tyler Palko (230 of 409 for 3,067 yards, 24 TDs, and 7 INTs plus 129 carries for 139 yards and 3 TDs) began the 2003 season as an inexperienced signal caller but finished the year as one of the hottest QBs in the country.  He can make plays with either his arm or feet and showed a knack for improvisation reminiscent of former Boston College Eagle Doug Flutie.  Incumbent backup RS So Joe Flacco (1 of 4 for 11 yards) played negligibly last year behind Palko.  Flacco quit the team during the summer, looking to transfer.  True freshman QBs Shane Murray and Bill Stull will compete for the backup job, likely without any hope for a redshirt for the winner.  Pittsburgh has suffered devastating attrition at QB – losing two QBs to transfer and one to a position change.  With only one experienced QB and two green backups, Pittsburgh must guard Palko like Fort Knox. 

Wide Receiver University ruptured its pipeline last year.  Pittsburgh ended its streak of All Big East Honors at six last year.  Although the Panthers ran desperately short of bodies at WR as sustained attrition depleted their ranks, Second Team All-Big East WR Jr Greg Lee (68 receptions for 1,297 yards and 10 TDs), who led the Big East in receiving yardage and was second in receiving TDs, nonetheless deserved First Team honors.  Lee returns to anchor the Panther receiving corps.  Former walk-on Jr WR Joe Delsardo (49 receptions for 573 yards and 4 TDs) will face greater competition for the starting job, which he inherited almost by default last year.  RS Sr TE Erik Gill (25 receptions for 433 yards and 4 TDs) also returns to the starting lineup.  RS Jr TE Steve Buches (7 receptions for 94 yards and 4 TDs) will have to fend off a challenge from converted WR So Darrell Strong (4 receptions for 58 yards), who was recruited as a QB.  So WR Kelvin Chandler (4 receptions for 47 yards) and So WR Derek Kinder will compete to backup Lee.  RS Fr WR Marcel Pestano and RS So WR Terrell Allen, who missed last season with a wrist injury, and former TB RS Sr Marcus Furman (27 receptions for 243 yards and one TD), who was moved to WR in summer camp, will compete as Delsardo's backup.  The Panthers are still thin at WR.  However, the freshmen upon whom they were relying last year have now been in the program a year and should be ready to contribute. 

The Panthers return their entire backfield.  RS Sr TB Marcus Furman (37 carries for 116 yards plus 27 receptions for 243 yards and one TD), who was primarily a 3rd down back, was switched to WR in summer camp due to a surplus of TBs and a shortage of proven WRs.  RS Sr TB Raymond Kirkley (154 carries for 560 yards and 6 TDs plus 23 receptions for 179 yards), who started last year and also part of 2002, will be relegated to a backup role this year.  RS Sr FB Tim Murphy (88 carries for 334 yards and a TD plus 13 receptions for 118 yards) is a versatile RB, ala Rutgers' Brian Leonard, who can run, catch, and block.  Like Leonard, Murphy is a hybrid TB/FB.  So TB Brandon Mason (17 carries for 40 yards) will also compete for playing time.  True Fr TB Rashad Jennings enrolled in January 2005 and has already laid claim the starting job.  Walk-on FB RS Sr Kellen Campbell (4 receptions for 34 yards) started eight games last year while walk-on FB RS Sr Justin Acierno (7 receptions for 42 yards) started three games.  They are expected to backup Murphy this year.  The lack of production from the running game has resulted in a substantial reshuffling of the Panther backfield. 

The departure of four -year starter, three-time All Big East selection (twice First Team), All-American LT Rob Petitti, who was drafted in the 6th round by the Dallas Cowboys, is obviously a huge loss.  Starting C Justin Belarski also departed.  Furthermore, former starting RG Matt Maiers, who was demoted mid-season, and backup LG Rob Frederick are also gone.  RS Jr RG John Simonitis, who has twice replaced the starter each of the past two years, is the most experienced returning OL.  RS So RT Mike McGlynn, who displaced the starter in October, returns alongside Simonitis.  Former Second Team All-Big East starting LG RS Sr Charles Spencer, who moved to OL last year from DT, will switch to LT and replace Petitti as the starter.  Former backup LT RS Jr Joe Villani will replace Belarski as the starting C.  RS So C Chris Vangas was unable to win the vacant starting job and will backup Villani.  RS Fr Dominic Williams, will fill Spencer's vacated starting LG position.  Former starting RT RS Sr Dale Williams, who was replaced by McGlynn last year, will slide over to backup LG.  The next generation of OL is already filling the ranks.  RS Fr LT Jerald Robinson, RS Fr RG Dave Webber, and RS Fr RT Chase Clowser , none of who were on the two-deep last year, will complete the second team.  The OLine has only 39 combined starts and the backups are very green.  


Pittsburgh lost only 4 starters from a maturing defense that was more stingy with points than with yardage:  

  • 140 rushing yards per game (#3 in the old Big East and #48 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 255 passing yards per game (#7 in the old Big East and #100 in Division 1A)
  • 395 yards per game (#4 in the old Big East and #73 in Division 1A)
  • 24 points per game (#4 in the old Big East and #44 in Division 1A)

Wannstedt lost only one player off his two-deep at LB – starting WLB Malcolm Postell (64 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, one sack, and 4 INTs).  Former starting SLB Jr H.B. Blades (108 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 3 INTs, one FF, and one FR), who earned First Team All-Big East honors while finishing third in the league in tackles, was switched to MLB, where he is expected to make an even bitter impact.  Former starting MLB Jr Clint Session (91 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 2 INTs), the Panthers' second leading tackler, will switch positions with Blades.  Former backup SLB RS Jr Brian Bennett (35 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one FF, and one FR), who started in 2003 but lost his starting job to Blades last year, will slide over to WLB and replace Postell in the starting lineup.  RS Sr WLB J.J. Horne (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and one FR), who briefly displaced Postell as the starter in 2003, returns as the backup but will push Bennett for the starting job.  Former backup MLB RS So Derron Thomas (19 tackles) will join Session at SLB as the backup.  RS Fr MLB Scott McKillop will replace Thomas as the backup MLB.  Pittsburgh may have the best and deepest LB corps in the Big East. 

Wannstedt also lost only one player from a young but shaky secondary.  Three-year starter SS Tyrone Gilliard (49 tackles and one INT).  Three-year starter RS Sr FS Tez Morris (85 tackles and one FR) is the veteran of the young unit.  Second Team All-Big East CB Sr Josh Lay (22 tackles and 3 INTs) and So CB Darrelle Revis (49 tackles, 2 INTs, and one FF) return as starters.  Former backup CB RS So Mike Philips (30 tackles, 2 INTs, and one FF) was switched to SS and will replace Gilliard.  RS So FS Jameel Brady (31 tackles) and RS Jr SS Sam Bryant (20 tackles) return as backups, as does RS Jr CB Reggie Carter (7 tackles and one FF).  RS So Kennard Cox (11 tackles) will replace Phillips as a backup CB.  Though the safeties were suspect, the CBs were playmakers.  With an experienced two-deep, the Panther secondary should be much improved. 

The DLine suffered heavy losses, especially at DT.  Last year, one backup DT transferred right before summer camp and another was injured in early September.  Three-year starter and First Team All-Big East NT Vince Crochunis (43 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks) and three-year starter Second Team All-Big East DT Dan Stephens (40 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one FR) held the DLine together but both have departed, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.  Backup DE Keith Hill (14 tackles and 1.5 sacks) also departed while third team DE RS So Kyle Smith (12 tackles) was forced to quit the team because of concussions.  RS Sr Thomas Smith (47 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, one FF, and one FR), a two-year starter at DE, will slide over to DT to fill the void.  RS Fr Corey Davis, who lost 40 pounds during the off-season, has emerged as the leading candidate for the other starting DT job.  RS Sr walk-on DT Ron Idoko (10 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and one FR), Sr DT Phil Tillman (3 tackles and one sack), and RS Fr DT Nick Williams will compete for the backup jobs.  Starting DE RS Jr Charles Sallet (26 tackles, 4.5 TFLS, and 3 sacks), who missed spring camp with a shoulder injury, is the other returning starter.  Backup DEs RS So Joe Clermond (27 tackles, 2 TFLs, and one FR) and RS So Chris McKillop (7 tackles) will compete for the other starting DE job opposite Sallet.  RS Jr DE Vernon Botts, who returned to DE after one season at TE in 2004, will complete the two-deep.  The Panthers will deploy a very young and very thin DLine that could unhinge the defense.  


Wannstedt returns all of his specialists.  First Team All-Big East Sr PK Josh Cummings (18 of 27 FGAs and 35 of 37 XPAs) and First Team All-Big East Jr P Adam Graessle (43 yards per punt) provided exceptional kicking as first year starters.  So CB Darrelle Revis (10 yards per return) displaced incumbent PR So Allen Richardson (4 yards per return) late in the 2004 season and will maintain his grip on the job.  RS Sr TB Marcus Furman (22 yards per return and one TD) and RS So WR Terrell Allen, who averages 24 yards per return in 2003 before missing the 2004 season with a wrist injury, will return kickoffs.  The Panthers have a potent kicking game and two promising kick returners in Revis and Allen. 


Pittsburgh has an 11 game schedule with 6 home games.  The Panthers play twice on Thursday – at night at Louisville and at West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl on Thanksgiving.  Pittsburgh also plays twice on Friday night – at Ohio and at Rutgers.  The Panthers gets bye weeks in late October and mid November, before both Thursday games.  Pittsburgh plays six 2004 bowl teams – Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, and West Virginia.  The Panther's non-conference schedule looked formidable several years ago but Notre Dame and Nebraska have lost their luster in recent years.  The conference schedule is a big roadblock to a second BCS bowl appearance as the Panthers play their likely competition – Louisville and West Virginia – on the road.  Pittsburgh has a home slate that it should sweep, with nothing but mediocre opponents.  On the other hand, the road schedule is formidable with visits to Lincoln (Nebraska), Louisville, and Morgantown (West Virginia).  The key to the season is the November road trips to Louisville and Morgantown that will decide Pittsburgh's place in the Big East pecking order.  The Panther schedule is a barbell – heavy on the ends and light in the middle.  Nonetheless, Wannstedt is positioned for a potential BCS run in his initial season but Pittsburgh will have to win some big road games.  

September 3

Notre Dame

September 9

@ Ohio

September 17

@ Nebraska

September 24

Youngstown State

September 30

@ Rutgers

October 8


October 15

South Florida

October 22


November 3

@ Louisville

November 12


November 24

@ West Virginia



I predict Pittsburgh will finish the season with an 8-3 (6-2) record.  Pittsburgh will win a close game against Notre Dame in the season opener as the Panthers will struggle on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  Pittsburgh will lose in Lincoln to a Nebraska team improving after last year's debacle.  The Panthers will string together a five game winning streak before entering November.  However, Pittsburgh will lose at Louisville and at West Virginia, while beating Connecticut in between, to finish in a second place tie with Syracuse and West Virginia.  Pittsburgh will be eligible for the Gator Bowl as the #2 Big East team.  Since the Mountaineers have played in Jacksonville on New Years Day each of the past two years, the Gator Bowl will select Pittsburgh ahead of Syracuse as the more desirable representative.<  Under the Big East's arrangement with Notre Dame, the Gator Bowl could select the Fighting Irish if Notre Dame had no more than one fewer loss than the #2 Big East team.  Notre Dame will not win seven games to be eligible for the Gator Bowl bid.  The Panthers will face the #2 ACC team, Florida State, the Seminoles' second consecutive appearance. 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 4.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the reorganized Syracuse Orangemen, playing for a new head coach for the time in 14 years.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.   

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