At the beginning of the season, this game was looking like one that could feature two teams battling for the conference championship. Now, it looks like one that could be a trap game for the Panthers.
In his weekly press conference, Dave Wannstedt talked about Pitt's difficult with UCONN:
"I think that if you look back over the years, at least since I’ve been here, our game with Connecticut has always been a very challenging one. They are similar in a lot of ways to us from the standpoint that they’re a physical football team and they run the football very effectively. They have one of the top rushers in our conference and in the country, which is not new for them. It’s a philosophy that they have. They play the 4-3 defense very similar to us from a schematic standpoint.
"Again, if you look back over the past couple of years at this game, whether it is at our place or up there, it has always been a very tough and close game, back-and-forth.
That's not just coach-speak, either. Pitt is only 3-3 against Connecticut since they joined the Big East and the Panthers' victory last season was on a last-second field goal as time expired. Pitt's definitely had their share of problems with the Huskies.
Then of course, there's the issue of another nationally televised contest for Pitt:
"This is our week to show up on big-time TV," said Sheard, who leads the conference in sacks (1.12 per game) and forced fumbles. "Everyone's got to step up and play.
Well, that's kind of misleading. 'Game' would imply that this was Pitt's only national TV appearance. Obviously that's not the case. Pitt is 0-3 when the spotlight's been on them this year. Sure, those games included two against pretty good teams, but losing game after game on national TV isn't real good for the program, or for that matter, the Big East.
Thursday night road contests against conference foes are already tough enough. Throw in Connecticut's huge home-field advantage and this is no gimme game for Pitt:
Rentschler Field holds only 40,000 but is loud and has been tough on opponents this season. The Huskies are 4-0 at home including a 16-13 overtime win Oct. 29 against West Virginia.
Wannstedt said the Panthers spent a lot of time in practice the past week working with crowd noise piped in and developing some silent snap counts for the offense because he expects it to be loud and hostile.
"The crowd is on top of you," Wannstedt said. "It will be a very enthusiastic crowd. We're expecting it to be loud as always and we had the noise at practice. Just from being up there two or four years ago, if you let them get into the game they will be into it. I'm optimistic we can keep our focus.
For me, this is looking like a trap game if there ever was one. The team is off a bye week and has had plenty of time to hear how great they are. They've got the Backyard Brawl coming up and the rematch against Cincinnati still left...not to mention an improving USF team. Still Jason Pinkston insists the team is taking it one game at a time:
"We know what’s at stake, but we still take it just one game at a time," Pinkston said. "We also know that these four games can make or break our season, so we’re aware of the situation. But we’ve been taking each game at a time since the beginning of the season, so we won’t change that approach.
"(And) we’ve been pretty steady with that all year. We have a bunch of younger guys, but the seniors have constantly reminded them to stay focused on the game that we have coming up each week and not worry about anything else. And I think we’ve remained focused taking it one game at a time."
About that bye week, having that has to help, right? Just gives the coaches more time to beat the game plan into the players' heads, right? Well, Pitt hasn't been all that great after bye weeks:
Given the option, Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt might want to forego the concept of a bye week altogether.
After all, his Panthers haven't always played well after extended breaks since Wannstedt took over in 2005. In fact, Pitt has been downright awful after byes since the 2005 season, posting a 3-8 record in games following a layoff of at least 11 days.
And there's still no indication if Greg Romeus will play. Then again, Pitt will have to make way for him, anyway.
Anyway, Pitt's going to have its hands full with Jordan Todman, one of the conference's best running backs, but the Huskies' passing attack is severely limited. Zach Fraser gets the nod, but he's the third starting quarterback the team has had, so their passing game hasn't been entirely stable.
This is a perfect opportunity for Pitt to slip up, but I don't see it. I expect the Panthers to come out with a win.