Of these three football results, which, say five years ago, would have been the most surprising?
Pitt beats Notre Dame
Minnesota beats Penn State
Buffalo beats the Steelers
The first two occurred yesterday to the surprise of many. The third could well occur this afternoon to the surprise of few.
There was nothing flukey about Pitt’s 28-21 win over Notre Dame. The Panthers played probably as well as they can and the Irish simply are not that good. Pitt dominated in the second half, 21-7, to remove any doubt as to the validity of the win. The Panthers defense, which looked hopelessly inept earlier in the season, was superb and made two key interceptions against Irish quarterback Tommy Rees.
It has been written, and correctly so, after some recent Pitt losses that few, if any, of the opposing players would have been recruited by Pitt. The comment was a criticism of the Pitt coaching staff which, presumably, had the better players and could not win.
The reverse was true last night at Heinz Field. Few of the Pitt players would have met the standard for recruitment at Notre Dame. Which means credit to coach Paul Chryst and his staff for this win.
The victory could be the momentum the Panthers, 5-4, need to finish strong, but their history tells us that is not necessarily so. Pitt finishes this way:
* North Carolina, which has won three in a row including an impressive 45-14 drubbing of Virginia yesterday, at Heinz Field Saturday.
* At Syracuse, which beat Maryland yesterday and has won three of its past four. But the lone loss in that grouping was 56-0 to Georgia Tech, a team Pitt played well in defeat.
* Miami, which has lost two straight after winning its first eight, comes to Heinz Field for the regular-season finale. The Hurricanes were beaten badly yesterday by Virginia Tech, 42-24. Pitt gave the Hokies a much tougher game.
Penn State losing to Minnesota, once a shocking event, is understandable as the Nittany Lions continue to reel from the Draconian sanctions leveled against it by the NCAA. Penn State did not score a point in the final 33 minutes of the 21-10 loss and did not score a touchdown in the final 46 minutes.
With Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin remaining, the Lions, 5-4, probably will finish at .500, not what its fans have come to expect but an accomplishment in view of the handicaps under which they play.
There’s scant hope of a winning season for the Steelers, who are 2-6, but a victory over the Bills, 3-6, certainly is a possibility.
The Steelers must assert themselves as a team that can stop the run, something they’ve been unable to do most of this season. They are ranked 31st -- out of 32 -- against the run, a sad note to this sad season. The Bills come in with the No. 7 rushing offense and figure to be a major challenge for the Steelers.
Comparative scores are hardly a foolproof measuring stick but games by both teams against New England can be instructive.
The Patriots handled the Steelers pretty much with ease in a 55-31 win last Sunday. In that game, Tom Brady had a passer rating of 158.1. In the season opener, the Bills lost to New England, 23-21, with a field goal in the final seconds being the difference. In that game, Brady had a passer rating of 76.4.
The Steelers schedule for the next five games is Buffalo, Detroit, at Cleveland, at Baltimore, Miami. Only Detroit has a winning record. Once that schedule could have been a springboard to the playoffs. Now it’s only a possible path to respectability.