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Area 4-1-Zoo: Who Will Win The Big East?

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Pitt is alone in first place in the Big East with a 4-3 (2-0 Big East) record.

However, this is a conference that is as wide open as any in college football. So Pitt Blather, The Fighting Wannstaches and Pitt Script join me to debate who is the favorite to win the Big East, and touch on our thoughts for the Panthers’ noon kickoff at Heinz Field against Louisville. What will the outcome be?

Question #1: Who is the front-runner to win the Big East?

Pitt Blather: As long as you leave UConn out of the hat, you could probably just pull names out of a hat to accurately call who will win the Big East. Pitt and WVU should be the favorites but the way the teams are playing, the consistency has been lacking. That makes it increasingly weird and not predictable.

The Fighting Wannstaches: For the last couple weeks, since Pitt’s non-conference downfall, that team was West Virginia. Now, all of a sudden, that team appears to be Pitt again after back-to-back 40+ point games, including a convincing win at Syracuse who went to Morgantown the following week and beat the Mountaineers. Both teams still control their own destiny at this point, but we’ll give the slight edge to the Panthers only because they have a 1 game lead on the rest of the conference and some room for error…but we’re hoping they don’t need it.

Pitt Script: It was a bumpy ride, but as expected, Pitt and WVU are the only teams that look to be a serious threat in the conference. If both teams keep winning — and there’s no reason not to — the Backyard Brawl should come very close to deciding the Big East. Syracuse beating WVU is not really important since if WVU were to beat an undefeated Pitt, both teams would have one conference loss and WVU would own the head-to-head. What Pitt needs is one more WVU loss in order to give them some breathing room going into the Brawl.

4-1-Zoo: I’ve said it all along: Pitt. There is nothing keeping the Panthers from running through this conference undefeated other than themselves. Some people have told me I’m nuts to think that. But after last weekend I think it’s been confirmed. No team in the Big East is better than Pitt.

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Question #2: To what do you credit the most for the offense’s drastic improvement over the last couple weeks?

Pitt Blather: I’m going with the reshuffled O-line. Even in the ND game, Pitt was able to move the ball. Unable to finish, but they could move the ball. The O-line is suddenly giving Sunseri time to throw and the running backs have holes to run through.

The Fighting Wannstaches: The quarterback makes the offense go round. Starting with Notre Dame, and continuing into conference play, Tino has seemingly played his best game of the season with each passing week. In those 3 games, he has completed nearly 3/4 of his passes, thrown 8 TDs, and has discovered this Jon Baldwin guy who can catch the deep ball. Now that defenses have to play the threat of a passing game, the running game has started to get back on its feet and allowed Lewis to get his first 100 yard performance. Add all this up and it is good news for Pitt.

Pitt Script: Tino Sunseri’s development has been a dual benefit for the team. Obviously, having a quarterback that can throw the ball accurately helps immensely, but it has also enabled the coaching staff to take off the handcuffs and allow him to throw the ball down-field. As Baldwin’s 139 yard performance against Rutgers demonstrated, you just have to throw somewhere close to the guy and he’ll catch it. With other sure-handed receivers in Mike Shanahan and Devin Street — not to mention new red-zone target Mike Cruz — Tino has tons of weapons and should only continue to get better.

4-1-Zoo: You can check out my post from yesterday, which breaks down Tino Sunseri’s evolution to understand why HE is the main reason for Pitt’s offensive surge. However, you have to credit the offensive line with an assist.

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Question #3: Accordingly, to what do you credit defensively for the stout play in conference games?

Pitt Blather: The D-line. The linebacking play has been up-and-down. As has the secondary. The D-line, though, has done a solid job. Sheard has embraced being the disruptive force without Romeus, and Lindsey has taken advantage of his chances. Caragein and Alexcih have been solid up the middle.

The Fighting Wannstaches: Great play from the defensive line. Whether it is getting pressure on the QB (nine sacks) or stopping the run (average of 86 rushing yards), the d-line has been getting the job done the last two weeks. The pressure hasn’t allowed opponents time to look down field often, so the secondary has been able to make plays and not give up the deep ball. Just like the improvement with the offense, it is all trickling down. The good news, with hopefully only one more game without Greg Romeus, the d-line’s best games may still be ahead of them.

Pitt Script: When the standard Dave Wannstedt defense game plan of relying on the front four to generate pressure works, it REALLY works. The past two games have been a combination of getting very good play from Brandon Lindsey, Jabaal Sheard and Aaron Donald as well as going against subpar offensive lines. Both Ryan Nassib and Chas Dodd really struggled against Pitt’s defense thanks in large part to the pressure. The linebackers have been better than anticipated after the loss of Dan Mason and the secondary should get a boost from the return of K’Wuan Williams this week.

4-1-Zoo: Rather than credit a certain unit of the defense, I’ll give the credit to one player: Jabaal Sheard. With Greg Romeus out, Sheard has led the defensive line and been so effective that few people watch a game and utter, ‘Man, we would be so much better with Romeus out there.’ Sheard has wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks and seemingly could not be stopped against Rutgers.

Even in Pitt’s darkest moment — a 31-3 loss at home to Miami — Sheard played well. Credit him more than anyone.

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Question #4: Louisville has a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball. What worries you the most?

Pitt Blather: The Louisville running game. Powell has been outstanding and Vic Anderson has finally gotten healthy to provide a dangerous change-of-pace. They are committed to running the ball. Not that they aren’t balanced on offense, but they are keyed by the run.

For the most part, their defense hasn’t exactly been lights out. Pitt has enough on offense to give the Cardinal defense problems.

The Fighting Wannstaches: Bilal Powell has been the driving force behind the Louisville offense this season. He already has a couple 200 yard games under his belt, is on pace for a 1700 yard season, and is currently 4th in the nation in rushing yards. While Pitt has a Top 10 rushing defense, Powell is by far the best RB they have faced all season. Fail to stop the running game and it could be a long day as QB Adam Froman has a good enough arm to make the plays in the passing game as well.

Pitt Script: Running back Bilal Powell is on pace for over 1,700 yards and already has two 200+ yard games. He’s a tough runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and can break off a big run (two 80+ yard touchdowns already). Barring total collapse or injury, Powell should be the conference’s offensive player of the year.

4-1-Zoo: Powell for all the reasons stated above.

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Question #5: Who wins? What’s the score?

Pitt Blather: I’ll say Pitt wins it, 31-23.

The Fighting Wannstaches: Pitt’s defense manages to keep Powell in check and forces Louisville into a one dimensional game. 34-21, Pitt.

Pitt Script: I’m just not a fan of this Louisville team yet. I’ll predict Louisville thrives under Charlie Strong, who I think will be an excellent recruiter and head coach, but as one Louisville blogger put it, Steve Kraigthorpe left behind a dumpster fire of a team. Despite last week’s thrashing of the unraveling UConn Huskies, Louisville will be a middling team in a bad conference. Pitt 31, Louisville 13.

4-1-Zoo: Pitt, 27-21. Dion and Ray run wild.

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog
Twitter.com/Chris_Gates
Chris.Gates@cbsradio.com

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