Here are some notes and analysis from the Panthers’ 24-17 victory at Rutgers on Friday night, snapping a four-game losing streak to the Scarlet Knights.
** First, let’s start with a look ahead to USF (5-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Heinz Field. Pitt (6-1, 3-0) is all alone in first place, setting the stage for one of the biggest college football games in Pittsburgh in many years – and possibly the first meeting between two ranked teams at Heinz Field in nearly six years.
** Pitt is virtually certain to enter the game with a top 25 ranking. At least four teams ranked No. 20-25 in the most recent AP poll lost this week (Oklahoma, USF, South Carolina and Notre Dame), so Pitt is poised to be ranked for the first time this season when the poll is released Sunday. Pitt was No. 26 – or first among others receiving votes – in last week’s poll with 58 points.
Among the teams that could possibly leapfrog Pitt, West Virginia (46 points) and Mississippi (28 points) both won, but they each beat overmatched C-USA teams (Marshall and UAB). Two other highly-placed teams receiving votes (Auburn and Wisconsin) each lost. That means the Panthers are definitely in the AP top 25.
** As for USF, the Bulls could stick around in the top 25 despite Thursday’s loss to Cincinnati. The Bulls were ranked No. 20 last week, but two teams ranked below them (South Carolina and ND) lost. It will be a tight vote for USF.
** If USF holds its end of the bargain, it will be the first time since 2003 that Pitt will host a game at Heinz Field between two ranked teams. It has happened only three times since the stadium opened eight years ago – once in 2002 and twice in 2003. No. 17 Pitt lost to No. 24 West Virginia, 24-17, on Nov. 30, 2002; No. 25 Pitt beat No. 5 Virginia Tech, 31-28, on Nov. 8, 2003, and No. 20 Pitt lost to No. 10 Miami, 28-14, on Nov. 29, 2003.
It will be a huge game no matter what the rankings say, but it will add a little juice to the matter if both schools have a little number to the left of their name on the scrolling scores on ESPN.
** Pitt is 1-3 at Heinz Field in the past four years when ranked in the AP Top 25. The No. 20 Panthers beat West Virginia, 19-15, last year. They lost to Rutgers and Bowling Green last season while ranked, and fell to Notre Dame in 2005 as a top-25 team.
** As for Friday night, freshman tailback Dion Lewis, with his 180-yard game, has rushed for 918 yards and is on pace to finish with 1,574 yards, which would be the most since Craig Heyward went for 1,791 in 1987. Heading into Saturday’s game, Lewis led all FBS rushers in rushing yards.
** Moments after praising his team for their staunch effort against a team they hadn’t beaten since 2004, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said he wants more. “We have not played our best football,” Wannstedt said. “We can play a lot better. I always preach to the guys we are going to play our best football the last game of the season.”
The coach had a point. Once again, Pitt made it more difficult on itself than it had to be. The Panthers missed two field goals (albeit one a 42-yarder). They lost a fumble (Bill Stull) and had a punt blocked while holding a 24-10 second-half lead. They dropped a certain interception for a touchdown (Jovani Chappel) and misplayed a punt return into a turnover (Dom DeCicco).
The defense looked bewildered when Rutgers opened the game in the Wildcat – “They had us on our heels in the beginning,” Wannstedt said – and Max Gruder missed at least two sacks and middle linebacker Adam Gunn got burned on a crossing pattern that turned into a 31-yard gain in the second quarter.
As for the flags, there was a pass interference call on Ricky Gary, a personal foul on John Malecki (his first penalty of the season), a roughing the passer on Jabaal Sheard and Greg Williams jumped offsides on a first and goal from the Pitt 7.
Despite all that, the Panthers dominated the Scarlet Knights. They outrushed them 223-
38, and held them (averaging 183 rushing yards per game) to seven yards on nine carries in the second half. They were clearly the better team.
** DeCicco, hit in the foot by a punt at the Pitt 11 leading to a Rutgers touchdown, atoned nicely with an interception (Pitt’s first in five games), and finished with 10 tackles, including two for losses.
** Tight end Dorin Dickerson leads the Big East with eight touchdown receptions. That is most by a Pitt tight end since Kris Wilson caught nine in 2003.
** Despite blocking for 180-yard rusher Dion Lewis, fullback Henry Hynoski had his most productive game of the season. He carried five times for 29 yards and caught four passes for 36 yards.
** Stull also took part in the running game. He rushed four times for a career-high 18 yards, including a huge, career-best 16-yard dash on third-and-11 in the first quarter when he went Russell Wilson on the Scarlet Knights. He also scrambled 11 yards on a third-and-4 in the third quarter.
** How odd was it when Rutgers free safety Khaseem Greene, who is Pitt tailback Ray Graham’s brother, sacked Stull late in the third quarter and sent him to the trainers with a tingling elbow (funny bone). Earlier in the game, Greene tackled Graham at the end of a 5-yard pass play.