Pitt needs quick start against Louisville
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The Big East's football conference was formed in 1993, and in 16 seasons Pitt has won one championship. For a team that once was considered the Beast of the East, the Panthers have as many conference titles as Cincinnati and Louisville, which joined the league in 2005, and four fewer than their chief rival, the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The quest for a second championship begins tonight at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium when the Panthers play Louisville in a game featured on ESPN2.
Pitt was selected as the preseason favorite to win the Big East at the conference's annual media days in July. If that same poll were taken today, the favorite likely would be undefeated No. 10 Cincinnati.
• Game: Pitt (3-1) vs. Louisville (1-2), 8 p.m., today, Louisville, Ky., Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Panthers favored by 7.
• TV, radio: ESPN2, WBGG-AM (970), WWSW-FM (94.5).
• Pitt: Playing Big East opener on the road for the second year in a row and for the fifth time in the past six years. ...Finished second in the Big East behind Cincinnati with a 5-2 record last season. ... Winless in its past three visits to Louisville. ... Louisville leads the all-time series, 7-5. ... Led by freshman RB Dion Lewis (493 yards and seven touchdowns) and senior TE Dorin Dickerson (17 receptions for 155 yards and four touchdowns).
• Louisville: Is 1-3 in Big East openers. ... The Cardinals are 15-13 in Big East play since joining the league in 2005. ... 10-4 at home in conference play. ... Only victory this season came against Indiana State. ... Has lost past two games at Kentucky and Utah. ... Led by RB Vic Anderson (225 yards and three touchdowns) and WR Scott Long (15 receptions for 218 yards).
• Hidden stat: Pitt snapped a seven-game losing streak against Louisville with last year's 41-7 victory at Heinz Field.
Coming off a 38-31 loss at North Carolina State and in the midst of addressing numerous problems with its offense and defense, Pitt will be looking to re-establish itself as a viable contender against the Cardinals.
"Every team in the conference has the goal in August of winning the Big East championship," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Everyone is singing the same tune. Everyone wants to be the Big East champ. This year, five teams received votes [in the preseason poll], so it's obvious any one of the eight teams are capable of it. No one is really a heavy favorite and now we start playing each other."
Louisville is not one of those five teams to receive a vote as a contender. The Cardinals still appear to be in rebuilding mode under third-year coach Steve Kragthorpe.
Louisville has not had a winning season since 2006, when it went 12-1 and beat Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. The Cardinals were 6-6 in 2007 and 5-7 last season. They are currently 1-2 after consecutive losses to Kentucky and Utah the past two weeks.
Wannstedt said Louisville's record is not representative of the type of football the Cardinals have played through the first three games.
"Louisville has played good football overall," Wannstedt said. "They turned the ball over last week [against Utah]. Against Kentucky, they got it at the end with a chance to win the game. They just had some costly mistakes as a team. I think they are playing a lot better than people anticipated. It's been the turnovers that have really hurt them. They are a physical football team. They run the ball well. Their quarterback is accurate and they play good defense. So, this will be a big challenge for our team -- No. 1, to bounce back from last week's game and, No. 2, to go down there and play in front of a very excited and hostile crowd on a Friday night on ESPN."
Louisville quarterback Justin Burke has thrown three touchdown passes but also four interceptions. His favorite target is senior receiver Scott Long, whom Wannstedt called "a big-time player."
Wannstedt also said Louisville is a "very physical" team, but the Cardinals are averaging only 124.5 yards rushing per game (next to last in the Big East) and give up a Big East-high 133.7 yards on the ground per game.
The Panthers, who struggled to run the ball against North Carolina State, will look to get back on track against the Cardinals, who allowed 214 yards rushing to Utah.
Getting off to a good start in conference play is paramount to a successful season. In the past four years, only one team lost its Big East opener and went on to win the conference championship -- West Virginia in 2007.
Pitt won its first two league games -- it beat Syracuse and South Florida on the road -- to open conference play last season, and by the final weekend of the season, the Panthers were still in contention for the league championship.
They are hoping for a similar jump-start with a victory tonight.
"Getting the first win is always the best way to start," senior tight end Nate Byham said.
"If we drop this first one, it becomes: When are we going to win a game? Last year we started out with Big East wins and that gets your confidence up. We have [five] Big East games in a row, so starting out with a win is huge for our momentum."
First Published October 2, 2009 12:00 am