|Big Macs leading No. 25 Pitt's resurgence|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 19 August 2008 09:51|
Next up: Proving they're not one-game wonders.
The only problem with that upset-of-a-lifetime 13-9 victory over the then-No. 2 Mountaineers on Dec. 1 was there was no game to follow. No momentum lift for the rest of the season, no bowl game, no more LeSean McCoy long runs to preserve on DVDs for recruits to watch.
No, Pitt has waited through a recruiting season, spring football and, now, summer camp to build off a victory that was largely responsible for the Panthers' first preseason Top 25 ranking since coach Dave Wannstedt's first season in 2005.
Think that one game didn't make a difference? Without it, the Panthers would have been 4-8 instead of 5-7 in 2007, and there likely would be no talk of them being ready to turn the corner following three consecutive non-winning seasons.
The upset improved their recruiting, boosted the ticket-selling (the No. 25 Panthers expect a big upsurge in sales) and upgraded their national image following a third consecutive bowl-less season.
What's left for Wannstedt, a skilled recruiter who has yet to translate that off-field success into consistency on the field, is to put a good season together - one that lacks the peaks and valleys of the past three and shows Pitt is ready to become an Eastern power again.
``We've got to get back in the bowl picture,'' Wannstedt said.
The underpinnings of an excellent offense, defense and special teams are there. So are the Big Macs, McCoy and defensive star Scott McKillop.
McCoy, the game-altering back Pitt has lacked for years, ran for 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns and had 1,572 all-purpose yards in the best season by a Pitt freshman running back since Tony Dorsett in 1973.
McCoy, unlike most freshmen, got his yards against poor teams, average teams and good ones. He got the big yards at the key times in the West Virginia game that the Mountaineers' Steve Slaton couldn't. He outgained Slaton, who had rushed for 200-plus yards against Pitt the previous two seasons, 148-11.
``He's a six-point threat every time he touches the ball,'' McKillop said.
One difference: McCoy will be without his top two blockers in tackles Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn, both of whom were drafted by NFL teams - Otah in the first round, McGlynn in the fourth. Starting tackle Jason Pinkston is back after a shoulder injury ended his season in Week 3, and Joe Thomas moves from guard to tackle, though he was being pushed in training camp by freshman Lucas Nix.
``We're still bringing the offensive line together,'' Wannstedt said.
McCoy was a virtual one-man offense at times after freshman Pat Bostick was forced to start most of the way following Bill Stull's season-ending thumb injury in the opener.
Now, Stull is back as the starter and, unlike last season, there's a proven backup behind him in the still-developing Bostick, who directed the West Virginia upset. Also back is Derek Kinder, an all-Big East receiver who blew out a knee on the opening day of preseason camp last August and missed the season.
``I like to think he's smarter and a little stronger,'' Wannstedt said of Stull. ``I like his mindset. We're making good decisions using the people around him.''
There's more, as Pitt adds top recruit Jonathan Baldwin, a 6-foot-6 receiver who is pushing to get on the field immediately.
``You can see him getting better,'' Wannstedt said.
Defensively, seven starters - led by tackler par excellence McKillop - return from the unit that was No. 5 nationally. There is a new coordinator, with former SMU coach Phil Bennett replacing Paul Rhoads, who moved to Auburn.
McKillop is as important to the defense as McCoy is to the offense. He led the nation by averaging more than 12 tackles per game, and it seemed no blocking scheme was effective against him and his instinctive skills.
McKillop, from suburban Pittsburgh, also proves that the number of stars in one's high school recruiting ranking don't always matter; he was never considered as an elite, five-star recruit.
The kicking game also looks to be in good shape with Conor Lee, who kicked 18 field goals last season, and punter Dave Brytus, who placed 18 punts inside the 20.
The schedule isn't easy, despite a season-opening home stretch of Bowling Green, Buffalo and Iowa. The Panthers go on the road for their next three: Syracuse, South Florida and Navy, which won in Pittsburgh last season.
Key Big East opponents West Virginia and Louisville travel to Heinz Field, but Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Connecticut are on the road. The Irish are back on the schedule after the Panthers missed out on playing the worst Notre Dame team in decades last year.