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Louisville is 'key game' for Pitt

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt's Mike Shanahan stiff arms Gardner-Webb's Drew White into the turf at Heinz Field on Saturday September 22, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

If fans can sharpen their pencils and do enough math, they can figure a way for Pitt (2-3, 0-2) to win the Big East championship, even if the Panthers lose to Louisville on Saturday at Heinz Field.

But history and logic tell a different story: Lose and forget about it.

In the 21 seasons of Big East football, the champion never has lost three conference games. In fact, the champ has lost twice in only four seasons, and each time co-winners were involved.

“With a 12-game schedule, anything is pretty much a must-win,” said senior defensive back Andrew Taglianetti said. “We are in the hole, 0-2. This is a key game. It's going to be a challenge, but I think it's a game we have to go out and win.”

Pitt appeared to be a title contender before snapping a two-game winning streak last week in a 14-13 loss at Syracuse. That game was disappointing for the Panthers, who have lost 10 games in the past 1½ seasons — five by four points or fewer.

But the loss to Syracuse offered flashes of hope that Pitt's resurgent passing game can work just as well against undefeated and 18th-ranked Louisville (5-0) as it did in the Carrier Dome.

Pitt wide receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan often worked against Syracuse single coverage, and they responded with 14 receptions for 213 yards.

Coach Paul Chryst said Louisville has shown a similar look this season.

“Man, they feel confident about matching up with a team's receivers,” he said. “If you're in a pro formation, they can bring an extra guy down into the box (to stop the run) because they're not afraid to play man. I think they're a good defense. Schematically, it's very sound. Enough pressures to where you've got to be aware and communicate. And I think they have good players.”

Louisville coach Charlie Strong puts the pressure on the rest of his defense because he has so much trust in his secondary. Three-year starter Hakeem Smith, 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, works at strong safety and Calvin Pryor (6-2, 210), a two-year regular, is an impactful free safety with a nation-leading four forced fumbles.

Cornerbacks Terell Floyd and Adrian Bushell have held up well in single coverage, but Pitt counters with the Big East's No. 2 passing game (303.2 yards per game).

The matchup is intriguing, but Pitt can't afford the mistakes and penalties that led to the Syracuse loss.

“We really have to play our best game,” Taglianetti said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997. Kevin Gorman contributed to this report.

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