Tonight's a very special night: Basketballmas Eve in Connecticut! By some scheduling coincidence, the UConn football team will get one more chance to impress Connecticut sports fans before basketball season starts. Tonight, the Huskies can move ever closer to getting blown out by TCU in the Fiesta Bowl with a win against Pittsburgh.
The Panthers are unbeaten in Big East play after a couple early losses (to Utah, Miami and Notre Dame). They're the only team in the league that doesn't have exactly two losses, and the BCS bid is just sitting there on a platter for them. For Pitt, a win tonight would basically mean they would need to beat two of USF, West Virginia and Cincinnati to guarantee a spot in a big-money bowl.
So what's on the minds of Pitt supporters these days? To find out, we did a Q&A with Cardiac Hill, one of the new kids on the SBNation block. My answers to his questions are also up there.
We chatted about Greg Romeus, a man named Tino and what exactly Pitt sees in Dave Wannstedt. Check it out below the jump:
KM: The Panthers have put together three impressive wins in Big East play after a...somewhat lackluster non-conference schedule. Besides the Big East being aggressively terrible, what's been the most important factor in Pitt's turnaround over the last three weeks?
CH: As you point out, the quality of play has dramatically shifted. None of the teams Pitt's faced so far in the Big East (Rutgers, Louisville, Syracuse) are as good as Utah and Miami. Notre Dame? Eh, maybe. The Irish have looked bad this year, but I still say playing on the road there can be slightly intimidating if you're not prepared. I'm also one of those not completely ready to call Pitt a good team. Pitt is 3-0 in the Big East, but has only played one road game and still has three more left. Because of that, I don't think the conference berth is wrapped up yet.
Other than competition, the biggest factor has probably been the play of QB Tino Sunseri
and the offensive line. Both have improved and because the line has gotten better, Tino's having more time to throw. He's also become really accurate and limits his mistakes. Those are probably the areas that have improved the most since the start of this season.
KM: I think most non-Pitt fans could name at least two Pitt players coming into this season - Dion Lewis and Greg Romeus. But this season, Lewis has been mostly quiet, and Romeus has been hurt (though he may be back Thursday). How has that impacted the team, and how well have the Panthers done in replacing their production?
To be honest, their replacements have filled their shoes really well. Lewis is starting to get back on track but played behind RB Ray Graham
earlier this season. Graham came in and over a three-game span, rushed for more than 500 yards, including a near-school record 277-yard performance against Florida International. Since then, the two have split carries, so that's one reason for Lewis' big dropoff from last season. But both are playing well and combined, average about 5.7 yards per carry.
Romeus' injury looked like it could be a big blow to the team at the time he went down, but Brandon Lindsey
has been incredible. His eight sacks are second in the Big East (behind teammate Jabaal Sheard
) and with Sheard, they've both been able to put a lot of pressure on opposing QBs. Lindsey may not be as good as Romeus, though. Sheard's been out of his mind and I think Lindsey's been the beneficiary of that. So when Romeus is fullly back, he'll eventually get to start. But they're going to have to find room for Lindsey to get in there as well because he's been too productive.
KM: Is it basically going to be the Tino Sunseri show at the quarterback position for the next 2+ years? Is this a good thing for Pitt? How would you assess his play in the first full year as a starter?
CH: Personally, I don't even think Dave Wannstedt knows the answer to that question. Pitt has a pretty talented kid (based on the reports out there, anyway) that's being redshirted this season in Mark Myers. Most people believe that he'll at least challenge for the QB spot possibly as early as next season.
I think that Tino's clearly the starter barring injury or until someone comes along and really knocks the socks off of Wannstedt in camp. He struggled a little early on behind a bad offensive line, but he's turned into some kind of player recently. Over his past five games, he's thrown nine TD passes and only two INTs. He struggled a little in Pitt's last game against Louisville, but even in games like that where he doesn't throw for a lot of yards, he limits his mistakes and seems to always give Pitt a chance to win.
If he's putting up the same kind of totals two seasons from now, you'd consider him a very average QB. But considering this is his first season as a starter, he's had a really good year.
KM: It seems like an annual tradition that Pitt is picked near or at the top of the Big East, and then it never pans out. Are Pitt fans waiting for the other shoe to drop, or is there confidence that this is the team that can get it done?
CH: This year, I wouldn't say that fans are waiting so much for the team to fade. That's because the team still probably has lost some fans' attention after it's 2-3 start and since the Big East is just so mediocre this year, with a 1 1/2 game head start on everyone else, people are expecting them to get the BCS berth. Like I said before, it's clearly not a done deal, though.
Dave Wannstedt already has his detractors and if Pitt can't finish this year as the conference champion, well, man I don't even want to think about that. Some folks are still upset about Pitt not living up to the lofty predictions they had at the beginning of the season, but if they can win out, or even go 3-1 and win the conference, you've got to consider that a decent year. 9-3 / 8-4 certainly isn't great, but it's not awful, either.
KM: How much pressure is on Wannstedt this season? With a two-game lead on the other seven teams and four games to play, is it basically now or never for the Big East's most-mustachioed hero?
CH: While there is a lot of pressure on Wannstedt to win the conference from fans, if he somehow can't get it done, I still think his job is safe. The administration loves him and unlike his predecessor, Walt Harris, really seems to love the university with everything he has. I know that sounds fluffy and doesn't give much in the way of substance, but that means something to Pitt.
Wannstedt's made it clear he wants this to be his last stop and winning 19 games over the past two seasons while recruiting like crazy for 2011, I don't think the school would give up on him just yet. I think Pitt would really have to do something off the wall like lose its last four games for the school to fire him.
KM: Follow-up question, because that fascinates me. What does the administration love about Wanny? As you said, he's got his detractors - and he seems to lose a couple head-scratchers per year - but for the university, is it as simple as "he runs a good, clean program and puts talent on the field?"
CH: To be honest, it's not merely as simple as running a good clean program, but I think that's a big part of it. The team has had its share of off-field issues this year including Sheard's assault case, Dan Mason's DUI, and Jeff Knox's alleged assault, but Pitt has steered clear of things like recruiting violations and things like outright cheating to gain an advantage.
Not to say Wannstedt doesn't have any control over what his players do off the field, but he certainly can't take the full blame for college students acting like, well, college students. There was an article I read somewhere this year (excuse my old memory, but I can't remember where) that talked about him going to classes to make sure kids were there and checking in with professors. That type of stuff goes a long way with the administration.
Another thing is something I alluded to in the answer, but Wannstedt is really a Pittsburgh guy. He was born here, grew up here, played at Pitt, and now coaches here. That alone, obviously, isn't enough reason to keep a head coach. But I certainly believe it factors in to the administration's decision to keep him.
And like I said before, since he wants to make this his last coaching stop, he's not using the job as a stepping stone. Walt Harris turned the program around in the late 1990s and helped get it to where it was. He did a pretty good job with a fairly empty cupboard, and for that, Pitt fans should always be grateful. But he always had an eye to the future, looking to get out of here.
If you remember, he was gone right after the team went 8-4 and got crushed in that BCS game - not usually the time you fire a coach. He went to Stanford (after I think showing interest and/or interviewing at Alabama if my memory serves me correctly), failed miserably, and many Pitt fans were happy because he didn't really seem like he wanted to be here anyway. Wannstedt on the other hand, bleeds blue and gold, and really wants to be here.
All of these things, individually, aren't reasons to keep a coach around. But when said coach has a decent track record, even if he underachieves a little along the way, I think are a big reason why they want to keep him.
KM: Finally, let's get a game prediction and a score...
CH: Pitt traditionally doesn't play well under Wannstedt the week after a bye for some reason, but I think they'll be focused. They know the conference championship is in reach and even though they've underachieved to this point, knowing that they hold all the cards has to motivate them somewhat. I said over at SB Nation Pittsburgh that Pitt would win 30-17, so I'll stick with that.
But trust me, the way the conference has been this season, playing on the road during a weeknight game, I completely wouldn't be all that surprised if Pitt can't get it done. I think we'll learn a lot more about this team after Thursday's game.
Thanks to Cardiac Hill, and make sure to check them out for your Pitt-related needs. We'll plan on doing this again before the Big East hoops opener on Dec. 27.