NCF Nation: Jon Baldwin

In the end, the Big East did have a first-round NFL Draft pick after all, as Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin went No. 26 to Kansas City.

Makes perfect sense to me, as I always thought Baldwin was a first-round talent and arguably the most gifted athlete in the league last season. You just don't find 6-foot-5 receivers who can run and jump the way he can very often. The knock on Baldwin had been his maturity and consistency.

But the Chiefs needed another receiver to pair with Dwayne Bowe, and Baldwin will have a great chance to be that guy for quarterback Matt Cassel.

“I won’t be a problem,” Baldwin told the Kansas City Star on Thursday night. “I sat down with all the coaching staff and told them the kind of person I am. After they talked to me for about five minutes, they understood.”

“We are very comfortable making him a Kansas City Chief,” coach Todd Haley told the paper. “(Character) is something that’s always going to be important to us, and we obviously believe Jonathan Baldwin has Kansas City Chief character, or he wouldn’t be part of this team now.”

Who's next from the league? Mel Kiper says it will be another Pitt player, Jabaal Sheard, in this second-round mock.
Mike Haywood never smiled in his Pittsburgh introductory press conference while talking heavily about things like discipline and integrity. A little more than two weeks later, his unsmiling mug shot was passed around the Internet when his arrest on domestic abuse charges made a mockery of those supposed values.

Pitt's introductory coach news conference 2.0 was much different. Sure, Todd Graham talked about wanting to mold fine young men and all that. But compared to Haywood's public persona, Graham was high-octane, just the way he promised his offenses would play. And, yes, he smiled.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarTodd Graham described his offense as "a no-huddle attack that likes to be physical and tough."
Graham's Tulsa offenses routinely crossed the 40-point threshold and were among the nation's leaders in yardage. He vowed to bring that excitement to the Panthers, who fielded a more conservative, run-first approach under Dave Wannstedt.

"The No. 1 thing in our system is speed and explosive power," Graham said. "I want the people at Heinz Field to not sit down in their seats."

Graham said it's a misconception that he runs a spread offense. Instead, he described it as a no-huddle attack that likes to be physical and tough. He said he'll have two backs in the backfield about 70 percent of the time and will incorporate tight ends and fullbacks. It won't be that big of a transition from Pitt's pro-style scheme, he said.

"I don't know how to be physical without fullbacks and tight ends," he said. "We are a run, play-action pass football team.

"We'll adapt our scheme to the skills and talents we have. ... When I went to Rice, they ran the wishbone. I put this offense in and we had a little bit of success."

Graham even said he'd like to speak to receiver Jon Baldwin, running back Dion Lewis and fullback Henry Hynoski and tell them about the benefits they could see from playing in this offense. All three announced their intentions to enter the NFL draft on Monday. Hynoski in particular was seen as a guy who bolted because of the forthcoming style change.

The former defensive coordinator said he will run a 3-4 base scheme on that side of the ball with multiple fronts and coverages. Philosophically, he said, the approach is not that different from what former Pitt coordinator Phil Bennett ran.

Pitt fans couldn't help but be excited when Graham talked about wanting to score lots of points and have quarterbacks throw for 4,000 yards like they did at Tulsa. Of course, fans haven't had a lot of reason for optimism during the coaching turmoil, and many had turned on athletic director Steve Pederson. Graham said he wants to unite the Pittsburgh family again.

"It's time to come together," he said. "I'm one of those guys who's about looking forward. Through change you have conflict, you have adversity, emotions run rampant and all that. The bottom line is we've got to move past that. I will work hard to earn their trust."

If his teams score points, win games and generate as much excitement as Graham did in his first news conference, he won't have any trouble getting the fans on his side.
With all the coaching turmoil surrounding Pittsburgh this past month, it could be easy to forget the Panthers still have a game to play. They'll kick it off in one of the last bowl games of the season Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., vs. Kentucky. A Pitt victory would give the Big East a winning record in the postseason, as the league is currently 3-2. Here's a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Pittsburgh wide receiver Jon Baldwin. It's all but assuredly the junior's final college game before he goes to the NFL, and Pitt's offense usually only excels when he's fully involved in the game. Kentucky is not a great defensive team but does have a decent secondary, as the Wildcats finished No. 20 in pass defense this season. It will also be interesting to see how Baldwin is used after he publicly complained about his role in the offense following Dave Wannstedt's forced resignation last month.

WHAT TO WATCH: How focused and organized the Panthers are. The last month has been incredibly strange, with not one, but two head coaches being dismissed. The players weren't even sure who would coach them in the bowl game until Wannstedt announced Monday he would not be going to Birmingham. The program might have a new coach in place before kickoff. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be serving as interim head coach, but the staff is missing defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who both went to work for Rutgers. Where the players' heads are is anybody's guess, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Pitt struggle after all this dysfunction. Then again, maybe playing a game will serve as a major relief.

WHY WATCH: If for no other reason than to see the soap opera unfold on national TV. In strictly football terms, there will be a lot of playmakers on the field, like Kentucky's Randall Cobb. But the Wildcats have their own problems, starting with the loss of suspended starting quarterback Mike Hartline. Still, it's a team that nearly beat Auburn this season and upset South Carolina. Every Big East vs. the SEC matchup is worth watching for league respect, and Pitt needs to win a nonconference game against somebody of note this season.

PREDICTION: Kentucky is no juggernaut, especially without its quarterback. But Pitt also will be missing Big East defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and starting defensive tackle Myles Caragein because of injuries. Throw in all the off-the-field drama and the Panthers' inability to win big games all year, and I just don't see how they can claim a bowl victory. Make it Kentucky 31-21.'s All-Big East team

December, 8, 2010
Welcome to the 2010 All-Big East team. Unlike the official league team, we don't do ties here. One man, one spot.

I compiled the following list after watching each team the entire season and through consultation this week with some coaches throughout the league. Later on today, I'll offer up some thoughts on the selections, explaining my picks and the toughest omissions.

Here is the team:


QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia
RB: Jordan Todman, Connecticut
RB: Bilal Powell, Louisville
WR: Armon Binns, Cincinnati
WR: Jon Baldwin, Pittsburgh
TE: Cameron Graham, Louisville
OT: Jason Pinkston, Pittsburgh
OG: Zach Hurd, Connecticut
C: Sampson Genus, South Florida
OG: Mark Wetterer, Louisville
OT: Byron Stingily, Louisville


DE: Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
DT: Chris Neild, West Virginia
DT: Terrell McClain, South Florida
DE: Julian Miller, West Virginia
LB: Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut
LB: Derrell Smith, Syracuse
LB: J.T. Thomas, West Virginia
CB: Brandon Hogan, West Virginia
CB: Johnny Patrick, Louisville
S: Robert Sands, West Virginia
S: Sidney Glover, West Virginia


K: Dave Teggart, Connecticut
P: Dan Hutchins, Pittsburgh
KR: Lindsey Lamar, South Florida
PR: Doug Beaumont, Louisville
As Pittsburgh sat in the driver's seat for the Big East title in early November, one stat always jumped out at me: the Panthers were shooting for their first-ever outright Big East title.

I realize that Miami and Virginia Tech dominated much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it's crazy that Pitt, with all of its tradition and advantages, has never won a league title in the clear. In fact, the Panthers own only two co-championships, and they both came in multi-way ties during arguably the worst two years the league has ever seen (2004 and 2010).

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis and Tino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireDion Lewis (left) and Tino Sunseri are two of many talented Pitt players returning next season.
Pittsburgh is an excellent school located in a talent-rich area. Though the Panthers will always play second fiddle to the Steelers in their own city (and probably the Penguins, too), there are some advantages to being in a pro town. Pitt piggybacks off the Steelers' facilities and shares training space with the NFL team. Imagine the treat it must be for college players to walk by guys like Troy Polamalu on a daily basis.

There's absolutely no reason that Cincinnati should have two more outright Big East titles than Pitt, or that Connecticut has earned as many BCS bids as the Panthers. Now that the program has pulled the plug on the Dave Wannstedt era, it needs to find the right coach who can take this team to the next level.

It figures to be a wide open search, with no obvious heir apparent. We are going to hear a lot of names in this one, including NFL guys like Russ Grimm the former Pitt player and current Arizona Cardinals assistant, and Marvin Lewis, a Pennsylvania native and former Pitt assistant who may be on his last legs with the Cincinnati Bengals. Dreamers will probably even toss Bill Cowher's name into the mix.

But the Panthers -- and especially athletic director Steve Pederson -- should have learned a vital lesson by now. They need to hire a college guy.

Pederson's last big hire, of course, was at Nebraska when he brought Bill Callahan in from the Oakland Raiders. Both of them were fired a couple of years later. While Wannstedt had some success in six seasons, it took him a while to adjust to the college game early in his tenure.

This is a job best suited for an up-and-coming assistant at a major college program or someone who has established themselves as a head coach. Louisville and South Florida both hit home runs by going that route -- the Cardinals with a talented coordinator (Charlie Strong) and USF with a head coach (Skip Holtz).

The next coach's most immediate task will be trying to hold together a recruiting class that currently ranks 21st in the nation. Wannstedt had already secured 18 commitments. But there is always going to be talent in the Pennsylvania/Ohio region, and Pitt should be well stocked for 2011. Though the Panthers lose Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, starting linebacker/safety Dom DeCicco and most likely junior receiver Jon Baldwin to the NFL draft, they have a lot of talent coming back. The new coach can work with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham at tailback, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street at receiver, Brandon Lindsey at defensive end and plenty of young players ready to emerge. Tino Sunseri has a full year of starting at quarterback under his belt, and redshirting freshman Mark Myers has a world of potential.

What do Pitt fans want? A guy who's not as conservative as Wannstedt in his offensive game plans would rank high on that list. Wannstedt's pro-style, running-based power offense matched the blue-collar ethic of the Steel City, but it often seemed as if he still had the 1990s NFL coaching approach of simply avoiding mistakes and hoping to win on field position. That's the opposite of where the college game is heading; just look at the two incredibly wide-open offenses that are playing for the BCS title this year.

Pitt claims nine national titles, but it has been nearly 30 years since the Panthers were in that discussion. This program needs to focus on winning an undisputed Big East title, something that should not be that difficult. Pittsburgh is one of the better jobs in the conference, and the right coach who understands the college game can do some great things.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Pittsburgh Panthers (7-5) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (6-6)

Jan. 8, noon ET (ESPN)

Pittsburgh take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: If you would have told Pittsburgh before the season it would be be playing an SEC team in a bowl, the Panthers would have envisioned the Sugar Bowl, or maybe even the BCS title game. Expectations ran that high.

Playing Kentucky in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl? Never. But that's how disappointing this season has been.

Pitt was widely expected to win the Big East, and it did earn a share of the conference title. But it was one of the hollower championships you'll ever find as the Panthers finished 7-5 and spit the bit in all their crucial games (Utah, Notre Dame, Miami, UConn and West Virginia).

The offensive line was a mess early, but problems ran deeper than that. First-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri had his ups and downs, reigning Big East defensive player of the year Greg Romeus barely contributed because of injuries, the linebackers looked lost, etc. But mostly, Pitt just kept making mistakes in costly situations.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt still has enough individual talent -- like running back Dion Lewis, receiver Jon Baldwin and defensive end Jabaal Sheard -- to beat just about anybody, especially a middling SEC team like Kentucky. But as a team, Pitt has been untrustworthy in big situations, and that's why Wannstedt is on the hot seat.

Kentucky take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Making its fifth straight trip to a bowl game, Kentucky is in some pretty exclusive company in the SEC. The only other four schools who can say they’ve done that are Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

The Wildcats (6-6) had high hopes for this season and looked like they might be on the verge of breaking through after rallying from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat South Carolina at home on Oct. 16. But that wound up being their final real highlight, and they lost three of their last four SEC games, including a 25th consecutive setback to Tennessee.

The thing Kentucky did do all season was keep defenses on its toes. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline had his best season with 3,178 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. It hurt the Wildcats when senior running back Derrick Locke went down during the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. He’s back now and should be completely healthy for the bowl game.

The Wildcats’ top playmaker, and one of the best all-around players in the country, is junior receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb accounted for 16 touchdowns four different ways this season and is ranked second nationally with 2,192 all-purpose yards.
PITTSBURGH -- Quick halftime analysis from Heinz Field, where West Virginia leads Pittsburgh 14-7 in the Backyard Brawl:

Turning point: Ray Graham fumbled on his own 46 late in the second quarter and West Virginia recovered. Two plays later, Geno Smith hit Noel Devine for a 48-yard pass to the Pitt 2, and then he found Will Johnson on a touchdown pass for the 14-7 lead.

Stat of the half: 3-0. That's the turnover stat, and it's all that matters. Both of the Mountaineers touchdowns were set up by Pitt turnovers, the first coming on Brandon Hogan's interception and long return on the first drive of the game. Pitt is dominating virtually every other statistic (it has 205 total yards to 75 for West Virginia and has 12 first downs to the Mountaineers' 2). But it can't stop shooting itself in the foot.

Best player in the half: Hogan. The West Virginia cornerback had that interception and recovered the fumble off Graham's gaffe. He has also held star receiver Jon Baldwin to a mere three catches for 15 yards, though he got bailed out once when Tino Sunseri overshot a wide open Baldwin.

What Pittsburgh needs to do: It's as simple as can be: hold onto the darn ball. Pitt is doing fine in every other aspect but it has no chance if it can't stop the turnover flood.

What West Virginia needs to do: Keep the pedal down. Remember that West Virginia's offense has scored only one touchdown in the second half in all of its Big East games. Pitt, meanwhile, has had its best scoring output in the second half this year. This one is not over yet.

Tino Sunseri bounces back

November, 26, 2010
PITTSBURGH -- Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri made a nice comeback after his costly first interception and a poorly thrown ball to Jon Baldwin.

Sunseri scrambled for 18 yards on a key third down and later hit Devin Street in the back of the end zone to tie the score at 7. I wasn't sure there would be two touchdowns in this game, much less in the first quarter alone.

But West Virginia's defense looks a little more vulnerable today. The Mountaineers had held their past two opponents to 2-for-25 on third downs; Pitt has four third-down conversions already and is slowing down the pass rush with nice play-action calls, a few quick screens and rolling out Sunseri.

The sophomore quarterback's interception on the first drive set up West Virginia's touchdown. On the second drive, he overthrew a wide open Baldwin, who had streaked free behind Brandon Hogan for a sure touchdown. But Sunseri is showing the moxie and competitiveness that the coaches have always seen in him, and he's helped Pitt get some momentum going in this game.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 13

November, 24, 2010
1. Battle for first place: The three-team jostling match for the Big East's BCS bid could be down to two, or possibly just one team by Saturday. Pittsburgh can clinch the title with a win over West Virginia and a Connecticut loss to Cincinnati. West Virginia could force a first-place tie by beating Pitt, and UConn hopes for a Pittsburgh loss since it holds the tiebreakers over the Panthers and Mountaineers. This thing could be decided this weekend or set us up for an exciting finish next week.

2. Desperate measures: The margin of error is gone for three Big East teams. Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers each have six losses and must win this weekend in order to preserve bowl hopes. Louisville and Rutgers play in a postseason elimination game, while the Bearcats hope to get back to any bowl after winning the past two conference titles.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicTino Sunseri has led Pitt to victories in four of the team's past five games.
3. Brawl, y'all: The Backyard Brawl is always worth watching, especially with the stakes raised this year. And it should be a brawl. West Virginia's defense is allowing just 12.9 points per game, while Pitt has held opponents to under 16 points in conference play. A lot will ride on the shoulders of sophomore quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Geno Smith, who could be making the first of three starts against one another. Can either offensive line handle the pressure from the opposing defense? Can either team mount a successful running game? This one might come down to one or two big plays, and both teams have the playmakers to spring one.

4. Pitt receivers vs. West Virginia's secondary: The Panthers and Mountaineers are the two most-talented teams in the league, which leads to some outstanding individual matchups. There's the head-to-head rushing battle between Noel Devine and Dion Lewis, Bruce Irvin versus Jason Pinkston on third down, Tino/Geno, etc. But the one I'm most looking forward to seeing is the Panthers wideouts going against the Mountaineers defensive backs. Jon Baldwin had eight catches for 127 yards last year, but West Virginia's Robert Sands had a key interception in the fourth quarter. Baldwin will likely get matched up against the Big East's best cornerback, Brandon Hogan, while league interceptions leader Keith Tandy will take on Mike Shanahan. Pitt has the tallest receivers in the league, but the 6-foot-5 Sands can give them trouble. Should be fun to watch all day.

5. Heinz special: In a game expected to be close and defensive-minded, special teams could make the difference. Watch what Pitt does if it stalls outside the West Virginia red zone. Panthers kicker Dan Hutchins has been money from inside the 40 but is just 1-for-5 from 40 yards and out, including last week's miss at South Florida that could have sealed the game. Pitt has struggled with special-teams plays in big games (see: Cincinnati 2009, UConn 2010). West Virginia won last year's game on a Tyler Bitancurt field goal. And remember the Heinz Field turf will be chewed up, which could affect footing on kicks.

6. Revved-up Bearcats: An arena football game broke out at Nippert Stadium last week as Cincinnati put up 69 points and 661 yards against Rutgers. The Bearcats got back to balance, as the previously missing running game exploded behind Isaiah Pead's 213-yard effort. And they had only one turnover. The performance was no surprise to Connecticut, which saw Cincinnati put up 711 total yards in last year's 47-45 win over the Huskies. But this year's Bearcats have been far more inconsistent. Did they finally find a groove, or was last week's outburst a product of Rutgers' implosion? West Virginia and Pitt will be hoping for the former.

7. UConn pass attack: The book on beating UConn has been to load up against the run and make quarterback Zach Frazer make plays. The Huskies, after all, have the Big East's worst passing offense. But Cincinnati can't stop anybody through the air; receivers often roam wild in the Bearcats' secondary. The last four Big East opponents have scored at least 31 points against Cincinnati, so Connecticut should have plenty of opportunities to connect on big strikes.

8. A little respect: The Big East went just 2-11 against BCS conference opponents this season, with the wins coming over Maryland (West Virginia) and Vanderbilt (UConn). This week brings a final chance to salvage a little nonconference respect before bowl season, and the opportunities involve the BCS league with which the Big East is most closely aligned: the ACC. In fact, both games (South Florida at Miami and Boston College at Syracuse) feature former Big East teams. The Bulls will be playing for more than league pride; they're looking to score another victory over one of the Big Three in their own state. The Orange, meanwhile, are trying to put a positive cap on a breakthrough season, and to finally give their home fans something to cheer about.

9. Points at a premium? Syracuse has mostly won games in spite of its offense, and the same can be said for Boston College. The Eagles rank just 106th nationally in scoring and will be without star tailback Montel Harris this week. The Orange, meanwhile, are 94th in the country in points scored. Neither Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib nor BC counterpart Chase Rettig will blow you away with stats. This could be a big-time defensive battle featuring some outstanding linebackers: Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich for the Eagles, and Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue for the Orange. And speaking of tough sledding for the offense, how is South Florida going to move the ball on a fast, aggressive defense that turned Pitt into mush earlier this season?

10. Louisville's pressure vs. Rutgers' offense: Just about every week, we wonder how Rutgers' offensive line is going to hold up against an opposing defense. It's clear by now what the answer is: not well. The Scarlet Knights have another major challenge Friday against a Cardinals defense that is second in the league in sacks and has been playing great overall for the past month or so. Both teams really need this game (see No. 2) and Louisville would like nothing more than to clinch bowl eligibility in the same place it was humiliated at the end of the 2008 season.

Big East predictions: Week 9

October, 28, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Well, I didn't see the Syracuse and South Florida road upsets coming last week, that's for sure. And I gave UConn and Rutgers a little too much credit.

On to better things this week ...


West Virginia 28, Connecticut 14: I think the Mountaineers bounce back after last week's disappointing loss to Syracuse. They are eager to show the critics that was a one-week hiccup. Besides, I don't see how UConn -- which couldn't do anything offensively last week against Louisville -- is going to move the ball much against the West Virginia defense with Zach Frazer coming back to start at quarterback again.


Cincinnati 20, Syracuse 17: This is my game of the week. Check my video post later this afternoon for a breakdown of this game and an explanation for the pick.

Pittsburgh 35, Louisville 24: The Cardinals are brimming with confidence and come into Heinz Field with stats that are similar to and in many cases better than the Panthers'. Yet I remember how Cincinnati's receivers dominated the Louisville secondary, and it's hard to envision those same defensive backs dealing with Jon Baldwin, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan while the defense also has to gear up to stop Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Pitt just has too much talent in this one and is playing too well right now.

Last week: 2-2

Season results: 38-9 (80.9 percent)

Pitt gets Jon Baldwin, offense flying

October, 27, 2010
Pittsburgh is keeping quarterback Tino Sunseri and receiver Jon Baldwin off limits to the media this week in an effort to make sure the two don't become distracted before Saturday's game against Louisville. And anyway, now is not the time to be messing with their minds.

Sunseri and Baldwin finally got a long-awaited connection going in last week's 41-21 win over Rutgers. Baldwin, the preseason Biletnikoff Award candidate, had only two 100-yard days before catching five balls for 139 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown. Pitt had struggled all season in throwing the deep ball to its star.

[+] EnlargeJon Baldwin
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireJon Baldwin caught five passes for 139 yards and a score Saturday against Rutgers.
"Everybody assumes you just drop back, a guy runs deep and you throw the ball," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But you've got to have the right play call at the right time and the right coverage. Up to this point, we had plays in every game where we attempted to do that, and it had always been something. It was a little bit of protection, a little bit of coverage, a little bit of the throw, a little bit of the route."

The deep passing game is starting to come together. So is the entire Panthers offense.

The blocking problems that plagued them early in the season have improved since Lucas Nix was shifted from tackle to guard. The tight end spot has been solidified with better play from Mike Cruz and Brock DeCicco. Sunseri has progressed every week, and in his two Big East conference games, he has completed 74.5 percent of his passes for 588 yards and seven touchdowns, with just one flukish interception. Dion Lewis has begun to look like his old self, rushing for 130 yards last week against Rutgers. Devin Street has emerged as a strong No. 3 receiver option.

The final piece seemed to be getting Baldwin more involved. Against Utah, Miami and Syracuse, he had a total of only eight catches. Baldwin collected 111 yards at Notre Dame, but more than half of that came on one big play. The junior told reporters after Saturday's game that he and Sunseri had recently been spending more time together after practice trying to get their timing down.

"It's him having trust in me and me having trust in him," Baldwin said. "Now he knows exactly where I'm going to be when I run deep routes, so it makes it a lot easier."

Baldwin showed last week why it's a good idea to throw his way. Twice Rutgers had good coverage against him, with a safety coming over for help. And twice the 6-foot-5 receiver simply made what Wannstedt called "superstar catches."

It also helps that Sunseri is more willing to stay in the pocket longer and go through his reads. Earlier in the season, especially against Miami, he seemed too quick to take the dump-off option.

"A lot has to do with confidence and how long can I hang in there," Wannstedt said. "It's confidence in yourself, confidence in the line."

Pitt's offense is turning into the multifaceted attack many envisioned in the preseason. The Panthers have scored 86 points their past two games, and on Saturday Pitt had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the same game for the first time in 10 years. And remember this came against one of the best defenses in the league in Rutgers.

Sunseri completed passes to seven different players on Saturday, including seven to fullback Henry Hynoski.

"It's a sign of progress when the quarterback is distributing the ball to the guy that's open," Wannstedt said. "That's what Frank Cignetti preaches: take what they give you."

And if Pitt can continue to take advantage of the deep ball with Baldwin, the Panthers will be very hard for anyone to defend.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 23, 2010
B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida: Breaking out of a prolonged slump, Daniels completed 13 of 16 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for two scores in a 38-30 win at Cincinnati.

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pittsburgh: Continuing his improvement, Sunseri completed 21-of-27 for 307 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in a 41-21 win over Rutgers.

Jon Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: Baldwin broke out with five catches for 139 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers.

Doug Hogue, LB, Syracuse: Hogue had 10 tackles, half a sack and a pair of first-half interceptions to spearhead a tremendous team defensive effort in the Orange's 19-14 upset at West Virginia.

Bilal Powell, RB, Louisville: A helmet sticker staple, Powell didn't have his best day in a 26-0 win over UConn. But he had 105 yards on 27 carries and became the first Big East back to top 1,000 yards this season.
It's just like I said all offseason: Pitt is the best team in the Big East.

OK, that might be a bit premature, and we now see that things change greatly from week to week in this most unpredictable league. But who is playing better in the Big East right now than the Panthers?

They blew out Rutgers 41-21 on Saturday, and now last week's 45-14 rout at Syracuse looks a little more impressive, doesn't it? Pitt is standing as the only 2-0 team in the Big East and has certainly improved from its lousy nonconference performances.

The big difference? The passing game. Tino Sunseri has continued to progress and has been really good the past two games. On Saturday, he was 21-of-27 for 327 yards and three touchdowns with one interception -- and that interception was a fluke that bounced off Ray Graham's hands on a short screen pass. Maybe more importantly, Sunseri finally established a connection with star receiver Jon Baldwin, who had five catches for 139 yards and a score. Baldwin made some spectacular grabs in traffic, but Sunseri also put the ball where only his receiver could make a play on it.

When the passing game is going along with the running game -- Dion Lewis finally had a breakout day with 130 yards rushing -- this offense is pretty hard to stop. And that's evidenced by the 86 points in the past two games. Pitt still has an irritating habit of not finishing off drives in the red zone -- it should have had at least two more touchdowns Saturday -- but when you top 40 points it's hard to quibble.

The story didn't change much for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights still had all kinds of trouble on offense, managing just 203 yards (and much of that came late). The defense and special teams kept them in it for a half, but the defense finally buckled in the second half with no help from its teammates with the ball. You wonder if the Eric LeGrand saga took something out of this team, leading to a second-half falloff.

Or it might just be that Pitt is the best team in the Big East.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For Pittsburgh, thankfully, it's in with the new. For Syracuse, depressingly, it was on with the old.

Both teams came into Saturday's game in unexpected places. The Panthers, after being picked to win the Big East almost unanimously, were 2-3 and teetering on the brink of collapse. The Orange stood at a surprising 4-1 and had the Carrier Dome jumping at kickoff in anticipation of a breakthrough win.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Richard Mackson/US PresswirePittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 17 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns Saturday against Syracuse.
Before halftime even arrived, roles had reverted back to normal. Pitt blasted Syracuse 45-14 in a game all too familiar to long-suffering Orange fans. Many of the 40,168 hopeful headed for the exits midway through the third quarter. By the final 10 minutes, the place looked like a ghost town from the Greg Robinson days.

It was the kind of lopsided result you might have expected before the season, but not after the way the Panthers bumbled through the nonconference portion of their schedule. They saved their most complete performance for the start of Big East play after coach Dave Wannstedt preached all week about beginning a new season.

"We knew it was a tale of two seasons all along," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We had a tough out-of-conference schedule, but we still have all of our goals ahead of us. The Big East championship is ahead of us. We wanted to come out fast today and let the Big East know that we can play."

Sunseri looked like one of the team's weak links earlier in the year, never more than when he struggled so badly against Miami that many fans called for backup Pat Bostick. But the sophomore has progressed since then, and on Saturday the game plan revolved around him.

Wannstedt said when he arrived in the team hotel on Friday night, he flipped on the TV and saw Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's show. Marrone, he said, "must have said the word 'physical' 10 times during the course of the show." Wannstedt also saw how the Orange brought pressure against South Florida last week, daring Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels to burn them with big plays.

Daniels couldn't. But Sunseri could. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns. Pitt's first play from scrimmage was a short pass that Devin Street took 79 yards for a touchdown. Sunseri also made third-down touchdown throws to Ray Graham and Mike Shanahan as he stood in against the blitz.

"That was probably his most complete game," Wannstedt said. "He has showed little spurts, signs of getting better. But today I thought from start to finish, he maintained a consistency he had to have."

Pitt's improvement has coincided with its shuffling of the offensive line, moving Lucas Nix inside, Jordan Gibbs to tackle and replacing Greg Gaskins. Dion Lewis (15 carries for 80 yards) and Ray Graham (11 for 54) both found running room against a good Syracuse run defense. But neither went off, and Jon Baldwin finished with only one catch, yet the Panthers scored 45 points.

"Everybody thinks it's just Ray, Dion and JB," Graham said. "But Tino spread it out, and that's what is great."

The defense also played its best game, holding star back Delone Carter to just 38 yards before Syracuse was forced to throw nonstop in catch-up mode. The Panthers created four turnovers, including cornerback Ricky Gary's 80-yard pick-six, while moving pieces around. Shane Gordon got his first start at strongside linebacker, Dom DeCicco went back to safety and Tristan Roberts returned to start at the weakside linebacker spot.

Wannstedt was hesitant to use the "new season" theme, lest his team forget its mistakes of the past. But it was hard not to think that this looked like a different Pitt, one that could compete with West Virginia for the Big East title if it maintains this level of execution.

"We should be unstoppable," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "We have great athletes and tremendous talent everywhere on the field. If we play like we did today, with everybody stepping up to make big plays, we'll be all right."

If Pitt looked renewed, Syracuse appeared to relapse.

The Orange benefited from a soft early schedule, and now they face consecutive road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati that could turn that 4-1 start to a 4-4 crossroads. They don't have another home game until November, and by then the excitement they built up may have significantly eroded.

"What I feel bad about is for the people who came out to watch the game," Marrone said. "Their expectations were high, and so were ours. My expectations were high for these players to get over the this hump."

Not quite yet. What's old is new again, and vice versa.

Pitt passing game burning Orange

October, 16, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Pittsburgh came into this game thinking the Syracuse run defense might be a little too stiff. So the Panthers had a mindset they were going to throw the ball.

So far, that idea looks pretty smart. Tino Sunseri has three touchdown passes, and Pitt leads the Orange 21-7.

The passes have been big plays, too. There was Devin Street's 79-yard touchdown catch and run on Pitt's first play from scrimmage. Sunseri found Ray Graham on a 15-yard throw on third down. And just moments ago, he hit a streaking Mike Shanahan for a 30-yard score on another third down.

For the much-criticized Sunseri, this is the best game he's played so far. Syracuse's secondary isn't able to keep up with the Pitt receivers. And the crazy thing is Pittsburgh hasn't thrown the ball to Jon Baldwin one time yet. Not one time. I have no idea why. But given how much success Pitt has had through the air, that has to be a scary thought for Syracuse.