Things Looking Up

For a team that finished last season 5-7 and home for the holidays, Pittsburgh is surrounded by plenty of optimism as it begins its fourth year under coach Dave Wannstedt.

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Though Wannstedt's squad didn't qualify for a bowl game, it ended last season with a much more significant victory.

After closing 2007 with a win that kept its biggest rival out of the national championship game, the 25th-ranked Panthers start 2008 with visions of a Big East title as they open their non-conference slate Saturday against visiting Bowling Green.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Pittsburgh -12.5 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 91% of bets for this game have been placed on Pittsburgh -12.5 (View College Football bet percentages).

Pittsburgh rolled to a pair of easy wins at the start of last season, then endured a 2-7 stretch over the next two months, losing four games by a touchdown or less.

A loss to South Florida on Nov. 24 ensured the Panthers would miss out on a bowl game for the third time in as many seasons under Wannstedt. But they still had their annual regular season finale to play against hated rival West Virginia, a team that was a win away from clinching a spot in the BCS title game.

The Mountaineers hung 45 points on Pitt in each of their first two meetings with Wannstedt at the helm, but the Panthers defense didn't let that happen again. Pitt forced three fumbles, controlled the clock with 148 yards from star freshman tailback LeSean McCoy, and knocked off No. 2 West Virginia 13-9.

The win helped the Panthers solidify an excellent recruiting class and vault them to a spot in the preseason AP Top 25, but Wannstedt believes that victory will be quickly forgotten.

"That game will be the last thing on a player's mind," he said. "That game helped us finalize our recruiting class and helped us springboard into our offseason program. It won't do anything for us when we line up to play Bowling Green."

Wannstedt has long been known as an excellent recruiter, and persuading McCoy to come to Pitt in 2007 over more high-profile programs may be his biggest recruiting accomplishment.

McCoy set a Big East rushing record as a freshman, gaining 1,328 yards. He didn't take over the starting job full-time until five games into the season, but still became just the second Panthers freshman to surpass 1,300 yards, trailing only Tony Dorsett, who ran for 1,686 yards in 1973.

"There's definitely been a tremendous change from this time last year to now," McCoy said. "All the hype, the attention. I'm not a secret to anybody now. They all know what I can do."

Fellow freshman Pat Bostick was the starting quarterback for the final seven games of the season, but the offense will be back in the hands of junior Bill Stull to start 2008. Stull suffered a season-ending thumb injury in his first game last year, but has looked good in camp.

"I like to think he's smarter and a little stronger," Wannstedt said. "I like his mindset. We're making good decisions using the people around him."

Stull isn't the only Pitt player coming off a significant injury. Star receiver Derek Kinder, an all-Big East selection in 2006, blew out his knee on the opening day of preseason camp last August and didn't play one down.

With Kinder, junior Oderick Turner and 6-foot-5 freshman Jonathan Baldwin, Stull will have plenty of playmaking options when he isn't handing the ball to McCoy.

Pitt's defense allowed 297.7 yards per game last season to rank fifth nationally, and should be solid once again. The unit is led by senior linebacker Scott McKillop, who led the country in tackles per game last season (12.6) and was a unanimous pick for the preseason all-Big East first team.

That defense should be tested against Bowling Green (8-5), which is the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference's East Division. The Falcons had the MAC's second-best passing attack, producing 278.8 yards per game, and have junior quarterback Tyler Sheehan returning.

Sheehan was named the conference's offensive player of the week three times in 2007, throwing for 3,264 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes.

Bowling Green returns seven of its top eight tacklers, but coach Gregg Brandon needs improvement from his defense for the Falcons to be competitive. They allowed 29.5 points and 413.0 yards per game in 2007, ranking in the bottom half of the MAC in both categories.

Bowling Green's season ended on a low note, giving up 562 yards in a 63-7 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl.

The only meetings between these teams were Pittsburgh victories in 1999 and 2000.

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