By MARK MADDEN
If pets grow to resemble their owners, it seems likely that football teams take after their coach. I don’t know what Dave Wannstedt’s dog, cat or goldfish looks like, but I know his football team has Wannstedt written all over it. Pitt will hit you in the mouth, and not wait for you to swing first.
That may be Wannstedt’s biggest contribution since taking Pitt’s reins in 2005. Under Walt Harris, Pitt was an Xs & Os bunch looking for technical ecstasy, a bunch of four-eyed geeks with pocket protectors. Wannstedt has rebuilt both lines and the team’s will to fight.
Given the relative lack of competition in the Big East – make no mistake, though; the Big Ten and ACC are no better – it’s difficult to buy Pitt as the true, legitimate eighth-best team in college football. I’m not even sure the Panthers would crack .500 in the SEC.
But Pitt is nonetheless deserving of that ranking, having fought and scrapped for every inch of turf earned.
Pitt’s primary source of gumption is the defensive line, coached and bonded by ex-Penn State defensive lineman Greg Gattuso, who should be legitimately considered to succeed Wannstedt when the time comes.
Gattuso coaches three pros, maybe four, but the defensive line is more than their Division I-leading 41 sacks or the individual exploits of defensive end Greg Romeus. It’s the emotional linchpin of the entire team.
Not that QB Bill Stull is far behind. When Stull fills out a credit-card application, he doesn’t circle “Mr.” He writes in “much-maligned.”
But Stull has used the fan/media abuse he took last season and at the beginning of this one to whip himself into a chip-on-the-shoulder frenzy that has fueled a performance that goes far beyond his talent. His QB rating of 159.4 ranks fourth in the nation. No one has done more with a “poor, poor pitiful me” outlook since Linda Ronstadt. Oh, and Hines Ward.
Stull’s numbers don’t lie. I don’t believe Stull will play a down in the NFL and he still must sparkle in Pitt’s final three games to eclipse last season’s Sun Bowl abortion. But Stull has performed so well, his parents can sit in their regular seats at Heinz Field. They don’t have to stand on a ramp to hide from the boo-birds.
Stull has several benefactors:
*Frank Cignetti, Jr. Pitt’s new offensive coordinator has exposed his predecessor, Matt Cavanaugh, as a stumblebum. Like Dan Bylsma with the Penguins, Cignetti took a concise look at his talent and formulated an offense designed to get the best out of everybody. Dorin Dickerson was a man without a position his first three seasons at Pitt. Cignetti invented a role for Dickerson, and now he’s likely to play on Sundays.
*Dion Lewis. Being a secondary weapon benefits Pitt’s passing game, and that’s exactly what the emergence of the freshman running back has done.
*Jonathan Baldwin. Pitt’s wide-receiving corps has devolved into a one-man gang. But that one man is making a whole gang of big plays. Baldwin’s pyrotechnics are reminiscent of a far-away place called Larryland.
*The offensive line. John Malecki and Joe Thomas finally came good. As with Stull, better late than never.
Pitt still has a lot to prove. The Panthers are in the unenviable emotional position of having to play their biggest rival on the road in what is largely a meaningless game. West Virginia is still smarting from the season-mangling loss Pitt delivered to Morgantown in 2007. It’s hard to imagine Pitt not being stoked to play the hoopleheads, but it’s also hard to imagine West Virginia not being more so.
If Pitt wins out, the season is a joyous, unqualified, upgrade-the-image-of-the-program success.
If Pitt wins the Big East but loses in the BCS, the season is a major success.
If Pitt beats West Virginia, loses to Cincinnati and wins its bowl game, the season is OK.
Anything less stinks.
The Panthers haven’t really yet accomplished anything beyond the ordinary. Pitt will be judged by its final three games.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).