Ron Cook: Panthers' progress will be stunted with a loss to Scarlet Knights

This is a chance that Pitt can't afford to miss

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The Pitt football program has reached a critical point in its development under second-year coach Dave Wannstedt. The Panthers are 6-1 and banging on the Top 25 door. They will play unbeaten No. 19 Rutgers at Heinz Field Saturday.

Win it and Pitt's progress will be greatly accelerated. With games ahead at South Florida and Connecticut, the Panthers could be 9-1 and ranked in the Top 20 when they play No. 4 West Virginia at home Nov. 16.

But lose to Rutgers? You know what people will say.

Same old Pitt ...

Can't win the big games at home ...

"I truly believe we're setting the foundation we want to set here," Wannstedt said yesterday from his office overlooking the team's South Side practice field.

"Is it going to happen [Saturday]? I don't know. Are we ready? I like to think so, but I don't know. We're going to find out."

Too often, Pitt has blown this kind of chance. Too often, it lost home games it desperately needed to win. That's why it's still a notch or two below the Big East Conference's top teams -- West Virginia and Louisville -- and why it has such a hard time putting fannies in the Heinz Field seats.

Pitt had all the momentum in the world when it moved into the new stadium in 2001 only to lose three consecutive games there to South Florida, Miami and Syracuse. It lost important home games to Texas A&M and West Virginia in '02, to Notre Dame and Miami in '03, to Nebraska in '04, to Notre Dame last season and to Michigan State this season. Victories in even a few of those games would have boosted Pitt's image as a major player in the college game and enhanced its appeal to Pittsburgh's discerning sporting public.

Now comes Rutgers.

The State University of New Jersey is 6-0 even if it has, much like Pitt, built its record against lightweight opponents.

This is an opportunity Pitt can't afford to waste.

It's easy to like Pitt's chances and understand why it is a 61/2-point favorite. Quarterback Tyler Palko is playing terrific football and should be able to move the Panthers through the air. What Pitt needs to do is stop the Rutgers' running game, led by tailback Ray Rice (a staggering 149.8 yards per game) and fullback Brian Leonard, probably the best at his position in Division I-A. If Pitt's young defensive line gets whipped the way it did against Michigan State to the sad song of 335 rushing yards, it will be another long night for the home team.

"Half the stuff was mental against Michigan State," Wannstedt said. "Guys have cleaned that up. We're just playing a little better. We're not making as many mistakes."

The challenge facing Wannstedt is enormous, not just against Rutgers, but for the rest of the season and beyond. Like all coaches, he has to win to keep his job. But he also has to find a way to fill those Heinz Field seats.

Good luck with that.

It's nothing for the other significant in-state program to draw 110,000 to its games in Happy Valley. It's something for Pitt to attract 50,000 or even 40,000. A crowd of 66,451 watched Notre Dame torch the Panthers last season in Wannstedt's first game and, apparently, didn't like the experience. Attendance for Pitt's final four home games last season was fewer than 36,000. A crowd of 46,758 saw the Panthers beat Virginia in their opener this season, which, in one man's opinion, was one of just four truly big home victories for Pitt since Heinz Field opened. But after the beating by Michigan State, only a little more than 30,000 turned out to see The Citadel and Toledo.

Such is the difficult life for a college team that has underachieved at times in a pro town that's owned by the Steelers.

"It's hard," Wannstedt said, not exactly telling secrets.

"I was at the University of Miami when we had the Heisman Trophy winner" -- Vinny Testaverde -- "and were 8-0 and had 35,000 for a game against East Carolina. I was at Pitt when we won the national championship in '76 and had Tony Dorsett and averaged 48,000. I was at USC when, if we didn't play Notre Dame or UCLA, we might get 40,000 when we played Oregon or Oregon State ...

"We want a packed house, just like everyone else. If it's to be, it will be. All I know is we're going to keep recruiting the top players who people want to see. We're going to keep winning games. I want to put out a product that the alumni and the people of this city can be proud of. That's all I can do. That's all my football team can do."

A win against Rutgers would help.

A win against West Virginia or No. 6 Louisville at Heinz Field Nov. 25 would be an enormous boost.

"That's why these players came to Pitt, to play in these kinds of games," Wannstedt said. "That will be my message to them this week."

Wannstedt might want to consider adding one more thing.

Win. Please.



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