Suddenly, the idea of Pitt winning the Big East is not so far fetched.
Suddenly, all those lofty preseason predictions about the Panthers don't look so silly.
And, suddenly, the Panthers are proving that, when their best players show up, they are an extremely tough team to deal with on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
That much was clear yesterday after the Panthers shook off a slow start to blow out Rutgers, 41-21, before a crowd of 50,425 at Heinz Field. Pitt outgained the Scarlet Knights, 513 yards to 203, had seven sacks and forced two turnovers.
As for star power, wide receiver Jon Baldwin showed up for the second consecutive week in a big way. He caught five passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, Dion Lewis rushed 17 times for 130 yards and a touchdown and defensive end Jabaal Sheard had two sacks, forced a fumble and had two quarterback hurries.
Combine the re-emergence of Lewis and Baldwin with the continued maturation of sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri -- who completed 21 of 27 passes for 307 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- and it is clear the Panthers' offense is rounding into form.
"Tino Sunseri has continued to make progress," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He made good decisions in the second half that he didn't make in the first half and he hadn't made in the last couple of weeks. I thought we started off slow. We were not flat, we just were not executing. We were going to find out what type of team we have in the second half.
"I was very, very proud of our guys and how we stepped up in the second half and made plays."
It is the second consecutive easy victory for the Panthers who, at 4-3, 2-0 in the Big East, sit atop the conference standings and are the only Big East team without a conference loss.
"We just got whooped today in all three phases," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "We struggled protecting the passer and, besides our blocked punt, we really didn't do much on special teams and our defense didn't play the way they are capable of playing and, when that happens, it is on me.
"We obviously didn't get our football team ready to play today. Pitt is a good football team, and they are hitting their stride now."
The game also marked the first time the Panthers have scored 40 or more points in consecutive Big East games (the Panthers beat Syracuse, 45-14, last week), and it was the first time the Panthers have had 500 or more total yards in a game since 2006 in a 51-6 blowout of The Citadel.
Furthermore, it was the first time since 2000 that Pitt has had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the same game.
Sunseri said that the offense does go to another level when Baldwin and Lewis play at a high level.
"We always believe that any given player on this team can have a big day or make plays," Sunseri said. "In the past weeks, Dion and Jon haven't had to make plays because other guys have stepped up. We always want to be a complete offense. We have a lot of guys on this team, guys like Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Ray Graham who can make adjustments and make plays.
"Personally, it was special to throw for 300 yards in a game. It was the first time I've ever done that. I knew we were close going into the last couple of drives and coach [Frank] Cignetti called a couple of pass plays so I was able to get to that mark. It was pretty cool."
Baldwin added, "We just have to keep building off today. Early in the season, a lot of people started counting us out, but we always believed in ourselves as a team and, now, here we stand, in first place in the Big East. And we know we can still play much, much better than we did today."
Although the Panthers ran away from the Scarlet Knights in the end, Wannstedt was correct when he said they got off to a bad start.
The game was tied, 14-14, at the half thanks in large part to an interception thrown by Sunseri -- which was Graham's fault because he couldn't hold onto the pass -- as well as the blocked punt, which Rutgers' Brandon Bing recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
But the Panthers took over early in the third quarter.
Safety Jarred Holley got Pitt started when he forced a fumble on Rutgers' first possession of the second half and, six plays later, the Panthers cashed it in for points when Sunseri hit Mike Cruz with an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers forced a Rutgers punt, and drove 49 yards in nine plays to take a 24-14 lead on an 18-yard field goal by Dan Hutchins -- who pushed the lead to 27-14 on the Panthers' next possession with a 34-yard field goal.
Any doubts about the outcome then faded away when Sunseri found Baldwin with a 40-yard touchdown pass in which Baldwin -- who made three spectacular catches -- ran into the end zone and outjumped Rutgers cornerback David Rowe for the ball.
Rowe, who had to cover Baldwin all day, came away clearly impressed and said that sometimes the other guy -- in this case Baldwin -- is just that good.
"He'll definitely be on my fantasy team when he goes to the [NFL]," Rowe said. "His ball-skills are amazing. He's just a great player."
NOTES -- Pitt seemed to get out of the game relatively healthy, although offensive right guard Lucas Nix was sidelined in the second half with an undisclosed injury. "I don't think it is anything major, he should be OK," Wannstedt said. ... Defensive end Brandon Lindsey led the Panthers with three sacks. He has a team-high eight this season. ... As expected, freshman defensive end Bryan Murphy played for the first time. ... Cruz had two touchdown catches, his first two this season. ... Baldwin had two receptions of 40 yards or more, giving him a total of 19 career receptions of 40 yards or more. He also has 11 career games with 100 yards or more receiving. ... Pitt beat Boston College, 42-26, at Three Rivers Stadium Oct. 21, 2000 as John Turman threw for 332 yards, Antonio Bryant had 222 receiving yards and Kevan Barlow ran for 209. That was the previous time Pitt had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher in the same game.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.