Football: Following upset, Pitt eyes another victory against Gardner-Webb

By Kelly Flanigan

In a stunning upset of Virginia Tech last week, the Pitt football team showed that the Panthers…

Redshirt junior wide receiver Devin Street (15) and the Panthers hope to be smiling again after Saturday’s game against Gardner-Webb at Heinz Field.

Sheldon Satenstein, Senior Staff Photographer

In a stunning upset of Virginia Tech last week, the Pitt football team showed that the Panthers have the ability to play their best football when facing nationally-ranked opposition.

But as many fans might recall from the home opener against Football Championship Subdivision school Youngstown State, Pitt has also shown an ability to underestimate lesser foes.

With another FCS team in Gardner-Webb (0-3) coming to Heinz Field this Saturday, it remains to be seen if the Panthers (1-2, 0-1 Big East) are more like the team that crushed Virginia Tech or the one that wilted against Youngstown State and Cincinnati.

Heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Runnin’ Bulldogs, the Panthers know they need to record another win.

“I think [Virginia Tech] was a good win, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Pitt junior wide receiver Devin Street said. “It gave us some momentum for Gardner-Webb. A game only comes once a week, so you can’t miss opportunities.”

Against an 0-3 FCS team that fell to Wofford, Richmond and Samford by a combined 81 points, Pitt enters the game as the huge favorite. But the Panthers, who own a 10-1 all-time record against FCS schools, know that they cannot look past the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

Gardner-Webb defeated Akron 38-37 two years ago and came close to knocking off Georgia Tech in 2008.

Coming off its first win in the Paul Chryst era, Pitt is riding a new wave of momentum.

The victory against the No. 13 team in the nation culminated in 537 total yards of offense for Pitt, the most the team has seen in 12 years. Running back Ray Graham scored three touchdowns, and quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Star freshman running back Rushel Shell also ran for 157 yards.

The Pitt defense, which looked horrendous in the season’s first two games, even forced four turnovers against Virginia Tech.

Sunseri’s performance earned him Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors, but now the much-criticized quarterback needs to show that he can consistently produce quality performances.

After last Saturday’s game, Coach Chryst acknowledged this fact, stating that things are “never as good or bad as they seem.”

He also emphasized the team’s focus, concentration on improvement and continued growth.

“I think you’ve got to build on everything you do positively. It wasn’t all of the sudden a whole different group,” Chryst said. “The focus is on you and your team and how you can get better. Every week, you go about it in the same way, and over time, [the players] understand that you have to be consistent.”

Gardner-Webb head coach Ron Dickerson Jr. sees the Panthers as extremely formidable opponents.

“They’ve gotten back to the Pitt team that everybody expected coming into the year,” he said. “They have one of the best running back duos in the country, the quarterback is good, and they have Biletnikoff Award guys at receiver. They are big on both lines. We’re going to be facing some elite talent.”

Dickerson has extensive ties to football coaching in the Pittsburgh region.

His father, Ron Dickerson Sr., currently coaches wide receivers at Gardner-Webb and was the first black man to coach an NCAA Division I football team at Temple. Before that, he was an assistant coach at Pitt under Jackie Sherrill in 1978.

And many Pitt fans may remember tight end Dorin Dickerson, Ron Sr.’s nephew.

Gardner-Webb is led by quarterback Lucas Beatty, who completed 30-for-48 passes and threw for 320 yards against Samford last week. Runnin’ Bulldog redshirt freshman wide receiver Carlton Heard caught seven passes for 107 yards in the loss.

The Panthers still have ground to make up from early losses this season, and Chryst said his team will be ready to face Gardner-Webb on Saturday at Heinz Field when the game kicks off at 3:30 p.m.

“If you’re a player and you respect your team and appreciate your team, there is absolutely no way you don’t respect your opponent,” he said.