Improving Pitt looks to stay hungry

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
The last time people started talking up Pittsburgh and putting the Panthers in the rankings, the team went out and coughed up its season opener at home to Bowling Green.

Four straight wins later, Pitt is back in the buzz business. An upset victory at South Florida has led to a No. 23 national ranking and a lofty perch atop the Big East standings. By the time the Panthers play Navy this Saturday, they will have had 16 days off, getting high-fived and back-slapped all around campus and the city.

Can Pitt handle the prosperity this time around?

"We practiced pretty hard last week during the bye week, and we constantly talk about those things," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I really think as coaches, you can talk about not getting caught up in what people are saying and what people are writing. But I think it really comes down to your leaders. Your leaders are really going to establish the mindset of your team, in good times and in bad."

This is still a team full of young players who haven't experienced much on-field success during their careers. Sometimes, dealing with expectations can be harder than raising them. Ask East Carolina. Or Vanderbilt.

But a couple of factors might prevent Pittsburgh from getting too full of itself. One is that the team has already been through this before and learned a lesson in the Bowling Green game.

"We remember what happened earlier in [the] season when we lost to Bowling Green, so we don't want to get too cocky," defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard said. "A lot of people expected a lot out of us, and they didn't see it."

The second factor is the Panthers would have to have serious short-term memory loss to overlook Navy. The Midshipmen handed Pitt, perhaps, its most embarrassing defeat of 2007, pulling off a 48-45, double-overtime upset at Heinz Field last October.

Navy has beaten Rutgers and Wake Forest this season.

"That's one of the things we can point to," senior linebacker Scott McKillop said. "We have to just know that the team we're facing is a high-powered offense that's already defeated one Top 25 team."

Wannstedt said the way his team has played while trailing in the second half of games this year gives him confidence that the players will stay grounded and focused.

"I'm an optimist, and I believe that the Scott McKillops, the Eric Thatchers and the Derek Kinders and the senior leadership we have on this team will continue to react that way and won't get caught up in anything," he said. "And they haven't got caught up in anything."

The team's slogan going into this season was "Prove it," a reference to the hype that surrounded them in the offseason despite just a 5-7 record a year ago. That motto still applies.

"We know we have to prove a lot of things still," defensive end Greg Romeus said. "We have a lot of tough teams left to play, and as a whole, we all understand we haven't made it yet."