Bouncing Back

This was supposed to be Pitt's year. The prodigal son, head coach Dave Wannstedt, had returned home to lead the Panthers back to glory, and for the first time since a man named Marino was throwing the football, there was as much excitement in the Steel City over Pitt football as there was surrounding the Steelers.

Pitt was coming off a 2004 season in which it won eight games and played in the Fiesta Bowl against Utah. Also Pittsburgh had a former professional football coach at the helm, and its quarterback, Tyler Palko, was being heralded as a possible Heisman Trophy frontrunner. That excitement led to a packed Heinz Field for the season opener, as a crowd of more than 66,000 fans overloaded the facility to see the new-look Panthers take on Notre Dame. A 42-21 Fighting Irish rout, however, left many fans wondering why they had let themselves get so excited over Pitt football once again, and the frustration only grew from there.

The Panthers proceeded to lose three of their next four games, including defeats to Ohio University (16-10 in overtime), Nebraska (7-6) and Rutgers (37-29), and the city was up in arms as the Panthers were sitting at 1-4.

Things have slowly begun to turn around, as Pitt has won four of its last contests, with the only loss coming on the road at Louisville (42- 20). After averaging just 12.3 points per game in its first three contests, Pitt has rebounded to average 30.6 points per game since that point. Much of the turnaround can be credited to the star of this Pitt team, junior quarterback Tyler Palko, who has undergone a transformation of his own.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders, the left-handed signal caller, who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season, stumbled mightily out of the blocks. The Imperial, Pa., native threw just one touchdown pass while tossing four interceptions in Pitt's first three games, and he completed just 51 percent of his throws over that stretch.

Since that ugly start, though, Palko has returned to his old form and has thrown 13 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions in the last six games. He is averaging 239 yards passing during that stretch, and he has completed 113 of 191 passes.

In the wins over Cincinnati, South Florida and Syracuse and a loss to Louisville, Palko has thrown six touchdown passes and rushed for four more. He is currently tied with Louisville's Brian Brohm and Rutgers' Ryan Hart for the Big East lead with 14 touchdowns on the year.

Palko's efforts have been aided by a veteran corps of receivers, which includes one of the Big East's top playmakers in junior Greg Lee. The Tampa, Fla., product, who caught 68 balls for 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, has picked up right where he left off and already has four 100-yard receiving performances this year, making him the Big East's active leader with 10 career 100-yard receiving games. Lee, who is now Pitt's No. 5 alltime leading receiver, is the team leader with 41 receptions for 805 yards and five touchdowns in nine games. He leads the Big East in receiving yards per game (89.4), and he is second in catches per game (4.56).

Six-foot-one-inch, 200-pound sophomore Derek Kinder is Palko's second favorite target, and he has pulled in 30 catches for 310 yards and three touchdowns on the year. Pitt has also found production from its tight ends in the passing game. Senior Erik Gill, who has played in every game during his active career (47), has 15 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown, while sophomore Darrell Strong has caught one ball for 219 yards and a score.

Passing may be this offense's forte – Pitt is averaging more than 220 yards per game through the air – but Wannstedt is determined to find a way to get his running game headed in the right direction. Pitt has not put a 1,000-yard rusher on the field since 2000, and that is not about to change this season. The Panthers are averaging just 120 yards per game on the ground, and its leading rusher has just 367 yards on the year.
Game Info
WVU 8-1, 5-0
UP 5-5, 4-2
Thu 11/24/05 8:00 p.m.
Mountaineer Field at
Milan Puskar Stadium
Series: Pitt 59-35-3
BCS: WVU-11 UP-65
Line: WVU -13
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It appears as though Pitt has found the answer, though, as freshman LaRod Stephens-Howling, a waterbug tailback with explosive speed and quick feet, has started the last few games and performed very well. The true freshman, who was an All-Pennsylvania pick during his high school career at Greater Johnstown, has gained 367 yards on 76 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per tote. His biggest game came against Syracuse, where he rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries after missing consecutive games with an ankle injury.

Another true freshman, Rashad Jennings, began the season as the starting tailback, becoming just the fourth true freshman to start a season-opening game at the tailback position in Pitt history. A shoulder injury, however, caused Jennings to miss the Nebraska, Youngstown State and Rutgers games, and he has not returned to the starting job since. On the year Jennings has 316 yards on 66 carries in six games played.

The most experienced tailback is senior Raymond Kirkley, who has also seen plenty of action in the Panthers' backfield. Kirkley is the team's second-leading rusher in 2005, totaling 325 yards on 74 carries, and he has scored two touchdowns in seven games of action. A neck strain forced him to miss the starts against Syracuse and Louisville, but it is expected that he will be back in the lineup for the Backyard Brawl.

Senior Tim Murphy is the starter at fullback, and at times he is a part of the Pitt running game, even lining up at tailback for some plays. The Akron, Ohio, product has 114 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries this year. He is also a threat in the passing game, hauling in 11 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.

This year's Panther line is much trimmer after Wannstedt demanded that it lose some weight upon his arrival in the ‘Burgh. All-Big East guard Charles Spencer has moved to left tackle to replace Rob Petitti, who filled the spot for four straight years. The senior has now started 21 contests in his Pitt career. Sophomore Mike McGlynn fills the right tackle spot for the second straight season, and he is also the long snapper on field goals and extra point attempts. John Simonitis will be beside him at right guard for another year. He is Pitt's most experienced lineman, having played in 31 games over the course of his career as a Panther.

The center spot is filled by former walk-on Joe Villani, who was put on scholarship prior to the start of the season, and freshman C.J. Davis has started the last four games at left guard after Dominic Williams went down with an ankle injury.

The line is certainly one of the big question marks on this team, and it may be a major reason why Pitt has failed to field a consistent attack on the ground. Aside from the problems with the running game, the Panther front five have allowed Palko to be sacked 27 times in nine games.

On defense, coordinator Paul Rhoads relies on a veteran secondary to make plays and provide leadership. Three of four starters returned from the 2004 team, including corners Josh Lay and Darrelle Revis. The unit has made the most of its experience, and it ranks seventh nationally in pass defense, yielding just 164.9 yards per game.

Revis alone ranks 18th in the land with an average of .44 interceptions per game (four total picks on the year). Despite the fact that opposing quarterbacks often look in the other direction, Revis is second on the team with 11 passes defended this year. The sophomore ranks second on the Pitt team with two fumble recoveries and he has 37 tackles to his credit.

Senior Bernard "Josh" Lay was a 2004 all-Big East performer, and he has shown no signs of a letdown this season. He currently boasts 19 tackles and 12 passes defended, and he is tied for the No. 12 spot in the nation with an average of 1.33 passes defended per game.

Providing help to these corners are a pair of talented safeties in Tez Morris and Sam Bryant. Morris, who is a four-year starter at the free safety position, ranks seventh all-time at Pitt with 353 career tackles. He is the second leading tackler on the team this year with 68 stops, and he is tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles.

Bryant replaced sophomore Mike Phillips at the strong safety spot after Philips injured his ankle against Nebraska. The junior has started six straight games, and he has 32 tackles and two interceptions on the year.
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Pressure on the quarterback has also played a part in Pitt's success against the pass, and with an undersized front five, much of that responsibility has been put on the shoulders of an experienced linebacking corps.

Junior H.B. Blades, who led the team with 198 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions in 2004, is the leader at that position. The move to the middle linebacker spot has had little affect on his astonishing numbers. He is ranked 11th nationally with an average of 12 tackles per game, and his 108 stops are by far the most in the Big East. Tackling is not all he does, as he also has an interception and five pass breakups on the season to go along with two fumble recoveries and a sack.

Senior J.J. Horne starts at the will linebacker position, and he is the team's third-leading tackler with 43 stops. The six-foot-three-inch, 230- pound linebacker, who recorded eight tackles against WVU in 2003, also has two interceptions and a fumble recovery on the year.

At the Sam linebacker position, sophomore Derron Thomas will get the start against the Mountaineers. The team's fourth-leading tackler (39) has started every game this year, and he leads the Pitt team with 5.5 tackles for loss.

One of Pitt's most experienced linebackers, junior Clint Session, has missed the majority of the season after suffering a knee injury in the preseason and then hurting his shine recently.

The weakness of the Pitt defense may be its line, which has done little to stop the run or put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Pitt has recorded just 18 sacks in nine games, and opponents are averaging more than 160 yards per game on the ground.

The middle of the front four contains the most experience, with seniors Thomas Smith and Phil Tillman filling the defensive tackle positions.

Smith was a two-year starter at defensive end before making the move to tackle this season. He has started seven games at that spot, recording 29 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack this year. He did not play against Louisville because of a dislocated toe, but his health should be back to normal by the time the Panthers face the Mountaineers.

Tillman has started the last eight games at the other tackle spot, and he has 32 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack on the year.

The ends of the Pitt defensive line are not as experienced. Sophomore Chris McKillop is the starter at one end, with junior Charles Sallet on the other. McKillop has played fullback and linebacker in previous seasons at Pitt but moved to defensive end in the spring. The 6-3, 245-pounder may be undersized, but he leads the Panther defensive line with 38 tackles, and he is second on the team with 2.5 sacks.

Sallet, who missed the Syracuse game with a knee injury, has 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks on the year.

Without the ability to dominate opponents with their physical play on defense, the Panthers have had to rely a great deal on forcing the opposition into making mistakes. After forcing just four turnovers (all interceptions) in the first five games, Pitt has turned up the heat to for six interceptions and six fumbles in its last four contests.

The Panthers rank 25th nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 325.22 yards per game.

Special teams have been a bright spot, especially after placekicker Josh Cummings returned to the lineup after missing two games after undergoing knee surgery. Cummins leads the Panthers in scoring with 54 points, and he has connected on 13-of-17 field goal attempts.

Pitt's kickoff return game ranks second in the Big East and 21st nationally, averaging 24.03 yards per return. Terrell Allen leads the Panthers with a 24.9-yard kick return average. Pitt has returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season, the first time since 1977. The key to beating Pitt appears to be finding a way to pull ahead early. The Panthers have been outscored 67-36 in the opening quarter, but they have defeated opponents 51-16 in the final 15 minutes.

The Thanksgiving Night clash between the Mountaineers and the Panthers will be the 98th edition of the Backyard Brawl. Pitt holds the overall lead in the series 59-35-3, but West Virginia has won nine of the last 13 games in the series. Pitt snapped a two-game losing streak last season when it dealt the Mountaineers a 16-13 loss in the 2004 regular season finale.

The border schools have met every year since 1943, and the series dates back to 1895, when West Virginia won 8-0 in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The longest winning streak in the series came between 1929 and 1946 when Pitt won 15 straight Backyard Brawls. WVU ended that run with a 17-2 victory in 1947.

The season has unfolded to create even more drama for this year's game. Pitt needs a win if it hopes to keep any thoughts of a bowl bid alive, and WVU has to have the victory to continue its quest for a BCS game. The 2005 Backyard Brawl should be another classic game in a great series.

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