Panthers, Scarlet Knights in thick of Big East race

For several months now, conventional wisdom has been touting Louisville and West Virginia as the only horses in the Big East race.

Pitt senior linebacker H.B. Blades likes conventional wisdom about as much he likes opposing quarterbacks. He thinks Saturday's game against visiting Rutgers (ESPN2, 5:45 ET) might have a lot to do with who wins the conference.

Two-team race? Blades scoffs at the notion.

"I don't know where people got that from," he said. "The game is won on Saturdays, and this is a Saturday where a team is going to put itself in a great position to win the conference.

"The Big East is wide open."

It is right now. Pitt (6-1 overall, 2-0 Big East) is off to its best start since Dan Marino's senior year in 1982. It leads the all-time series against Rutgers 19-4 and almost assuredly would crack the Top 25 with a victory.

No. 19 Rutgers (6-0, 1-0) moved up five spots in the AP poll this week, checked in at No. 16 in the BCS Standings, and is off to its best start since 1976. It boasts the nation's top-ranked scoring defense (8.3 points per game) and second-ranked overall defense (221.3 yards).

Rutgers tailback Ray Rice will be clashing with Blades plenty on Saturday -- Rice is fourth in the country in rushing (149.8 yards per game) and Blades is sixth in tackles (11.1 per game) -- but the two are in sync on the subject of the game's importance.

"It'd be a steppingstone for either program, whichever comes out the winner," Rice said. "[The Panthers are] obviously way better than they were last year."

Ah yes, last year. Before we move on, it might be instructional to reflect on last year's game. Blades certainly has. He wore a Rutgers T-shirt every day during winter conditioning, bent on searing the memory of a 37-29 loss into his psyche.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt didn't mind Blades' gesture.

"Them beating us bothered at least one guy," Wannstedt said, half-jokingly. "I'd like to see 85 (players) with Rutgers shirts on, but, really, that's a positive in that it meant something to him."

Rice is well aware of Blades' role as the emotional epicenter of a Pitt defense that has allowed just 13.3 points per game, 11th-best in the country.

"That's his team," Rice said. "He controls them. They feed off his enthusiasm. You got to give him that."

Blades hated being part of the first Pitt team to lose to Rutgers since 1998 -- and he couldn't stand the fact that his former teammate at Plantation (Fla.) High School, Rutgers receiver Dennis Campbell, gained bragging rights even though Campbell didn't play.

Campbell, a redshirt freshman, will play Saturday. He is the team's third-leading receiver with 11 catches for 121 yards. Blades will be waiting with open arms.

"I haven't really gotten a chance to hit him since my senior year," Blades said, laughing. "So, it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it."

The Panthers trailed 27-0 at the half in last year's game and rushed for minus-11 yards. A few Pitt players said Rutgers rubbed it in.

"I've heard some things," said Pitt senior center Joe Villani. "I didn't get anything personally. I've heard this, that and the other. But you come out and beat us like that, you have every right to brag. Hopefully, they don't get that opportunity this year."

The juicy story lines don't stop there. Another is that Pitt coach Wannstedt has close ties with members of the Rutgers staff. When he was coaching the Chicago Bears, Wannstedt hired Greg Schiano and then recommended him to Butch Davis to become the defensive coordinator at the University of Miami.

"He's been a real mentor to me," Schiano said. "He gave me an opportunity to get in the NFL. I learned a lot of football, about handling players. I think that's one of Dave's strengths. Butch and he are good friends, and I didn't know Butch at all. That certainly was a big help for me."

Schiano worked with the nickel backs when he joined the Bears, then was elevated to secondary coach. Rutgers offensive coordinator Craig Ver Steeg was Wannstedt's offensive quality control coach in Chicago.

"A lot of the stuff they're doing goes back to those days," Wannstedt said of Rutgers' offensive and defensive schemes. "They're going to be sound and they're going to do it right and now they've got talented players doing it right, and that's why they're getting the results."

Are they ever. Schiano doubles as defensive coordinator and has directed a unit that posted has two shutouts and allowed only six touchdowns. Pitt scored that many (plus a special teams' score) last Friday in a 52-7 rout of Central Florida and is averaging 37.6 points per game to rank eighth nationally.

Rutgers defensive tackle Ramel Meekins was asked if his defense is as good as its numbers.

"I think so," he said. "I'm very confident in my defense. What player isn't?"

Pitt counters with the country's leader in passing efficiency, senior quarterback Tyler Palko, who has completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

Palko has been watching horror movies this week. Which is to say, video of a fast, hard-hitting Rutgers defense.

"It's not like we're going to come out and put 70 on 'em," Palko said. "We'll be lucky to put the ball in the end zone. Every time I turn the tape on, you see somebody else making a big play."

Rutgers sophomore quarterback Mike Teel (five touchdowns, seven interceptions) has struggled at times, but he's coming off a career-best effort (215 yards, three touchdowns) in a romp over Navy last Saturday. He doesn't feel the need to match stats with Palko.

"No, I feel that I need to lift my game for my team, for the schemes they're going to give to us on defense," Teel said.

Both teams have padded their stats against soft competition. Their victims include The Citadel, Cincinnati, Howard, Syracuse, Central Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Toledo, Virginia, Ohio and, in Rutgers' case, a Navy team that lost star quarterback Brian Hampton in the first quarter.

Rutgers' biggest win was Sept. 29 at South Florida. Pitt's highest-quality opponent was a Michigan State team that rolled up 335 yards rushing in a 38-23 win over the Panthers on Sept. 16 at Heinz Field.

Pitt has an emerging star running back in sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling (503 yards rushing, six touchdowns), but Rutgers has the more decorated backfield in Rice and fullback Brian Leonard, whom Wannstedt believes will be the first fullback taken in the NFL draft.

"It's an exciting week," Wannstedt said. "We're going to have a great crowd, national TV. That's why they came to Pitt, to play in these types of games."

That's why they came to Rutgers, too.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.