The Brawl Started It All

When they stunned their archrival last December, the Panthers turned a corner
August 10, 2008

OVERACHIEVEMENT is a relatively new concept for these Panthers. Indeed, before Pitt stunned No. 2 West Virginia 13--9 in Morgantown last December, thus keeping its bitter rival from playing for the national championship, coach Dave Wannstedt's record in two-plus seasons at his alma mater stood at 15--19. But so impressive was the defense in the Backyard Brawl—the unit held West Virginia's high-powered attack to 183 yards and nine first downs—that few in the Steel City cared that the Panthers couldn't avoid a third straight nonwinning season.

Now optimism is running high because seven starters are back from that aggressive defense, including senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop, an overachiever of the highest order. After two seasons of special teams duty, the 6'2", 240-pound McKillop got his shot in 2007 and led the nation in tackles (12.6 per game) en route to All-America honors. McKillop relies on an encyclopedic command of Pitt's defensive scheme and a knack for finding the ball.

Spurred by McKillop, the Panthers ranked fifth in the nation in total defense last year. And while holes must be filled in the secondary and at defensive end, strong recruiting has given Wannstedt reason to believe that any drop-off will be minimal. Filling one hole at end will be 6'5", 265-pound Greg Romeus, a onetime basketball prospect who was impressive as a redshirt freshman last year. He finished second on the team in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (11 1/2).

If Pitt's offense is going to keep up with the defense, a reliable quarterback must emerge to complement sophomore running back LeSean McCoy (1,328 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns). The Panthers ranked 104th in passing last year primarily because they had to play with inexperienced QBs; Bill Stull, then a sophomore, started the first game before a thumb injury ended his season, and freshman Pat Bostick had mixed results (61.5% completion rate, eight TDs, 13 interceptions). Stull, who was first on the depth chart heading into preseason practice, has an edge in arm strength and mobility. "For us to be good this year, we've got to be more balanced," says Wannstedt. "That means we have to be able to throw the ball downfield."

With a schedule that includes home dates against traditional Big East powers Louisville and West Virginia, Wannstedt should have his first winning season and Pitt should contend for the conference's automatic BCS bid. "We have high expectations," says McKillop. "Our defense can be great, but what we really need to focus on is winning."

MCKILLOP RELIES ON AN ENCYCLOPEDIC COMMAND OF PITT'S SCHEME.

CONFERENCE: Big East

COACH: Dave Wannstedt (4th year)

2007 RECORD: 5--7 (3--4 in Big East)

FINAL AP RANK: NR

RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 8, Defense 7

SCHEDULE

AUGUST
30 Bowling Green

SEPTEMBER
6 Buffalo
20 Iowa
27 at Syracuse

OCTOBER
2 at South Florida
18 at Navy
25 Rutgers

NOVEMBER
1 at Notre Dame
8 Louisville
22 at Cincinnati
28 West Virginia

DECEMBER
6 at Connecticut

KEY GAME
For the Panthers to contend for the Big East crown, they'll have to win two road games in five days to kick off the conference schedule. The tougher game figures to come against the Bulls, who have title aspirations as well.

WORTH NOTING

Though its defense ranked fifth in the nation in '07, Pitt was only 88th in turnover margin, with 11 forced fumbles and eight interceptions against 24 giveaways.

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PHOTOCHRISTOPHER KARL SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIAA McKillop-led defense gives Wannstedt his best shot at a Big East title. PHOTO

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