No. 14 Pitt looks to regain offensive rhythm

Pittsburgh’s offense was playing so well, the Panthers almost didn’t want a week off.

The timing was there, so was the consistency. Bill Stull was effectively spreading the ball among receivers Jonathan Baldwin, Dorin Dickerson, Mike Shanahan, Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee. Dion Lewis was averaging nearly 150 yards rushing over a three-game stretch.

The 14th-ranked Panthers had everything going during a 41-14 victory over South Florida on Oct. 24 in which they didn’t punt once, only to be forced to shut it down during an off week.

The Panthers (7-1, 4-0 in Big East) probably would have preferred to keep playing after averaging 34.25 points in their first eight games, or nearly a touchdown per game more than at this point last season.

The challenge now is to regain that offensive rhythm Saturday against Syracuse (3-5, 0-3), before the season winds down against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Cincinnati.

Coach Dave Wannstedt tried to maintain game-week conditions during the second of Pitt’s three off weeks, practicing his first-team offense against his starting defense several days.

“We got a lot of work with Pitt vs. Pitt,” Wannstedt said. “We had two-minute drills, some red zone work, some inside running and a pass-play period. We tried to take every situation we could be in during a game and worked first team against first team. We went full speed.”

Part of the plan was to keep the passing game sharp. Stull has 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, and eight receivers caught passes against South Florida.

“Slowly, but surely, our passing game has improved every week,” Stull said. “The way we run the ball, you kind of have to do something to adjust to that. I also think some teams have tried to predict us on certain plays or with certain tendencies, and I don’t really think you can predict us.”

With so many important games awaiting after this week, beginning Nov. 14 with No. 19 Notre Dame (6-2), Wannstedt felt he couldn’t take a chance on Pitt losing its game speed following its best all-around performance all season.

“If anything, I think we’ve had a lot more energy than usual,” tight end Nate Byham said. “Our legs feel good. You can get into a bit of a rut at this point in the season, especially the younger guys who don’t know it’s such a long season because they’re not used to it.”

All four teams remaining on Pitt’s schedule can throw the ball, which could translate into several high-scoring games in which turnovers prove pivotal.

The Panthers understand they must be able to throw effectively against Syracuse, which has the Big East’s best run defense. The Orange will be focused on slowing Lewis, who averages 128.6 yards per game, and that could create opportunities in the passing game.

“We’ll have to be able to run it, and that’s no different than every week for our offense,” fullback Henry Hynoski said. “It sets up the pass for us. So we can’t change our game plan (because of a week off). We just have to be physical and do what we do every week.”