Pitt begins its four-game push for the 2010 Big East title this week when the Panthers kick off the final third of the regular season with a Thursday night showdown at Connecticut. Pitt could have a big boost on the defensive line if redshirt senior end Greg Romeus rejoins the team for the game against the Huskies.
Romeus has not played since the opener at Utah due to back surgery. He was back on the practice field last week, and the coaches will see how he looks this week and decide if he will play Thursday night.
"The decision is real simple: he has practiced, he'll be listed as questionable, and it will be a game-time decision (regarding) how much he plays, if he plays, and what we do with him," Dave Wannstedt said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "He's working and we're just taking it day at a time."
Wannstedt said that a number of factors that will go into the final decision on Romeus's playing status for Thursday.
"A little bit of everything: how he feels, game-shape, technique work. There are a lot of things that we're evaluating on a day-to-day basis."
From first to third and in-between
Connecticut has used three quarterbacks so far this season, and the signal-caller who will face Pitt was the starter at the beginning of the year before falling as low as third on the depth chart, rising to backup status, and eventually climbing back into the starting job, albeit due to injury.
Redshirt senior Zach Frazer arrived at Connecticut from Mechanicsburg by way of Notre Dame three years ago. He started the first four games of this season before being dropped to third string behind Cody Endres and Michael Box. After Endres was dismissed from the team, Box took over as the starter, but he suffered an injury that thrust Frazer back onto the first team.
Frazer then led Connecticut to its 16-13 overtime win against West Virginia, completing 18-of-29 for 166 yards.
"Frazer's a good player," Wannstedt said. "He can make all the throws, he's got game experience, and he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. When you look at the quarterbacks that we've faced over the last couple weeks, he's probably as experienced and as confident as any of them."
The last time Frazer faced Pitt was also the Panthers' last trip to Rentschler Field in 2008. Frazer completed 0-of-4 passes with three interceptions in mop-up duty of a Connecticut loss.
Bye week focus
By the time Pitt takes the field Thursday night in Connecticut, the Panthers will have had 12 days off between games. While Pitt's record under Wannstedt following breaks of at least 11 days is 3-8, the head coach said Monday that he thinks this layoff was well-spent.
"I think the number one thing we got out of it was a little bit of rest, to be quite honest with you. I wasn't concerned, but I was anxious to see how we would respond coming back from a bit of a rest, and the guys were good. I thought I saw some quickness back.
"At least, in their minds, guys were coming up and that was the theme: I feel good, I feel quick, I feel like I got my step back."
At the Rent
Pitt has a 3-3 all-time record against Connecticut but a 1-2 mark at Rentschler Field, the Huskies' home stadium, dating back to 2004 when the two teams first met. Walt Harris coached that year's Pitt team; Wannstedt is 1-1 at Connecticut.
"They're on top of you, and they have a very enthusiastic crowd. We had noise at practice yesterday, we'll have it today and tomorrow. From being up there two years ago and four years ago at night, if you let them, [the crowd will] be into it. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to keep our focus. We've played some road games (this season) you hope to take some of that experience with you up to Connecticut."
With Louisville winning at Syracuse on Saturday and South Florida beating Rutgers on Wednesday night, Pitt is the only Big East team with fewer than two losses (the Panthers have a 3-0 record). The Week Ten results were just the latest in a season that has seen the Big East struggle to produce consistently good play from any single team.
"Hopefully that's a lesson to everybody: coaches, players, media," Wannstedt said Monday. "Every week, you're only as good as the game that you're playing. What we did last week really doesn't matter. We could go out and rush for 300 yards last week, and all that matters is rushing for 300 yards this week. I think that's the challenge that every team faces, and when you see the things that happened last week - how does Louisville go up there with a backup quarterback and a backup running back and beat Syracuse at home when Syracuse has everything on the line? - it didn't matter to those kids at Louisville what was on the line. All that mattered was that guys got opportunities and were able to perform.
"I think our players understand that. But do we tell them? Heck yeah, we do."
Another top back
In Pitt's last game, the Panthers took on Louisville running back Bilal Powell, who entered that game leading the Big East in rushing. This week, Pitt will face Connecticut back Jordan Todman, who is the current conference leader in rushing with 136.3 yards per game.
"He's one of the fastest backs in the country, and he runs with his pads very low," Wannstedt said. "From a tackling standpoint, he's not one of those upright runners who runs in there and gives you clean shots at him. He runs with his pads low, he forces you to use really good technique when tackling him. And he's got really good hands: they'll throw him the ball on a lot of screens and flare passes.
"He's a complete back. He's not one of those guys you can zero in on and say, when he's in the game he's only going to run these three plays."