I just finished speaking with John Steigerwald on TribLive Radio, and he asked me an interesting question:
Would a Pitt loss to Rutgers on Saturday be a disaster for the Panthers?
I hadn’t thought about this game in those terms, largely because I don’t expect Pitt to lose. But strange things happen in New Jersey, even with Tony Soprano off cable. It wasn’t that long ago — three years, actually — that Rutgers had a four-game winning streak against the Panthers.
To answer John’s question, no, it would’t be a disaster — unless it causes an actual hurricane or earthquake. But, yes, it would be horrible in a football and program-growing sense for Pitt to lose to a team that was picked to finish last — by a wide margin — in the Big East preseason media poll.
The goal is to win the conference championship, go to a BCS bowl and validate coach Todd Graham’s way of doing things. Fans are so hungry for another bite of the BCS apple that falling short of that goal would create much finger-pointing among the fan base.
Graham is on the right track in putting together an attractive program, so he doesn’t want or need a loss to a bad team, even if Hopewell running back Rushel Shell announces his intentions to attend Pitt long before the end of the season (next Friday is Christmas Day, by the way). A loss that drops Pitt to 3-3 wouldn’t be much of a selling point on the recruiting trail.
I don’t think Pitt will lose this game — someone even told me that the Panthers should win by 30 points, given the disparity in talent.
But here’s how it might happen:
The Pitt offensive line, manned by four first-season starters, gets confused by Rutgers various blitzes and defensive line stunts and allows four or more sacks. Hey, it could happen — Rutgers already has 14 sacks in four games.
Other than that, though, I can’t see it.
Pitt has clear talent advantages at almost every position, even the inexperienced offensive line. Those positions also include quarterback, where Rutgers coach Greg Schiano hasn’t announced his choice between Chas Dodd and Gary Nova, and running back where the Scarlet Knights’ Jawan Jamison is 89th in the nation with an average of 66.3 yards per game.
If Pitt’s defense can contain Rutgers wide receiver Mohammed Sanu (43 receptions, 428 yards and five touchdowns) such as it bottled up Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd two weeks ago, Rutgers may not score a touchdown.
I expect safety Jarred Holley and outside linebackers Brandon Lindsey and Todd Thomas to play their best games of the season Saturday — and that’s saying something, because Holley has been outstanding through five games already.
Call it Pitt 24, Rutgers 10 as the Panthers hit the halfway mark of the season.