Q&A coming right up with Lee, from the Pittsburgh blog Eye of a Panther.
Quoting from your site a couple days ago:
This really is a must-win for Pitt in my eyes. They still have what are probably the three toughest conference tests - Cincinnati, South Florida, West Virginia - on their schedule along with Notre Dame. I think Pitt really needs to get to ten wins this season, and they could do that with a 9-3 record in the regular season and a bowl win. Pitt could easily have two losses out of that group, so they really need to beat the UCONNs and Rutgers of the world (though that Rutgers road game probably will be no picnic) if it wants to get to 10 wins.
Isn't it a little early to be declaring favorites in the conference race?
Considering teams are at the halfway point of the season (Pitt and Syracuse) or are one game away from that point, I think it's fair to declare favorites. Heck, we've been doing that since the preseason. With that said, I think at this point, the favorites are Cincinnati and South Florida with Pitt and WVU in the discussion right behind them. At this point, I'd hesitate to put Rutgers there just based on their first game against Cincinnati. But that could definitely change as early as this week. Teams are just starting to play each other in conference so we've got a lot to learn. But I think if you look at the body of work for each team, most would say that Cincinnati and South Florida, both undefeated, have played the conference's best football.
Case in point, the Pitt Panthers have shown a ton of variance over the past few games. They wore down Louisville, fell at NC State in a shootout, and and came back late against UConn. Based on the evidence to this point, who exactly are the "real" Panthers?
Well I think the only think we know for certain is that Pitt is at least a good team. I don't think they've shown enough for anyone to consider them a great team or even very good team at this point. Even if they held onto that 14-point lead they had against NC State and were undefeated, I think the same type of questions would exist. The biggest question is the secondary, which even in games they've won, has given up big plays. Quarterback play was probably the biggest question coming into the season and the QB, Bill Stull, has answered most of those questions coming into this weekend with 11 TDs and 1 INT with the fourth-highest passer rating in the country. He did have two INTs this past weekend against UCONN, but showed a lot of poise to bring Pitt back from down 15 points to win the game. In a nutshell, I don't know if Pitt's true identity will be known until the last three games where they will face Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Cincinnati. Pitt's record variance could be anywhere from 7-5 to 10-1 in my opinion. It's probably more likely to be in the middle with 8 or 9 wins.
Reading the reports out of the 'Burgh in the offseason, the new OC hire Frank Cignetti was expected to give a boost to an offense that underachieved last season. There was a lot of hype around freshmen backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, and I also recall some question marks about the play of the offensive line. What's the verdict on everything midway through the season? Is Jonathan Baldwin emerging as an elite receiver?
The offensive line has been very good so far. A good example of that was this past weekend against UCONN, (who entered the game 5th in the nation in sacks) keeping them to one sack . The running game has been better than anyone could have expected and Dion Lewis is third in the country in rushing (trailing the leader by 8 yards). Pitt's schedule will get considerably tougher, but having played two conference games already as well as the NC State game, he's played some decent competition. Frank Cignetti, somewhat of an unknown, gets an A in my book for his playcalling so far. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is getting Pitt's tight ends involved. Dorin Dickerson, considered a playmaking athlete as a recruit four years ago, was mismanaged until this year. After switching from offense, to defense, back to offense, Cignetti has really gotten him involved and Dickerson is in the top ten in receiving yards for tight ends in the country and also has seven touchdowns already. He went from a role player to probably very likely being drafted in the NFL next year. And, yes, Jonathan Baldwin is emerging as an elite receiver in my opinion. He is second in the conference in receiving yards and you could easily make the argument that if Bill Stull were a tad more accurate, his totals would be a lot greater. Several times he's been in single-coverage with no safety back and Pitt hesitates to throw him the ball because of their more conservative style. Part of Baldwin's 'problem' as well is that Pitt's running game has been so successful, they haven't need to throw as often.
I remember that a lot of Pitt fans weren't happy with Paul Rhoads as defensive coordinator, but he usually did a good job with the secondary. Now correct me if I'm wrong about this, but we seem to have seen a complete 180 under Phil Bennett, with most of the emphasis placed on generating pressure up front. I'm in awe of the DL, but why is the unit as a whole ranked 94th in pass efficiency?
Quite simply there seems to be a lot of miscommunication for whatever reason. I mentioned Pitt's penchant for allowing big pass plays. I've seen a lot of the players questioning each other on the field and sidelines afterwards, almost in shock of what just happened. It really seems like guys are getting caught out of position and, I know it's a tired cliche, but not playing the entire 60 minutes. It seems like they have a lot of very temporary lapses. Conversely, they also seem to be playing off the ball a lot of times trying to avoid the deep throws and in some games, have given up a lot of short to mid-range passes. To further the problem, Pitt is without one of its starting guys, Andrew Taglianetti, so there are depth issues as well. I don't know if this problem will ever truly get fixed this season, but it's definitely something that could keep them from contending for the conference title.
I'd like to request some advice. Last year, linebacker Scott McKillop seemed to be continually snubbed by the press, and so-called experts, in spite of his stellar play. He was supposedly "slow", "unathletic", and had little chance of succeeding on the next level. Lo and behold, he runs fine at the Combine, and ends up getting drafted by the Niners. Rutgers fans look at MLB Ryan D'Imperio as our McKillop; a tenacious leader who's always making critical plays on defense. I don't even know where the knocks are coming from, because he looks plenty fast to me. How should we best prepare to deal for all the silly nitpicking and uninformed criticism of D'Imperio over the next several months?
The best way I can answer it is this. If a guy really looks like he can play in college, he's got a better chance of succeeding than a guy that hasn't shown it, but fits the so-called build necessary to play at a specific position in the NFL. Hard-working guys like McKillop don't always make it, but more do than people might think. On my blog just before or after the draft, I posted that I thought McKillop would go on to an 8-10 year career. Yes, he's far away from that now, but he's playing well there and is poised to probably take Takeo Spikes job in a year or two. He's always around the ball and that more than maybe anything else will land you a job as a middle linebacker in the NFL. Really, there's no good way to deal with the nitpicking and criticism other than to maybe pick out similar guys that are having success in the NFL. One guy kind of in the same mold is Paul Posluszny who is off to a nice career and had 100+ tackles last season in only his second year. This may sound like nonsense to a lot of people, but given the wear and tear running backs endure, guys like McKillop and Posluszny could have a longer career than someone like a Lesean McCoy when all is said and done. Maybe not a better career, but a longer one.
Thanks again to Lee, and look for the other half of this with my responses on his site shortly.