The last time Pittsburgh won seven of its first eight games, senior quarterback Dan Marino was piloting the offense while winding down one of the best four-year stretches in school history.
The Panthers' latest offensive star is just getting started.
Freshman tailback Dion Lewis has been the surprising focal point for 20th-ranked Pitt, which can match its best start in 27 years Saturday afternoon with a win over South Florida at Heinz Field.
The Panthers (6-1, 3-0 Big East) haven't been regular national title contenders since Marino led them to a 42-6 record from 1979-1982, and though that possibility was put to rest earlier this season with a loss to North Carolina State, there's still plenty they can accomplish.
They're off to their best start since 2006 but now look to go 7-1 for the first time since 1982. Pitt is in good position to claim its first outright Big East title since joining the conference in 1993, as the only 3-0 team in league play and facing four of its final five games at home.
While the Panthers were narrow preseason favorites to win the conference, there was a gaping hole in the backfield when star tailback LeSean McCoy left school early to enter the NFL draft.
Few would have pegged Lewis, whose only other scholarship offers came from Tulane and Miami (Ohio), as the one to fill it. Perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-8, the 19-year-old Lewis is the nation's third-leading rusher at 131.1 yards per game, and his four 100-yard games are as many as McCoy had during his entire 12-game freshman season in 2007.
After being kept out of the end zone in his first two Big East games, Lewis scored twice last Friday at Rutgers. A 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the highlight of his 31-carry, 180-yard effort in Pitt's 24-17 win, and he was named the conference's offensive player of the week.
"The consistency that Dion has demonstrated has been unbelievable, on the field and off the field," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I walked down to the training room about 7:30 (Monday) morning and there was one guy in there getting some treatment and doing a little rehab. It's Dion Lewis. ... He's doing everything right. He's such a great kid. Very few freshmen can make that transition and maintain it."
With five regular-season contests plus a bowl game left, Lewis has a shot to top Tony Dorsett's school record for rushing yards by a freshman -- 1,686 in 1973.
Lewis' job has been made easier by the marked improvement of senior quarterback Bill Stull, who threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games last season while completing 57.0 percent of his passes. This year, Stull is completing 66.7 percent with 14 TDs and three interceptions, and his 159.4 passer rating is seventh in the nation.
He's been sacked six times after taking 25 in 2008.
"People have pressured Stull, have gotten to him a few times, he's gotten right back up and keeps going right back at it again," Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said. "I've been very impressed with him."
One of Stull's better performances last season came when he went 16 of 27 for 228 yards and a touchdown in a 26-21 road upset of then-No. 10 South Florida on Oct. 2, 2008.
The Bulls (5-1, 1-1) seemed like a longshot to enter the Top 25 this season after senior quarterback Matt Grothe tore his ACL during a 59-0 win over Charleston Southern on Sept. 19. But redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels threw for 215 yards and ran for 126 in an upset of Florida State the following week that put South Florida in the poll, and a victory at Syracuse vaulted it to 21st heading into a showdown against then-No. 8 Cincinnati last Thursday.
Daniels wasn't as good against the Bearcats, going 15 of 32 for 208 yards with two interceptions in a 34-17 loss.
One bright spot for the Bulls was senior defensive end George Selvie. The two-time All-American had a sack, two tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.
South Florida has 11 sacks, six interceptions and six turnovers the past three weeks.
"Number one, they've got a very good pass rush," Wannstedt said. "... (Then ) they've got guys that are covering that you're not going to run away from."
Pitt and USF have split six meetings, with the Bulls winning twice at Heinz Field.
Top 25 Overview
The last time Pitt won seven of its first eight games, Dan Marino was its offensive leader. If the Panthers are going to equal the feat this year, it'll be thanks to the feet of Dion Lewis. The Pitt freshman is third in the country in rushing, but he'll face a stout defense in South Florida, which ranks 18th in total defense. Pitt and USF have split six meetings.