Monday, May 17, 2010

Pre-Season Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

2009 Record: 10-3 (5-2- Tied for 2nd in Big East)
2009 Bowl: Meineke Car Care Bowl (beat North Carolina 19 to 17)
Final 2009 BCS Ranking: #17
Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt (35-26 at Pitt)
Non-Conference Schedule: at Utah (9/2), New Hampshire (9/9), Miami, Fla (9/23), FIU (10/2), at Notre Dame (10/9)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 31.1 points per game (2nd in Big East)
Rushing Yards/Game: 180 (2nd in Big East)
Passing Yards/Game: 211 (3rd in Big East)
Total Yards/Game: 391 (2nd in Big East) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 19.8 points per game (Tied 2nd in Big East)
Rushing Yards/Game: 106 (3rd in Big East)
Passing Yards/Game: 213 (5th in Big East)
Total Yards/Game: 319 (2nd in Big East)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.77 per game (2nd in Big East)
Penalties: 50 yards per game (5th in Big East)

Returning Starters
Offense: 5
Defense: 6
Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Tino Sunseri, Soph (10 of 17 for 114 yds, 2 TD)
Rushing: RB Dion Lewis, Soph (1799 yds, 5.54 ypc, 138 ypg, 17 TD)
Receiving: WR Jonathan Baldwin, Jr (57 Rec for 1111 yds, 8 TD)
Tackles: LB Max Gruder, Jr (91)
Sacks: DE Greg Romeus, Sr (8)
Interceptions: DB Dom DeCicco, Sr and Jarred Holley, Soph (3)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Lindy's: #14
Mark Schlabach: #15
Rivals: #13
Scout: Not Ranked
Sports Illustrated: #16

Last year was Pittsburgh's first 10 win season since Dan Marino was their quarterback. The Pitt Script Blog provided us with the information we sought about the 2010 Pittsburgh Panthers. Can they build on last years performance?

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

It's no secret that Dave Wannstedt wants to run the ball.  It was true when he was in the NFL and it's true now that he's in the college ranks.  After LeSean McCoy broke many of Tony Dorsett's records during his two years in Pittsburgh, the thought was that Pitt fans may have to wait 30 years to see another RB with his kind of talent wearing blue and gold.  Enter Dion Lewis.  As a freshman, Lewis accounted for 1,988 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 ypc.  I would look for more of the same, as Wannstedt has also shown his desire to have a "workhorse" running back rather than a committee, despite having another talented running back in Ray Graham available.

Pitt's biggest weakness is tough to call.  Not because Pitt is even remotely close to perfect, but because they have so many areas that could be very good but could also blow up in their faces.  The secondary is probably Pitt's biggest concern, as it consists entirely of new starters and players coming off of injury.  As is the case every summer in Pittsburgh, the offensive line is always a topic of concern.  While both tackles are solid returning starters,  the interior offensive line is replacing all three starters and struggled all spring against Pitt's talented defensive line.  The guard spots have talent and should be able to grow into the job, but the center position could be a source of consternation all season long with a walk-on and a newly converted DT fighting for the starting job.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test?

Opening the season on the road against a sure-to-be top 25 team would be tough under any circumstances, but opening the season on the road against a sure-to-be top 25 team with a new quarterback has to be the worst (CFBZ note: As a Georgia fan I felt that last year against Oklahoma State, not a good feeling).  Coming out of spring, it looks like true sophomore Tino Sunseri will be at 4226 feet above sea-level for his first collegiate start.  Add in the fact that Dave Wannstedt teams have often struggled early (3-2 on opening day in his tenure) and September 2 at Utah is enough to give me nightmares.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Fullback Henry Hynoski is maybe the best at his position in the nation.  More often than not, it's his block on a linebacker that springs Dion Lewis to make a long run.  He's not really a guy who gets the ball a lot, but his blocks make him an essential part of what Pitt wants to do on offense.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

I've already went on and on about Lewis, so I'll go with junior wide receiver Jon Baldwin.  Baldwin might be the best pure pro prospect on the team with a solid 6'5" frame, top-end speed and great hands (go to YouTube and watch his ND highlights right now.  Dude catches everything.).  This is unquestionably his final season as a Panther and I expect him to be the undisputed number one target, especially with the loss of Dorin Dickerson at tight end.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

Fifth year senior defensive end Greg Romeus is almost certain to be in contention all season for the Lott Trophy and should benefit from playing in a conference without many elite offensive tackles (the Big East's best, Rutgers' Anthony Davis, will be suiting up for the 49ers next season).  Romeus has NFL-caliber size and quickness and hopefully can top a productive 2009, which resulted in 8 sacks and 3 turnovers.  Romeus' impact will be dependent on Pitt's new defensive tackles commanding blockers down the middle.  Last season, Romeus shared Big East Defensive Player of the Year with the man lining up next to him, defensive tackle Mick Williams.  If Williams' replacement can command the same type of respect from offensive lineman, Romeus could see lots of 1-on-1 match-ups. 

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

It goes without saying that Pitt will need Sunseri to play well in order to post double-digit wins this season.  While Lewis is great, no one will be able to run with 8 or 9 in the box.  Sunseri is a much better athlete than Bill Stull, who played somewhere between good and very good in 2009.  Sunseri also has a pretty strong arm and seems to just have "it" in terms of being able to make plays.  With mediocre quarterback play, this team could probably win 7 games or so - but that's not the goal anymore.  In order for Pitt to win the Big East, Sunseri will have to play at least as well as Stull did in 2009.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

All of the beat writers seemed pretty high on freshman wide receiver Devin Street after the spring.   With Baldwin as the undisputed first option, and junior Mike Shanahan seeming to be the second, Street could compete for the third wide out spot with senior Greg Cross, junior Cam Saddler and incoming freshman Todd Thomas.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

While not technically a "newcomer," rising sophomore MLB Dan Mason showed flashes filling in at times for Adam Gunn, who has moved on after his sixth year with the team.  Mason made his first start last season against Navy, recording 11 tackles and 2 sacks, while helping Pitt hold Navy's ground game to 129 yards (Navy averaged 281 per game rushing), and won the Big East Player of the Week Award.  Mason got exposed during the next game, however, when he faced a much more diverse NC State offense and played only on clean-up duty until the Car Care Bowl, where he started at the MIKE and grabbed a crucial red-zone interception.

If I need to pick a TRUE newcomer, I would go with JUCO cornerback Saheed Imoru, who had a good spring.  Both of last season's starting corners graduated, so Imoru should be, at worst, Pitt's nickle corner.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

I'm more optimistic about this season than I have been in a long, long time. Gut feeling is 10-2 and a Big East Championship, which is also what I would deem a successful season.  This has to be the year to finally get over the hump and win the thing outright for the first time.   Pitt is the favorite in every conference preview that I've seen and at the moment the Panthers seem to have an overwhelming amount of talent, especially at the skill positions.  Coupled with a "down" Big East this season and Pitt should be able to make their first BCS appearance under Wannstedt.

As for the two loses, I think Pitt will split their marquee OOC games with Utah and Miami and will drop a head-scratcher against against a Big East team - I'll say UConn, who seems to always play Pitt very tough.

Next Preview: Temple Owls

Previous Previews: West Virginia


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