Huerbin: Panthers won’t fold under national spotlight, unlike last season

By Jay Huerbin

Mick Williams guarantees it.

After Pitt’s 41-14 victory over South Florida Saturday, the senior defensive tackle said this year’s team will not stop winning any time soon.

“We’re happy with 7-1,” Williams, who finished the game with three tackles, said. “But when we’re 11-1, that’ll be good for us.”

To get there, the No. 15 Panthers (7-1, 4-0 Big East) will need to string together four consecutive victories to end the season.

That’s hard to do for any Division I school, but it might be even tougher for a Pitt team that has struggled under the national spotlight.

Last year, the Panthers lost their first home game of the season to Bowling Green and didn’t creep back into the top 25 until they upset South Florida in Tampa, earning a No. 17 ranking.

The following week, they lost to a 2-5 Rutgers team.

It was a season of ups and downs for a team that eventually lost a thrilling game to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.

But after watching the Panthers this season, it’s safe to say Williams’ claim isn’t too far fetched. I almost want to guarantee it, too. This year is much different.

The No. 20 ranking didn’t hurt the Panthers, who destroyed the Bulls. The team gets three of its last regular-season games at Heinz Field, including a season finale matchup against Cincinnati that could determine the Big East champion.

But the Panthers, who have next weekend off, must find a way not to overlook a Syracuse team that could — but shouldn’t — give them problems.

The Orange visit Pittsburgh on Nov. 7 and are currently ranked first in the conference in rushing defense.

This game will be a clash of the best in Big East as Pitt’s second-ranked rushing offense (179.5 yards per game) faces a Syracuse defense that allows an average of 83.4 rushing yards per game.

Not a problem. If the running game slows down, the Panthers have the third most efficient quarterback in the country.

Redshirt senior Bill Stull has had a career year and stands on pace to throw for roughly 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns, which is a big difference from his 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2008.

That might be one reason for the play caller’s renewed confidence — and lack of boos from Pitt fans — heading into the final quarter of the season.

“Defenses can’t stop two masses,” Stull said. “If you try to stop our running game, we’re going to make some plays through the air and vice versa.”

As simple as Stull’s postgame quote is, it’s absolutely true.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt put together a well-balanced offensive attack — even getting away from his conventional run-first mentality — which has helped Stull emerge as a great quarterback.

This year’s offense is one of the best in recent years, and the departure of LeSean McCoy has given true freshman Dion Lewis a chance to make history.

Through eight games this season, Lewis has rushed for 12 touchdowns and will no doubt break McCoy’s freshman record of 15 before the season ends.

That I will guarantee.

But unlike McCoy, who spent one year at a prep school before coming to Pitt, Lewis — and true freshman Ray Graham — will be at Pitt for at least another two seasons.

This makes for one of the most dangerous defenses in the nation.

Senior tight end Dorin Dickerson said last year’s offense revolved around McCoy. When McCoy ran into problems, so did the rest of the team.

But this season is different because of the number of playmakers on the team.

“This year we have Oderick Turner, Jonathan Baldwin, Mike Shanahan, Dion Lewis and Ray Graham — a lot of guys that can make plays,” Dickerson said. “We also have a great offensive line … a veteran line. It’s just a good feeling right now.”

Don’t discount Dickerson as somebody who “can make plays,” either. He has been one of Stull’s favorite targets this year, coming down with 32 receptions and nine touchdowns.

To put things into perspective, Dickerson had 13 catches for two touchdowns in 2008.

Talk about a turnaround for a guy who started his time at Pitt as a wide receiver before moving to linebacker in his sophomore season, then to tight end last year.

Dickerson and the rest of the Panther offense have made a great turnaround this season, and since the monumental collapse against North Carolina State, the defense has improved over the season.It leads the country in sacks with 33. That’s four more than the always-defensive USC Trojans.

No matter how well the offense plays, Williams said he doesn’t want fans to forget about the defense. The Panthers want to make it as hard as possible for other teams to play them.

“I was really irritated, personally,” Williams said about giving up two touchdowns to the Bulls Saturday. “I wanted to come out with a goose egg.”

Maybe next time.