Pittsburgh, PA - The nation's third-rated passer and fourth-leading rusher have helped Pittsburgh cruise to its best start in 27 years, but Bill Stull and Dion Lewis are hardly the only two players carrying coach Dave Wannstedt's team.
The 14th-ranked Panthers lead the nation in sacks, and the defense should have another chance to shine Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field against Syracuse, which will try to revive its struggling offense after star receiver Mike Williams unexpectedly left the team.
Oddsmakers from online sports book SBGGLOBAL.com have made Pittsburgh -21 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 80% of bets for this game have been placed on Pittsburgh -21 (View College Football bet percentages).
Pittsburgh (7-1, 4-0 Big East) figured to have a tough time replacing the production of tailback LeSean McCoy, who entered the NFL draft after running for 1,488 yards last season as a redshirt sophomore. Instead, Lewis has delivered in his freshman season, averaging 128.6 yards per game and running for 11 touchdowns.
Stull's ascension has been an even bigger surprise. The Big East's fifth-rated passer (119.9) as a junior in 2008 when he threw more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (10), Stull is now third in the nation in passer rating (161.1) and has thrown 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
"A defense cannot serve two masters," Stull said. "If you try to stop our running game, we're going to be able to make some big plays through the air and vice versa."
While the offense has done its best to be mistake-free - its eight turnovers are tied for ninth-fewest in the nation and Stull's seven sacks are the 10th-fewest - the defense has forced opponents into trouble. Pitt's 33 sacks are equal to its total from 13 games last season.
The Panthers had four in a 41-14 rout of South Florida on Oct. 24 in which they outgained the Bulls 486-212.
"Very few (sacks) are from blitzes. We don't blitz much," Wannstedt said. "I bet you we only blitzed 10 times in the past five weeks. A lot of those sacks are coverage sacks. If we can get two guys back there covering one, the quarterback is going to have to hold the ball."
Pitt hasn't been 8-1 since Dan Marino's senior season in 1982.
The Panthers' secondary should have a much easier time this week considering the Orange (3-5, 0-3) will be missing one of the nation's most dangerous receivers. Williams leads the Big East with 106.6 yards per game but quit the team Monday, two days after being held to four catches for 34 yards in a 28-7 home loss to then-No. 5 Cincinnati.
Williams was recently named as one of 10 finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the nation's top wide receiver, but he's had his share of off-the-field issues. The junior was suspended in June 2008 for violating the university's academic integrity policy and missed all of last season before being readmitted in January.
He has 746 receiving yards - 562 more than second-leading receiver Donte Davis - despite being suspended for a win against Akron on Oct. 24 for violating team rules.
"He walked up to me and voluntarily took himself off the team. That's it," said coach Doug Marrone, who has seen 20 scholarship players exit the team since taking over in December. "I'm not going to discuss the conversation from my end."
Williams' departure leaves a major void in the Orange's offense - 106th in the nation with 312.6 yards per game - and quarterback Greg Paulus has regressed since conference play began. After completing 68.7 percent of his passes, throwing seven TDs against four interceptions and compiling a 143.9 passer rating in five non-conference games, Paulus has seen his completion percentage (58.3) drop off, his rating (97.4) plummet and his interceptions (seven) skyrocket in Big East play.
That inconsistency has prompted Marrone to give redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib, more of a threat to run, some time under center.
"He's kind of their wildcat guy," Wannstedt said. "Paulus is more in control of things out there, but we're going to see both. We could see Nassib a lot more."
Wannstedt's toughest task this week, though, may be making sure his team isn't looking ahead. Pitt's first nine opponents have a combined record of 38-35, but its last three - Notre Dame, West Virginia and Cincinnati - are 20-4, and those games will determine whether it plays in a BCS bowl.
"Syracuse is a conference game, and it is a priority," Wannstedt said. "We used to talk in the NFL that, until this point, it's all talk whether you're a contender or a pretender. I think our guys now should get a taste that we could be a contender."
Pitt has won the past four meetings in the series, while the Orange have lost eight straight to ranked opponents.
Posted: 11/3/09 4:05PM ET