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Up and Up: Pittsburgh

Teams on the rise sooner, not later.
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Where They've Been. After five bowls in five years, a couple top 25 finishes and an improbable BCS bid in 2004 under Walt Harris, calculating NFL tactician Dave Wanstedt has worked hard to deliver a 9-12 conference record, zero bowl games and one completely torn Achilles tendon. Seniors who helped win the Big East as freshmen left after a sixth place finish in 2006 and a tie for fifth last year. Pitt's perpetually within a game of the postseason, but the only team with a worse league record since 2005 is the other victim of a long-time pro acolyte, Syracuse.

McCoy: Real, etc.
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Catalysts. Pittsburgh is the most talented team in the Big East, according to the recruiters, and conventional wisdom holds that Year Four is the season we finally see the fruits of the Wannstedt Bump on the trail. The only evidence of the alleged bodily-kinesthetic superiority on the field so far is LeSean McCoy, a real star-quality kid who made a strong case against Ray Rice as the best running back in the conference as a freshman. If not for Pat White and George Selvie, McCoy would probably be regarded as the best player in the Big East going into the fall, period, and might turn out to be anyway.

If you want one big, optimism-fueling, over-the-rainbow moment, though, it's obviously the season finale over West Virginia, a sudden display of ball-hogging physicality and defense that set the Mountaineers a-cursin' their coach right out of town. This was a B12 shot not only for turning the tables on a rival set to play for the mythical championship, but for turning them with defense after a pair of unholy beatings the previous two meetings - White and Steve Slaton alone had 440 total yards in 2005 and an unseemly 639 in 2006, back-to-back 45-point efforts by WVU that could have been much worse. It was, you know...

Yeah, Pat, rather kitten-like. By contrast, holding essentially the same offense to 183 yards and nine points in November was the first sure sign this team still had some teeth. Where Wannstedt was concerned, perfect timing, too.

Youth Movement. McCoy was the bright side of last year's reliance on young'ins. Pat Bostick was the dark side: the hyped true freshman threw an interception on his first pass against Grambling, finished with 12 ipicks to eight touchdowns and only game (against Syracuse) with more of the latter than the former. That was Bostick's only "good" game, because he was efficient without making a series of terrible  mistakes, as he did in less-lopsided-than-the-score-indicates losses to UConn (three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown) and South Florida (three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns). McCoy and the defense bailed out two more picks Bostick tossed at West Virginia.

The good news on that front is that a) the team can win without a heroic effort from the quarterback, and b) there's nowhere to go but up. Given Bostick's recruiting hype, there's good reason to hope the mistakes were merely the folly of a freshman thrown prematurely into the fire. Even if he doesn't make many more plays, if Bostick just cuts the mistakes, the offense will be much better.

Underclassman Contributions, 2007
Offense Starters % of Rush Yds. % of Rec. Yds. % of Scoring
Freshmen 2 70.8 16.1 41.0
Sophomores 4 4.9 53.4 20.1
Returning in '08 8 100 84.7 93.4
Defense Starters % of Tackles % of Sacks/TFL % of Miscellaneous
Freshmen 1 9.1 16.2 9.9
Sophomores 3 24.4 29.1 28.2
Returning in '08 7 73.7 71.4 71.8

Three factors not in the chart: Derek Kinder, Gus Mustakas, Bill Stull. Kinder led the team in receiving in `06 and was preseason all-Big East before he tore his ACL in preseason practice; he took a medical redshirt and will be a fifth-year senior opposite the up-and-coming star of the corps, Oderick Turner. Mustakas was a solid defensive line starter who missed the last ten games, and the reason Bostick was in the lineup at all was the injury to starter Stull in the opening win over Eastern Michigan. The job is technically wide open, though Bostick has more game action than Stull and a much bigger upside.

Surprising Wins, Close Losses, and Other Circumstantial Momentum. See above for the impact of the West Virginia win to cap three years of disappointment, and the well-regarded class that followed it, Wannstedt's third in a row. It's like that one shot I nailed over the lake the first time (out of two) I played golf: once you prove you can do the tough things, screwing up the routine is all the more frustrating.

Where They're Going. "Breakthrough" in this case has to mean something better than the Car Care Bowl. That would probably be enough progress to keep Wannstedt around, but Pitt's not coming from that far behind. If the Panthers want to make a dent on the conference commensurate with their potential, they'll build some momentum by beating Iowa at home in Week Three and go into Notre Dame on the first weekend of November looking to lock up a winning season. No more losses to Navy, double overtime or no.

The potentially defining stretch is the closing month after the trip to South Bend: Louisville, at Cincinnati, West Virginia, at UConn. Pitt started 6-1 in 2006 and finished with five straight losses. If it's not a similar position hitting the last four here, Wannstedt is probably done.