PITTSBURGH (AP) - A few weeks ago, Pitt probably looked upon Florida International as a much-welcomed stepping stone to Notre Dame and the Big East Conference schedule that follows. A 28-point loss on its home field changed all that.
Their confidence shaken by a 31-3 loss to No. 16 Miami, the Panthers (1-2) find themselves confronted by a game they must win big to satisfy their disappointed fans. If they win by a tiny margin against a winless opponent from a non-BCS conference, it will be viewed as unacceptable.
Lose, and their season will be on the verge of collapsing even before conference play begins.
Florida International (0-3) would seem to be exactly what Pitt needs following its worst home-field defeat in nine seasons, and an earlier overtime loss to No. 13 Utah. But the Golden Panthers - 3-12 the last two seasons - were competitive while losing to Rutgers 19-14 and Texas A&M 27-20.
Maybe Pitt should have seen this coming, considering the Panthers are starting a new quarterback, three new offensive linemen and two new cornerbacks. Somehow they didn't, and that means the only game on their early season schedule that was viewed as easy is suddenly causing a bit of unease.
''Going into this season, I don't believe in anyone's mind, even thinking about the worst scenario, would believe that we'd be 1-2,'' middle linebacker Max Gruder said. ''Everyone fully expected to be 3-0. We're not where we want to be.''
Quarterback Tino Sunseri looked overwhelmed against Miami, causing offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to say the his play must improve in a hurry.
''If the guy on the field isn't giving us the best chance to win the game then, hey, changes might have to be made,'' Cignetti said.
Worse still, Dion Lewis looks like the ill-at-ease freshman he was supposed to be a season ago, rather than a returning 1,799-yard rusher and second team All-American. He's averaging only 3 yards per carry and hasn't had an 80-yard game yet, much less a 100-yard game.
''They've had a few stumbles, but not because of lack of scheme,'' Florida International coach Mario Cristobal said. ''They might be the most physical team we'll play all season.''
If there's any game on Pitt's schedule in which Lewis would seem ready to thrive, it's this one. Florida International allows an average of 150 yards rushing and has already given up six rushing touchdowns. Maryland had scoring runs of 56 and 76 yards.
While Lewis is struggling with 158 yards through three games, backup Ray Graham is coming off successive 100-yard games and is averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Lewis and Graham will run behind a reconfigured line in which Lucas Nix has moved from right tackle to right guard and 315-pound Jordan Gibbs will start at right tackle.
''A lot of guys are angry and mad,'' left tackle Jason Pinkston said. ''We're trying to figure out what we need to do to turn things around.''
Pitt has had trouble in the past against spread offenses and opponents they were supposed to beat easily. In 2001, they were embarrassed at home by South Florida, a fledgling program that owned no previous victories over an established Division I-A school. Florida International's spread offense totaled 472 yards in a 42-28 loss to Maryland last week as Wes Carroll threw for 355 yards.
Pitt also is without two of its top players, middle linebacker Dan Mason (right leg) for the rest of the season and defensive end Greg Romeus (back) for most of it.
''By no means is anyone panicking, and nobody is down,'' Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley said. ''There is a sense of urgency. We know we need to make plays. By no means will we underestimate FIU because they have the athletes and the team speed to be dangerous.''