UConn represents Pitt's latest obstacle
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So far, two weeks of preparation has yielded little success for Pitt during the Dave Wannstedt era.
The Panthers, coming off a bye week after beating Louisville 20-3, are 2-7 after an extensive break since Wannstedt arrived in 2005. And they are only 6-10 all-time in Thursday night games.
The Panthers (5-3, 3-0 Big East) are a road favorite at Connecticut (4-4, 1-2) despite their prime-time history and a track record that suggests they have a difficult time shaking off the rust.
Still, Wannstedt appeared confident during his Monday afternoon news conference.
"Our guys have been good. We gave them a day or two off," Wannstedt said. "I thought that we were a little quicker yesterday. I like our energy and focus in practice.
"We just can't get ahead of ourselves. We'll go up there and see if we can get back on track and play as good as we've played."
"I think that the number one thing that we got out of it was a little bit of rest," Wannstedt said. "I was anxious to see how we would respond coming back from a little bit of rest."
The Panthers will be facing an inspired Connecticut team, which last weekend broke through against West Virginia for the first time in seven tries with a 16-13 overtime victory to improve to 4-0 at home.
"Their win last week was a huge one for them," Wannstedt said. "We all know what a good football team West Virginia has.
"Right now, (Connecticut) is the least-penalized team in the Big East, they lead the league in interceptions and they've given up the least amount of sacks. There are some true statistics and facts that support the success that they have had and the challenges that we have come Thursday night."
Pitt senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard challenged his teammates - only a handful of whom were on the 2006 roster when the Huskies defeated Pitt, 46-45, in double overtime.
Sheard, though, isn't expecting a shootout this time. The Panthers, who are likely to secure a Fiesta Bowl bid if they win out, would prefer a defensive battle at Rentschler Field, where they are 1-2.
"This is our week to show up on big-time TV," said Sheard, who leads the conference in sacks (1.12 per game) and forced fumbles. "Everyone's got to step up and play.
"We need our secondary to make plays, but we have to stop their running game first. We've got to force them to go to their passing game, but they like pounding the ball the way we do."
Senior offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said the Panthers will again lean heavily on the run game in an effort to silence a usually loud crowd. While they have prepared for the noise, the Panthers have focused mostly on a ground game geared around Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.
"They play an eight-man front, so they play (to defend) the run," Pinkston said. "They are a physical group, and they don't change their defense much. They play tough, but we have to keep focusing on the run game.
"You have to keep coming after them. It's going to be physical, and it'll come down to the fourth quarter.
"It's a smaller stadium, but it's loud," Pinkston said. "If you don't take them out of the game right away, they'll be on you. The crowd gives them a lot of momentum, but we aren't worried about anything else, just ourselves."
On the challenges of facing Connecticut:
"I think that if you look back over the years, at least since I've been here, our game with Connecticut has always been a very challenging one. They are similar in a lot of ways to us from the standpoint that they're a physical football team and they run the football very effectively. They have one of the top rushers (Jordan Todman) in our conference and in the country, which is not new for them. It's a philosophy that they have. They play the 4-3 defense very similar to us from a schematic standpoint. Again, if you look back over the past couple of years at this game, whether it is at our place or up there, it has always been a very tough and close game, back-and-forth."
On the consistent success of the Connecticut football program:
"They've done a great job of recruiting players. They have talented players that they develop from the get-go. If you look at some of the players that they've put in the NFL the last few years, they've done as well as any other school. Their style gives them a chance to be successful. When you can recruit good backs, run the ball and put together a solid defense, you're going to have a chance to win every week regardless of who you're playing. That's been their philosophy, and that's what has helped to make a difference."
On Pitt wide receiver Devin Street:
"Devin Street is a size-receiver that can run. It's difficult to find those guys. You either have big guys that can catch but they can't stretch the field, or you have smaller guys that are quick but get beat up. Devin has size and he can run. The one thing that has surprised me is how well he has progressed from a learning standpoint from learning the system and carrying it over from practice to game time. A lot of these young kids are redshirt freshmen, and you're always hesitant to put them into certain situations because it may be too much for them. Devin has made plays in almost every game, home and away."
On the game atmosphere at Rentschler Field:
"It's on top of you. They have a very enthusiastic crowd. We're expecting a lot of noise. We had noise at practice yesterday, and we'll have it today and tomorrow. From being up there two and four years ago at night, we know that if you let them, the crowd is really going to get into it. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to keep our focus. We've played some road games, at Utah and South Bend, where we've had full houses. We hope to take some of that experience up to Connecticut."
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