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October 25, 2010

Pitt sits atop the Big East

After six weeks in the 2010 season, West Virginia was looking like the toast of the Big East conference. But after Week Eight, with all conference teams having played at least two games within the league, a new but familiar favorite has emerged:

Pitt.

The Panthers, who were named the Big East's preseason No. 1, sit on top of the conference with a 2-0 record in league play. No other team is undefeated in Big East games this season.

"Everybody was counting us out and West Virginia was the big talk and you didn't really hear us involved anymore," junior receiver Jonathan Baldwin said after Pitt beat Rutgers 41-21 at Heinz Field on Saturday. "But right now we're standing number-one in the Big East.

West Virginia opened the season 4-1 and had one of the conference's two wins over BCS non-conference opponents - 31-17 win against Maryland, which outshined Connecticut's defeat of Villanova - and a near-miss at LSU had observers thinking very highly of the Mountaineers.

WVU opened conference play with a 20-6 win against South Florida in Morgantown last week, but the Mountaineers, who had climbed to No. 23 in the polls, fell to Syracuse at home on Saturday. Rutgers and Cincinnati also entered this past weekend undefeated in the conference, but the Bearcats lost to South Florida on Friday night and the Scarlet Knights took their first Big East loss at Heinz Field on Saturday.

Those losses and Pitt's win have the Panthers atop the conference standings at 2-0.

"You never know who's going to get beat each week," senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard said on Saturday. "You have to go out every week, practice hard, and do the same work - if not more - for the next team."

Pitt enters this week's game against Louisville with an unblemished Big East record, but the Panthers also appear to be coming together as they head into the final five games. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown for 588 yards, seven touchdowns, and just one interception in the last two games; sophomore running back Dion Lewis logged his first 100-yard game of the season against Rutgers; and Baldwin looked like his 2009 self with five catches for 139 yards and one touchdown on Saturday.

On top of that, Pitt's defense has recorded six turnovers and eight sacks in the Panthers' two Big East games, and the combination should give conference opponents concern that Pitt might be hitting a high gear after weathering early-season struggles.

"They can talk about us, but I like being the underdog," Sheard said. "When we were on top, it got us all big-headed, and look where we're at now. So I figure that being the underdog is better. There's not so much pressure on you. When you're number-one, there's always pressure on you and guys gunning for you. Being the underdog's a lot better. I imagine a lot of attention will come to us. Hopefully we all stay humble and grounded."

"We're still a team in progress," Dave Wannstedt said on Saturday. "We have to work hard this week and get better. That's what these kids have done and continue to do that. We haven't played as good as we can play. We've got a lot of room to grow and we can get a lot better as a team."

Pitt still has five games left in the season, including anticipated showdowns against West Virginia at home and the season finale on the road at Cincinnati. But the Panthers appear to be rounding into the form that most expected them to take before the season began.

"It's time for us to win the Big East. It's our chance," Sheard said. "We were so close last year and had it taken away from us. We have to go out there and grind."





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