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November 23, 2012

Pitt eyes upset vs. Rutgers

PITTSBURGH — Normally, Pitt spends the Thanksgiving holiday preparing to play West Virginia, but the Backyard Brawl came to an end, at least temporarily, when the Mountaineers accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference and the Panthers subsequently opted to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Instead of West Virginia, Pitt plays No. 21 Rutgers (9-1) today at Heinz Field in the Panthers’ final home game as a member of the Big East Conference. Kickoff is at noon, and the game will be televised by ESPN2.

Rutgers is on its way out, too. On Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights announced they will join the Big Ten in 2014.

Though the Pitt-Rutgers rivalry doesn’t date back a century or have a catchy nickname, the two schools started playing each other in 1981. Pitt holds a 21-8 lead in the all-time series. Since 2005, the Scarlet Knights are 5-2 against Pitt, including a 34-10 win last year.

“They’re good,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said of the Scarlet Knights at Monday’s press conference. “They really are, and their numbers back it up.”

Rutgers’ lone loss was to No. 23 Kent State.

“At this point, you’re 9-1,” Chryst said. “You’ve done a lot, and it’s not by accident.”

Chryst and his Panthers, who are coming off a bye week, said that Rutgers has a lot of offensive weapons.

“I think their backs are really talented,” Chryst said. “They’re doing a good job as a team. Defensively, they’re taking the ball away; offensively they’re protecting it. They have receivers that can hurt you, and they’ve played off each other and well as a team.”

Rutgers leads the Big East in turnovers forced with 27. Meanwhile, Pitt only has seven turnovers on the season. The Scarlet Knights are also among the best special teams units in the country with eight blocked kicks.

But perhaps the most impressive part of the Rutgers game is its defense. The Scarlet Knights are fourth in the country in scoring defense. They allow just 12.4 points per game and are known for stopping the run.

Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri continues to put up impressive numbers each week. He has thrown 206 consecutive passes without an interception, the second-longest active streak in the country. Sunseri also ranks 12th nationally and second in the Big East in pass efficiency with a 159.14 rating. He has completed 200 of 297 passes at 67 percent on the year and has thrown for 2,665 yards and 16 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

Rutgers sophomore quarterback Gary Nova has a Pitt connection himself. Nova committed to Pitt in 2010, but he soon decommitted after Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign as Pitt’s coach.

Currently, Nova has a quarterback rating of 137.9 with 2,125 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Although his numbers may not match up to Sunseri’s, Nova is still doing what it takes to lead his team to victory.

“Rutgers is the only undefeated Big East team,” Chryst said. “Obviously their record speaks for themselves.”

And the Scarlet Knights will try to add another win to that record today. They are also looking to take a monumental step in the history of their football program. They hope to claim the school’s first-ever Big East title.

The rest depends on how No. 19 Louisville performs against Connecticut this week. If the Cardinals win, Rutgers and Louisville will play next week for the automatic BCS bowl bid.

For Pitt, it’s the seniors’ final game at Heinz Field. Some players on their way out include Sunseri, wide receiver Mike Shanahan, center Chris Jacobson, kicker Kevin Harper, running back Ray Graham and defensive back Jarred Holley.

Despite a 24-17 loss to Connecticut two weeks ago and uneven play throughout the season, the Panthers still have an opportunity to earn a bowl bid, but must win out in order for that to happen.

“It’s been different things each game,” Chryst said. “We’ve got to learn from those lessons.”

In his first year with Pitt, Chryst said he is trying to instill his own set of values into the program.

“We’re in the process of creating a culture,” Chryst said. “We’re here to make players the best they can be and to represent the university the best we can.”

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