With a 13-3 lead over Louisville and just over a minute left in the third quarter, Pitt was floundering.

Louisville was in the midst of a 16-play drive that was approaching nine minutes in length. The Cardinals appeared to be on their way to a touchdown and newfound life. That’s when Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard struck as he has so many times this season.

trans 4 1 Zoo: Sheard Leading The Way For Pitts DefenseAt Pitt’s 34, Froman dropped back to pass on a third-and-7 and was swiftly joined in the backfield by Sheard, who sacked Froman and forced a fumble. Defensive tackle Myles Caragein picked up the ball and ran 56 yards the other way to the Louisville 5.

The Panthers punched it in three plays later for a 20-3 lead and the win, advancing to 5-3 overall and 3-0 in the Big East.

“Jabaal Sheard is just having a phenomenal year,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said after Saturday’s win.

Sheard finished the game with four tackles, two of which were solo. He also had two sacks and two forced fumbles on a day that typified the type of season he is having.

“I think Jabaal’s the best player in the Big East, regardless of position,” Pitt defensive back/linebacker Dom DeCicco said. “You just really watch him and he dominates, getting blocked by two or three guys. Without him our defense would be a lot different.”

The defense has been a lot different since defensive end Greg Romeus was sidelined with a back injury that required surgery after just one game. The Pitt defense appeared doomed, given the fact that Romeus was named to virtually every award watch list he was eligible for.

However, Sheard has made many forget about Romeus’s absence by compiling 30 tackles – 12 for loss – and nine sacks in eight games.

“He’s rushing the passer as good as any defensive end in the country,” Wannstedt said. “He’s focused every week and he’s working extremely hard.”

When Sheard is sacking the quarterback or pinning running backs down for losses he is helping out the rest of the defensive line. Sheard’s success has drawn the attention of most opposing coaching staffs.

Now Sheard typically has two or three blockers in his way, trying to keep him out of the backfield.

That has only opened up more room for his fellow linemates to do their best Sheard impression.

“They’ll do a lot of chipping, they’ll slide away and bring the back to him,” Caragein said. “So he’ll have to defeat two, sometimes even three blockers to get to the quarterback. With them doing that, that frees up the inside and the backside edge.

“So, even though it seems like he’s getting taken out of the play, he’s actually helping the defense as a whole — giving some single blocks on the inside and the backside end.”

Thus, defensive end Brandon Lindsey, who has filled in for Romeus, has been able to compile 26 tackles and 8 sacks this season. Defensive tackle Chas Alexih has 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

And Caragein has 16 tackles, 1 sack and one very memorable fumble recovery.

“I feel like that definitely changed the momentum in the game,” Caragein said.

“They were having a great drive. They were moving, picking up some first downs. It was getting a little frustrating for the defense (since) they were converting. Jabaal made a nice move. I saw the ball, picked it up and I feel like that really turned the momentum in the game.”

And it kept the Panthers perfect, enhancing their chances of winning the Big East and reaching a BCS bowl for the second time in program history and first since Jan. 1, 2005.

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog