Pittsburgh Panthers Football
2006 Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers
Pittsburgh is a pro town that has a Super Bowl champion football team again. The city isn't going to look too kindly on another losing season from its main college team.
Head coach Dave Wannstedt is a pro coach who realizes when a talent level isn't quite where it's supposed to be. He knows his team has to be faster on defense, stronger against the run, more efficient in the passing game, and far more effective running the ball. In other words, the Panthers have to become the Steelers.
While winning a world championship isn't likely to happen any time soon, being more of a player in the Big East race would do for now. While all the attention will be paid to Louisville and West Virginia and their national title hopes, the road to the Big East championship and the BCS will literally go through Heinz Field.
Pitt might not be as talented as the Mountaineers or Cardinals, but it has some great pieces in place to work around and should be better overall by the end of the season. That means the timing is perfect; the final two games are at home against ... take a guess.
First, take a step back to last year. What went wrong in the 5-6 campaign? Getting blasted by Notre Dame, Louisville and West Virginia didn't turn out to be anything to be ashamed of. There was the nationally televised embarrassment against Ohio losing to an awful Bobcat team 16-10 in overtime because QB Tyler Palko's favorite receiver turned out to be Ohio CB Dion Byrum. A little better execution on special teams would've meant a win at Nebraska. In other words, Pitt was two plays away from being 7-4 with Wannstedt's first season being seen as a success.
The concern, of course, is how the Panthers lost to Rutgers and got pummeled 87-33 by West Virginia and Louisville. Pitt has to be better against the league's top teams considering it was the Big East champion in 2004, and it has to put a stop to the annual dog game, like the one to Ohio last season, that brings the season to a screeching halt.
Palko, LB H.B. Blades, CB Darrelle Revis and P Adam Graessle are among the best players in the conference at their respective positions. Young talent has to emerge at defensive tackle, wide receiver and running back, but the positive is the athleticism; it's better than what was there before. Now if Wannstedt could just find a way to successfully recruit Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Ben Roethlisberger ...
The Schedule: It all leads up to November 16th and the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia followed up by a home date against Louisville a week later. The road games aren't all that bad with only two of the five games against 2005 bowl teams (UCF and South Florida). Virginia, Michigan State, Toledo, and Rutgers all have to come to Pitt. In other words, the schedule works out as well as could possibly be expected.
Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Tyler Palko. He has everything you'd want in a quarterback except the ability to let a bad play go and not press when things get rough. He has the arm, the experience and talent. Now he has to become the type of player who can put a team on his shoulders and carry it to big things. He did it in 2004 and could be in for the same type of season if all the other parts come together.
Best Defensive Player: Senior LB H.B. Blades. One of the nation's best all-around linebackers will try to become the first Pitt player to earn three first-team All-Big East honors. He's big, quick, and is always around the ball with 286 career tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss. He moved from the outside to the middle last season and showed he could also be strong in pass coverage.
Key player to a successful season: Junior CB Kennard Cox, sophomore CB Kelvin Chandler and senior CB Reggie Carter. Junior corner Darrelle Revis is one of the nation's most talented all-around defenders. Teams know this and aren't going to throw at him. That means Pitt needs someone else to quickly step up in place of all-star Bernard "Josh" Lay on the other side if the pass defense is going to come close to finishing second in the nation like it did last season.
The season will be a success if ... Pitt wins the Big East title. Crank the expectations up a notch. The team should be an experienced, hardened squad by mid-November. It's not often you get ten games to prepare for your two biggest home games.
Key game: November 16th vs. West Virginia. The Mountaineers have won three of the last four in the series and might be in the mix for the national title when it makes the trip to Pittsburgh. The Panthers' game against Louisville the following week won't mean much if they can't win the Backyard Brawl.
2005 Fun Stats:
- Punt return average: Opponents 17.1 yards per return - Pitt 11.3 yards per return
- Penalties: Opponents 89 for 771 yards - Pitt 69 for 593 yards
- Fumbles: Pitt 26 (lost 15) - Opponents 12 (lost 6)