For The Tribune-Democrat
The season’s final third is quickly approaching for the Pitt football team, and with every win the Panthers are closer to clinching the Big East Conference championship and BCS bid that accompanies it.
Pitt (5-3), which is unbeaten at 3-0 to lead the Big East, faces Connecticut (4-4, 1-2) Thursday night at 7:30 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN.
“If you look back over the past couple of years at this game, whether it’s at our place or up there, it’s always been a very tough and close game, back-and-forth,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference. “Their win last week was a huge one for them, beating West Virginia. We all know what a good football team WVU has.
“It’s not a secret how that happens. Right now, they’re the least-penalized team in the Big East. They lead the league in interceptions, and they’ve given up the least amount of sacks. (But) I liked our energy and focus in practice (Sunday). We just can’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to take it one day at a time. We’ll go up there and see if we can (keep it going).”
While Pitt has remained unbeaten through the early portion in this Big East schedule, all the other teams have beaten one another. Just last week alone, UConn knocked off West Virginia at home, and Louisville stopped upstart Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
“I think, when you see things, like what happened last week, it really doesn’t matter,” Wannstedt added. “How does Louisville go up there with a backup quarterback and running back and beat Syracuse at home?
“Especially when Syracuse has everything (bowl eligibility). It didn’t matter to those kids on Louisville’s team of what was on the line. All that matters is that guys had the opportunity and they went in and performed.”
Pitt’s offensive co-captain, fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, believed his fellow upperclassmen have done a good job keeping the younger Panthers on point after the team had a rough 2-3 start to this season.
“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.”
There’s another factor involved, as far as this game is concerned, according to senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaal Sheard.
“(Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett) reminded us that we haven’t won a Thursday night game yet, and playing on national TV we really haven’t shown up,” Sheard said. “So, this is our week to show up on big-time TV, and everybody has to step up and play. I feel like we’re getting better and better with every week, and we’re more focused than we had been at the beginning of the season.
“And we’re playing more together on offense, defense and special teams. So, we’re hitting on all cylinders right now, and I think we’re playing as well as we’ve played all year. But we know we can play even better. We can feel a sense of urgency from the coaches. They want the Big East as much as we do. So, we’ve been working hard, and we really want this Big East title.”
And a win against UConn will get the Panthers closer to reaching that goal.
Notes: Wannstedt said that fifth-year senior DE Greg Romeus has been working hard, but he’s still listed as questionable by the head coach. Wannstedt noted that it will be a game-time decision if Romeus plays. ... Senior safety Dom DeCicco joined Pinkston and Sheard as a team captain, voted on last week by their teammates after Pitt used game captains all season.