Big East Preview - Part 4

This is the fourth 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 notoriously underachieving Pittsburgh. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

 

PITTSBURGH PANTHERS PREVIEW 

Head Coach Walt Harris has done an admirable job rebuilding the recently downtrodden Pittsburgh football program.  The sudden decline of Penn State can, in no small way, be attributed to the success Harris has achieved recruiting to Pittsburgh top talent from Pennsylvania, often beating Penn State head-to-head.  Harris has substantially upgraded the talent level to among the best in the Big East.  Yet, the Panthers never seem capable of playing to their potential.  Every season, Pittsburgh seemingly lays a couple eggs – either bumbling through or outright losing games it should easily win.  Last season, Pittsburgh stumbled out to a 1-5 start that included a shocking upset loss to South Florida, a bad loss to a bad Notre Dame team, and blowout losses to supposed Big East peers Boston College and Syracuse.  Harris managed to rally his troops to a 6-5 record and a Tangerine Bowl bid, where the Panthers defeated North Carolina State 34-19.

Under Harris, Pittsburgh has been more known for its offense rather than its defense.  The offense has employed a prolific passing attack.  The running game disappeared last season and an early-season ankle injury to Biletnikoff Award winner Antonio Bryant crippled the passing game.  The Panther offense found its rhythm and rediscovered its rushing attack during its 6-game winning streak.  Uncharacteristically, the defense was the better unit last season but, like the offense, also struggled through the 5-game losing streak.  The Pittsburgh defense is yet another unit that crowds the line of scrimmage in an attempt to overwhelm the offense with speed and pressure.  The Panthers seek to capitalize upon the momentum generated by the 6-game winning streak.  Harris loses only 7 starters off of one of the nation's hottest teams.  Here's a look at the notoriously underachieving Pittsburgh Panthers.   

 

OFFENSE

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

  • 24 points per game (#5 in the Big East and #79 of 115 in Division 1A)
  • 345 yards per game (#5 in the Big East and #82 in Division 1A)
  • 123 rushing yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #84 in Division 1A)
  • 221 passing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #56 in Division 1A)

Pittsburgh returns it starting OLine intact.  Sr C Chad Reed and RS Sr RG Bryan Anderson (34 starts) lead a young but experienced unit.  RS Jr LG Dan LaCarte will start opposite of Anderson.  Freshman All-American RS So LT Rob Petitti and RS Jr RT Matt Morgan will man the edges.  The backups are also experienced.  Given the dramatic improvement Pitt's offense demonstrated as its young OLine gained experience, I would expect this unit to continue improving.  The OLine will be the strength of the Panther offense.  Harris would be wise to continue using the more balanced offense he relied upon during the winning streak last season. 

Pittsburgh entered the 2001 season with a backfield that lacked proven depth but finished the season averaging 143 yards per game during the 6-game winning streak.  The Panther backfield returns intact, augmented by new players.  So TB Raymond Kirkley (155 carries for 645 yards and 3 TDs) emerged from a crowded competition to claim the starting TB job last season.  Alabama transfer RS Jr TB Brandon Miree will join Kirkley in the backfield.  RS Jr FB Lousaka Polite (22 carries for 77 yards) returns but will have to hold off RS So FB Dustin Picciotti for the starting job.  Considered among the best FBs in his recruiting class, Picciotti missed last season while recovering from concussions sustained in summer camp.  A perceived weakness last season, the Panther backfield will be a strength this season and should ease pressure on the retooled passing game. 

The receiving corps has been the strength of the Panther offense in recent years.  Not so this season as Pittsburgh lost 1st Team All-Big East WR Antonio Bryant and WR RJ English.  The passing game struggled when Bryant missed games with an ankle injury early in the season.  The backups weren't remotely capable of picking up the slack.  RS Jr TE Kris Wilson (19 receptions for 272 yards and 2 TDs) returns but his backups are inexperienced.  Sr WR Lamar Slade (27 receptions for 226 yards and one TD) will be a starter but his yardage indicates that he is more of a possession receiver and not a home run threat.  The battle for the starting WR job opposite Slade is wide open between Jr Yogi Roth (11 receptions for 291 yards), So Roosevelt Bynes (3 receptions for 94 yards and one TD), JUCO transfer Jr Princell Brockenbrough, RS Fr Joe Stephens, and true Fr Larry Fitzgerald.  Brockenbrough and Fitzgerald are both highly-touted recruits who could leap to the top of the depth chart but Brockenbrough is still recovering from ACL surgery performed in January.  Unless a gamebreaker emerges at WR, that lack of firepower in the Panther receiving corps will give an unfamiliar, ball-control flavor to the Pittsburgh offense. 

Pittsburgh lost 3-year starter QB David Priestly.  RS Jr QB Rod Rutherford (19 of 59 for 262 yards, one TD, and 4 INTs) will open the season as the starter.  While Rutherford is a dangerous runner and thus poses an option threat (81 carries for 255 yards and 6 TDs), his passing statistics have been unimpressive.  If Rutherford struggles, expect Harris to employ a quick hook and replace Rutherford with RS So Pat Hoderny or even true Fr Tyler Palko.  I have not been impressed with Harris' "Captain Hook" approach to QB development.  I think that Harris is a perfectionist who doesn't nurture confidence in young QBs.  This will be an interesting story to watch unfold.  

 

DEFENSE

Pittsburgh lost 4 starters from a balanced and stingy squad: 

  • 21 points per game (#5 in the Big East and #28 in Division 1A)
  • 285 yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #7 in Division 1A)
  • 119 rushing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #26 in Division 1A)
  • 166 passing yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #6 in Division 1A)

Pittsburgh returns its starting LB corps intact, led by 1st Team All-Big East Sr MLB Gerald Hayes (104 tackles and 7 sacks).  RS Jr SLB Lewis Moore (67 tackles and 4.5 sacks) and RS Sr WLB Brian Beinecke (48 tackles) will flank Hayes.  The Panthers did lose their entire second unit so depth and experience among the backups is a concern.  Harris moved RS So TB Malcolm Postell and So TB Mike Jemison to LB this spring to plug holes on the depth chart.  True Fr LBs Azzie Beagnyam and Charles Sallet may also crack the two-deep.  While Pittsburgh's first unit will rival Miami's as the conference's best LB unit, the Panthers can't afford injuries because the backups are woefully inexperienced. 

Pittsburgh's secondary suffered a major defection when 1st Team All-Big East Jr FS Ramon Walker declared early for the NFL draft.  SS Mark Ponko also departed.  Starters Sr CB Torrie Cox (48 tackles and one INT) and Jr CB Shawntae Spencer (25 tackles and one INT) both return to anchor the secondary.  RS Sr CB Shawn Robinson (17 tackles) will be the primary backup behind Cox and Spencer.  Pittsburgh took two more hits at safety when Sr FS Gary Urschler and RS Jr SS Corey Humphries suffered season-ending ACL injuries in spring camp.  So SS Tyrone Gilliard (12 tackles) and either Jr Tutu Ferguson (18 tackles) or RS Fr Tez Morris will likely start at FS.  The attrition at safety will force Harris to juggle his lineup and possibly play true freshmen on the two-deep. 

Pittsburgh lost two starters off its undersized but aggressive DLine – DE Bryan Knight and DT Joe Conlin.  The Panthers return starting DT So Tyre Young (23 tackles).  RS Jr DT Darrell McMurray (17 tackles) will likely start alongside Young.  Sr DE Brian Guzek (48 tackles and 2 sacks) and RS Sr DE Ryan Smith (33 tackles and 3 sacks) were co-starters last season.  Each should start at DE this season if Smith is recovered from a shoulder injury.  RS Jr DE Claude Herriott (19 tackles and one sack) will be the primary backup, with RS Fr DE Kevin Harris and RS Fr DE Thomas Smith battling for the other backup job.  Four redshirt or true sophomores will battle for the backup DT jobs.  The DLine will be deep and experienced on the edges but young and raw in the middle.   

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Panthers return Jr P Andy Lee (41 yards per punt) and Sr KR Torrie Cox (24 yards per kickoff).  Pittsburgh must replace departed PK Nick Lotz and PR Antonio Bryant.  True Fr David Abdul will battle two walk-ons for the PK job.  Jr PR Yogi Roth will likely replace Bryant.  If Pitt is going to rely upon a ball-control offense and its defense to win games, then the young, inexperienced PK will be pivotal. 

 

SCHEDULE

Pittsburgh has a full 12 game schedule with 7 home games.  The Panthers play once on a Thursday night – at Miami – after a bye week.  Pittsburgh has another bye week in mid-October.  The Panthers have a moderate non-conference schedule – only Texas A&M provides daunting opposition while Toledo and Notre Dame provide serious opposition.  The home schedule has two key games –Texas A&M and Boston College.  The road schedule is a death march – at Syracuse, at Notre Dame, at Virginia Tech, and at Miami.  A four game stretch at Syracuse, at Notre Dame, vs Boston College, and at Virginia Tech is the key to the Pittsburgh schedule.   

August 31

Ohio

September 7

Texas A&M

September 14

@ Alabama-Birmingham

September 21

Rutgers

September 28

Toledo

October 5

@ Syracuse

October 12

@ Notre Dame

October 26

Boston College

November 2

@ Virginia Tech

November 9

Temple

November 21

@ Miami

November 30

West Virginia

  

PREDICTION

I predict Pittsburgh will finish the season with a 7-5 (3-4) record.  The schedule is not favorable as Pitt will be hard-pressed both at home and on the road.  The home game against Boston College will be the most important conference game for Pittsburgh, as it could vault the Panthers into a 2nd place tie with the Eagles.  I think quarterbacking will be decisive in the game but Pittsburgh will prove deficient in that area.  The road game at Syracuse is nearly as important to Pittsburgh because the Panthers may not possess enough extra talent to beat a slightly inferior Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome.  If these two games were reversed (away and home), Pittsburgh would much more likely split these games.  Instead, they will likely lose both.  A road loss at Virginia Tech is also likely.  Pittsburgh must be opportunistic to win more than three conference games.  They are playing against a rigged schedule. 

The road game at Notre Dame is the key to the non-conference schedule.  While the Panthers play Texas A&M at home, the Aggies have too much talent and the early season game will enable the Aggies to capitalize on shaky Panther QB play.  The Panthers should have crushed a bad Notre Dame last season but instead laid an egg.  The 24-7 score was not indicative of the relative talent levels.  Plus, Pittsburgh has been outrecruiting Notre Dame in recent years so that should tip the scales further in Pittsburgh's favor.  Pittsburgh's defensive pressure will overwhelm an Irish offense adjusting to a system it doesn't have the talent to operate.  Pitt will win a close game.  The Panthers will be fortunate to split these two games.  If these two games were reversed (away and home), Pittsburgh would much more likely win one game.  Perhaps the biggest land mine in Pittsburgh's schedule is the home game against recent giant-killer Toledo – this is exactly the kind of opponent the Panthers take too lightly. 

Notre Dame will not be a factor in the Big East bowl lineup this year.  Boston College and Pittsburgh will ensure that outcome.  Pittsburgh will be chosen to play in the inaugural San Francisco Bowl.  Pittsburgh will play the Colorado State Rams (Mountain West #3). 

 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 5.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the badly depleted Syracuse Orangemen.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 

Please send any comments to bump86@earthlink.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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