Pitt left tackle Jason Pinkston will face a stiff test Saturday when the 20th-ranked Panthers (7-2, 3-1 Big East) play at No. 19 Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1).
The Bearcats feature one of the most active defensive units in the country with a strong pass rush, and that starts with standout defensive end Connor Barwin, the Big East's second-leading sacker.
Barwin, with seven sacks and 9 1/2 tackles for losses, is the kind of rush end who is a handful for any tackle, particularly Pinkston, who is essentially a first-year starter.
"This is my first time against Cincinnati, and seeing them on film, they look very good," said Pinkston, a redshirt sophomore. "[Barwin] is very fast, he is very athletic, he is a lot like a mix of [Pitt's two defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus]. He plays on both sides [left and right]. This little stretch of games really is going to be a challenge for me because of the defensive ends we'll be facing.
"The good thing is we have a good group of ends on our team as well, so that helps us prepare for it. That helps a lot. You can't take a play off. I get as much work as I can against them and go from there."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has been impressed by Pinkston's play this year. Pinkston, who is 6 feet 4, 300 pounds, began his career at Pitt as a defensive tackle, then was moved to offensive tackle, but has spent the past year battling shoulder injuries. His season ended after three games last year because he had to have shoulder surgery.
Wannstedt said Pinkston will be tested this week but said he's confident Pinkston will hold his own.
"The competition this week is as good as it has been all year for him," Wannstedt said. "[Cincinnati's] defense has been the mainstay of their success and he has to step up to the challenge. Jason has done a very good job, especially for a guy who has not yet had a spring practice. And if you really look back on his career, he went from defense to offense, then had his shoulder operated on, then he tries to play hurt. For a guy who has never had a solid year of camp, then spring practice and offseason lifting, he's doing a great job.
"I think the one thing is, if he wasn't such a good athlete, he probably wouldn't be able to make progress he's made."
Pitt's offense has been powered by LeSean McCoy and the running game this season, but the Panthers proved in their most recent game -- a 41-7 win against Louisville -- that they can be successful even if McCoy doesn't have a big game. The Panthers beat the Cardinals despite rushing for 90 yards. McCoy accounted for only 39 yards on 17 carries.
But Pitt's passing game was able to make some big plays and the Panthers got two touchdowns by their defense. Wannstedt said that formula might work against Cincinnati, but he's not interested in finding out.
"We are going to have to be balanced on offense. That's sort of the company line, but we know we have to run the ball," said Wannstedt. "It is not a secret and everyone knows it, and for us to be able to run the ball, LeSean needs to play well. Now, what we did last week was we gave our team the confidence that we can score points and move the ball even if we are struggling running the ball.
"So I would say it was a good thing that happened rather than a negative, but LeSean understands he will have to play good and make some plays for us in order for us to score some points and have a chance to win."
Wannstedt played at Pitt and has been a coach for more than 30 years, so he has seen the game evolve and he has seen how players have changed. One major change he has seen is in the amount of media scrutiny and coverage that players receive.
"[In the old days], there was no Internet, there was no talk radio," Wannstedt said. "Unfortunately, to have some of these 18-year-old kids be scrutinized and criticized on talk radio and nationally, and more times than we know, it affects the kids. And all of these guys aren't going to the NFL, only about 2 percent are, so they aren't being paid a lot of money and they are not professionals. So sometimes the scrutiny on these kids is a little more than it needs to be.
"The media makes you out to be a lot better than you really are at times and a lot worse than you really are at times. For an 18-year-old that has never had that type of good or bad notoriety, it can be difficult to deal with."
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.