Pitt's line key to successful offense

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Running back Dion Lewis is the nation's fourth-leading rusher and on some watch lists for the Heisman Trophy. Quarterback Bill Stull is the most efficient quarterback in the Big East Conference and a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award. And Dorin Dickerson and Jonathan Baldwin have scored 13 touchdowns between them.

Pitt's skill position players are being recognized for their stellar seasons, but one of the overlooked aspects in the success of the Panthers' high-octane offense has been the play of an underrated and underappreciated offensive line.

"We're offensive linemen, so we're used to being in the background," said senior center Robb Houser. "But we do take pride in what those guys are doing."

Perhaps, the best way to ascertain the quality of play of the offensive line is not through statistics, but the cleanliness of Stull's No. 11 jersey. Stull has been sacked four times in eight games. Overall, Pitt quarterbacks have been sacked seven times, the best mark in the Big East. Last year, the Panthers gave up 32 sacks in 13 games, which ranked last in the conference.

"It's just awesome," Stull said of the way he is being protected. "For the season to come together like this is very encouraging. We always say it starts up front and ends up front. If they keep playing the way they're playing ... keeping my jersey clean, Dion's jersey clean, Ray [Graham's] jersey clean, it's going to be pretty exciting."

Houser is joined by guards Joe Thomas and John Malecki and tackles Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix. All but Nix are seniors, which has something to do with the way they are playing. In addition, offensive line coach Tony Wise is in his second season coaching the unit. Wise set in place his foundation for teaching last season, and the carryover to this season has been evident.

Continuity breeds confidence, and confidence breeds production.

Another aspect of the improvement was a change in offensive philosophy. Under new coordinator Frank Cignetti, Stull is utilizing three- and five-step drops and getting rid of the ball quicker than he did last year. And, when his receivers are covered downfield, Stull checks down to his backs or throws the ball away.

A year ago, he was holding the ball in hopes of throwing the ball downfield for a big play.

But beyond the change of schemes, Cignetti said the line is doing the one, basic thing that all effective lines must do: They are being physically dominant.

"Football starts up front," Cignetti said. "It's a game of blocking and tackling. Coach Wise has done a tremendous job bringing those five guys together to play as one. You can't be a physical, tough football team without the offensive line dominating the line of scrimmage. Our personality starts up front."

And Pitt's personality has been to impose its will on opponents. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano called Pitt's offensive line "one of the best in the country" before the two teams met earlier this month.

Schiano won't get any arguments from Stull, who has thrown 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

"It's awesome to be back there and trust that if something is going on on the outside that Jason and Lucas will run those back and I can step up," Stull said.

"And I trust our center and guards to hold that core, so I can make checkdowns or get the ball downfield. The trust factor is so [important]. You don't even have to think about it. Just go out there and play. A lot of guys feel that way on this team."

NOTES -- The Panthers practiced yesterday and will have the next two days off, a switch from previous years under Wannstedt during an off week. In previous years, Wannstedt would have a conditioning session Friday morning before sending his players home for the weekend. He said he changed the routine this season because the off week came later in the season. "I think it will be a nice change of scenery for them," Wannstedt said. "I'm encouraging them to go home and get away from it for two days. Then, we'll come back Sunday and be fresh and ready to go."... Wannstedt said he was happy with the focus of his team during the off week. "It's been a good week for us," he said. "We've had an opportunity to expose the kids to Syracuse. I'd like to think when they leave here today that they have been exposed to certain things. They should have a good feel for their basic offense and defense. The attitude has been excellent."... Greg Cross, the quarterback who switched to receiver, will redshirt this season and come back for his senior season next year, said Wannstedt, who has high hopes for him. "He just needs time to learn the receiver position," he said.

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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