Star-studded defensive lines collide in Pitt-USF game

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

One of the most interesting debates you could have in the preseason about the Big East was trying to figure out which team had the better defensive line between Pittsburgh and South Florida.

Halfway through the season, there is still no definitive answer. Each unit has a strong claim to boasting the best front four in the league. Pitt ranks third nationally in sacks and 12th in tackles for loss while the Bulls are 19th in the FBS in both categories (Cincinnati, it should be noted, is ahead of both in those stats, but the Bearcats play out of a three-man front).

The debate could be settled this Saturday, when South Florida takes on the Panthers in Heinz Field. Fans will be treated to two defensive lines stacked with pass-rushing menaces and future pros.

"I think there are a lot of similarities," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "One is the scheme, because we're both 4-3 teams. And we both turn our D-linemen loose, if you will. We play aggressively with those guys up front."

Both lines feature top candidates for the Big East defensive player of the year award, including South Florida defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul (8.5 tackles for loss) and George Selvie (three sacks) and Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus (seven sacks) and tackle Mick Williams (11.5 tackles for loss). Jabaal Sheard, Romeus' counterpart at the other end spot, continues to be one of the more underrated players in the league.

While both lines have some big guys -- Bulls tackle Terrell McClain is 6-foot-3, 306 pounds, and Williams and fellow Pitt tackle Gus Mustakas are strong as oxen -- both lines share preferences for speed over size. Selvie, for example, was a high school center who has worked most of his career to put on weight, while Romeus was a slender high school basketball player who has bulked up to 270 pounds.

"They're both very athletic with a lot of speed," Pitt offensive lineman John Malecki said. "[South Florida] utilizes a lot of different things in their pass rushing, with line games and stunts, just like we do."

One major key to the game will be how both offensive lines hold up under the massive pressure. Pitt has allowed only six sacks in seven games, ranking 13th in the FBS in that statistic. But its O-line has not seen a D-line as fearsome as South Florida's yet.

The Bulls have given up 11 sacks in six games, but Cincinnati had four in last week 34-17 win in Tampa. B.J. Daniels' scrambling ability probably has saved at least a half-dozen or more additional sacks. Still, this unit came into the year as the team's biggest question mark.

"We were supposed to be the weakest link of the team," center Sampson Genus said, "and so far, we're doing pretty well."

I asked Romeus if he and his teammates were looking at this week as a chance to prove they have the Big East's best defensive line. He chuckled.

"We went into the season wanting to be the best in the conference and the country," he said. "That's something we're trying to accomplish every week, regardless of who we're playing."

Yet there's no getting around the fact that Saturday's game will provide a feast for those who like watching the trenches.

"I think it's going to be a defensive game, and obviously it starts up front," Romeus said. "Whichever D-line comes up big will have a big sway in who ends up winning the game."