For The Tribune-Democrat
It looked like Pitt had turned its season around before a one-point loss at Syracuse last Friday.
Now, fans are wondering if Pitt can find a way to upset a second ranked opponent at Heinz Field.
It happened against then-No. 13 Virginia Tech, and the Panthers (2-3) get another shot against No. 18 Louisville (5-0). Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. and the game will be televised by ESPNU.
Perhaps the underdog role is one the Panthers favor.
It’s certainly a role outside linebacker Todd Thomas relishes.
Thomas, a sophomore, decided to play most of the 2011 season with a partially torn ACL, postponing surgery until the beginning of 2012.
“I said, ‘I’m going to play through it. I’m going to play through the pain,’ ” he said. “I knew it was going to hurt me going into this season, but I didn’t care.”
Last week’s game against Syracuse was the first for Thomas this season.
It was only natural that his return was emotional.
“I was almost in tears going out there because it had been so long,” Thomas said.
He had not one, but two surgeries, setting him back in the recovery process.
Thomas missed spring ball, camp and five weeks of this year’s season.
Despite his best efforts, Thomas tried everything he could to get the trainers to decrease his rehabilitation time and clear him to play. He said he visited them every day, hoping his luck would change.
That’s when his mother, Jodie Thomas-Brown, stepped in.
“She told me, ‘You’ve got three more years left of football, (after this year two) but you still have a long time,” he said. “If you want to reach your goal, you’re going to sit your butt down.’ ”
And that’s what Thomas did.
“I thought I was going to be back sooner,” he said. “But there’s no need to rush it. This is my second one and I might as well take my time, get it healthy and get it ready to go.”
Thomas said physically he has bounced back quickly. In fact, he said he weighed 235 pounds while in rehabilitation but is now down to his goal weight of 225 pounds.
When he did get on the field against Syracuse, Thomas adjusted quickly. He and K’Waun Williams drove Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib out of bounds in the second quarter.
But Thomas said the mental part of having an injury was harder to deal with on the field.
“At times, I did (think about the injury) when I was blitzing,” he said. “I was like, OK, I don’t want to make this certain move. But after a while it’s in God’s hands. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. So I’m just going to play.”
Luckily teammate Cameron Saddler, one of Pitt’s vocal leaders on and off the field, was there to calm his nerves the best he could.
But another friend of Thomas especially inspired him – an injured teammate with a longer recovery period than Thomas in middle linebacker Dan Mason.
Mason experienced a gruesome leg injury in 2010 during a 31-3 loss to Miami, forcing him to undergo five surgeries. He was out for nearly two years because of the injury. After a lengthy recovery process, Mason finally received the thumbs up to play some downs in the Gardner-Webb game.
“Some people just give up after that, of two years with no football,” Thomas said. “But Dan, he’s a different cat. He’s just inspired me a lot to keep pushing and don’t worry about it.”
Pitt coach Paul Chryst is certainly glad to see Thomas return.
“He certainly is a physical player and has experience,” Chryst said. “He knocked off some rust and hopefully we continue to see some jumps. I think he mixed it up enough that he gained some confidence.”
The Pitt defense will need confidence against a solid Louisville offense, which is missing wide receiver Michaelee Harris, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Last year, Harris was the Cardinals’ second leading receiver with 37 receptions for 455 yards and two touchdowns.
But Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t had a problem finding other targets. He’s completed 137 passes for 1,134 yards with a completion percentage of 73, best in the Big East.
“I think he’s talented, and as a thrower he’s very efficient,” Chryst said of Bridgewater. “He can hurt you a couple different ways. It sure seems like he has command of the offense. I think a quarterback that is talented, plays with confidence and knows his players, well, that makes for a pretty good combination.”
Louisville has yet to play a Big East game. The Panthers are 0-2 in league play.
This could be a problem for the Cardinals, whose last three wins have been close margins, especially if the Pitt team that played well against Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb shows up.
But Chryst said he looks at every week as an opportunity and would rather not dwell on the past, specifically on games that already happened.
“I think there are lessons to be learned in every game,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will be intimidated by the fact that a ranked team is coming in. But I hope we continue to draw on all of our past experiences and not just Virginia Tech.”
As for Thomas, he is also eager to get back out on the field. He is trying not to dwell on his knee and hopes to see a little more action in today’s game against Louisville.
“Some people, when they tear their ACL twice, they just give up, they don’t fight,” he said.
“This is what I know, this is what I do. I’ve been doing it since I was younger. I’ve been doing it for 21 years. I love this game.”
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.