Here is the second installment in a series of seven previewing UConn's Big East Conference opponents this season.
Pittsburgh Panthers Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt (first season) 2004 season: 8-4 overall, 4-2 Big East, Fiesta Bowl Basic Offense: Pro-style Basic Defense: 4-3 Starters Returning: 18 (9 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 105th (97.8 ypg) Passing: 24th (260.1 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 48th (140.2 ypg) Passing: 100th (255.3 ypg) Players to Watch: QB Tyler Palko, LB H.B. Blades, WR Greg Lee, CB Josh Lay Outlook: The Panthers return what might be the Big East's most talented roster. Wannstedt has returned the "Pitt" moniker to the Panthers' helmets, ditched former coach Walt Harris' pass-first attack and is leaning hard on the defense.
Wannstedt has a great quarterback in Palko, but is also looking to former Pitt quarterback and Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to improve the non-existent rush attack. Cavanaugh will feature much more play-action and straight drop backs than Harris did, while taking care of the tough-minded Palko's rollout abilities.
The West Allegheny product will have the most solid receiving corps in years with receiver Lee, possession receiver and former walk-on Joe DelSardo and sophomore Terrell Allen returning from a broken wrist which wiped out his 2004 season.
Three starters return to the offensive line and a star of the future might be tailback Rashad Jennings, who could be the key ingredient for a hopeful ground game improvement.
The defense is Wannstedt's baby and the Panthers return the entire defensive coaching staff, including coordinator Paul Rhoads. They'll be challenged with working with an undersized defense. Junior linebacker Blades is the star and will be moved to middle linebacker, but the Panthers defense is in need of an overhaul and may struggle through 2005.
UConn Scouting Report
UConn visits Pittsburgh November 12, and both teams will have it fresh in their minds that the Huskies won this battle last season.
Pittsburgh is ranked No. 23 in the AP preseason poll and 25th in the Week 1 USA Today poll heading into the season. The Panthers open their season at home against Notre Dame, then travel to Ohio and Nebraska before returning home to face Youngstown State to finish its non-conference schedule.
First-year coach Wannstedt not only brings years of coaching experience, but has coached in the NFL and has put together a highly-skilled staff that should maximize the players' skills.
Tyler Palko, a Rivals.com first-team All-Big East selection, comes into the season as the conference's best quarterback and will have talented players surrounding him at all the skill positions.
Wide receiver Greg Lee, another Rivals.com All-Big East first team member, will cause problems all season long and poses a challenge to UConn's inexperienced secondary.
Pittsburgh visits Louisville, the preseason favorite to win the Big East, on the Thursday night prior to hosting UConn, so the Panthers will have eight days to prepare for the Huskies after facing the conference's best team.
The UConn game will be Pittsburgh's final home game of the season. It closes out the 2005 regular season November 24 at West Virginia.
Pittsburgh's defense should be rock solid with talent on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
Senior defensive tackle Thomas Smith had 47 tackles and three sacks last season, linebacker H.B. Blades registered 108 tackles and cornerback Darrelle Revis was a Rivals.com Freshman All-American in 2004.
Coming Wednesday: A look at the 2005 Syracuse Orange.
Note: Harry Psaros and the entire staff at Pantherlair.com helped with compiling this preview.
Adam Gorney covers UConn sports for Rivals.com and can be reached at [email protected].