Pitt has gone from having tons of questions offensively in the first three games of the season to having a lot of answers in the second three games.
In recent contests against Florida International, Notre Dame and Syracuse, Pitt has put up 1,240 yards of offense and averaged over 35 points a game. The reshaped offensive line, first-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri and running back duo of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham have clicked at a high rate.
Despite all that, coach Dave Wannstedt says numbers won’t come easy this weekend as the Panthers face arguably the most complex defense on its schedule in Rutgers.
“Rutgers, statistically, they’re one of the top teams if not the top defense in mostly all categories in our conference — them and West Virginia,” Wannstedt said. “They take a lot of pride on their ability on defense but (also) making big plays with the scheme that they use.
“Last week (we faced) a 4-3, physical team — here’s my guy, I gotta block him. This week they’re moving, they’re twisting, they’re firing guys. So now it’s a little bit of a combination, a lot more of the mental application to getting the job done (along) with the physical. If you look at their team, three of their wins they were behind in the fourth quarter.”
Rutgers has a 4-2 (1-0, Big East) record on the season, coming off a come-from-behind win against Army last weekend. The Scarlet Knights trailed 17-3 going in to the fourth quarter but rallied to score 14 points to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, Joe Martinek ran the ball in for a touchdown after the Knights held Army to a field goal on its possession.
In the week prior, Rutgers put up 10 fourth-quarter points while holding UConn scoreless to earn a 27-24 win. The Huskies were held to three-and-out drives three times in the final frame.
“Their defense has come up with big plays and turnovers in the fourth quarter, giving them an opportunity to win,” Wannstedt said. “We need to really focus on protecting the ball. This will be a 60-minute game, without a doubt.”
The Panthers might now have the new found spirit to play and win such 60-minute contests. Linebacker Tristan Roberts said the energy level in the locker room has been a little bit higher ever since Pitt’s 45-14 blowout win at Syracuse last Saturday.
“The locker room, even on Sunday, everyone’s all over the place,” Roberts said. “People are excited. It kind of bumps up the intensity in practice because (we) got (our) first win. We need more. (We) gotta get six more in the conference to (win) the conference.”
Win No. 2 will have a lot to do with how Pitt’s offensive line deals with Rutgers’ exotic blitzes. Wannstedt said no one on the schedule will blitz as much as the Scarlet Knights.
With only three games of experience for the new-look offensive line — Lucas Nix at guard and Jordan Gibbs at tackle — players up front will need to be aware at all times and work at their highest efficiency level to handle the rush.
“(Syracuse) brought quite a bit of pressure,” Wannstedt said. “Our guys did a good job of handling it. This week will be even more difficult.”
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog