After back-to-back non-conference breezes against Idaho and Eastern Michigan, things toughen considerably for the Michigan State Spartans as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers at Heinz Field at 12:00 noon Saturday.
The Spartans will have to figure out a way to contain senior quarterback Tyler Palko, second in the nation in passing efficiency (213.95 passer rating) and the big-play Panther offense.
In their 33-15 win over Cincinnati, Palko (completing 65.1%) connected twice with wide receiver Derek Kinder (35.6 per catch average and three TDs) on what appeared to be routine corner routes which Kinder turned into big plays, one an 80-yard touchdown play and another into a 55-yard touchdown.
Kinder's running mate, freshman Oderick Turner (35.7 per catch average, two TDs) has also shown the ability to make the big play. He helped break open a close 10-3 game with Virginia when he broke away with a 72-yard touchdown catch-and-run from Palko.
Kinder added a 78-yarder TD score against the Cavaliers also.
"They've made big plays and they are capable of making (more) big plays," said MSU head coach John L. Smith.
"That is a concern from the standpoint of us, more on our side of the ball, of taking care of ourselves and making sure we're 'right' and don't do something stupid. Don't be over agressive, don't forget what your assignment is. Play assignment football," said Smith.
"What concerns me is making them work for everything they get, don't give 'em the 'cheap' play and we gave up two real cheap ones last week."
The Panthers haven't had the success they would like running the football, rushing for just 98.5 yards per game (86th in the NCAA). A key for the Spartans would seem to be to keep things in front of them, go to extra defensive backs in the game, perhaps even three deep to avoid giving up anything long.
Michigan State defensive tackle David Stanton said despite their lack of run production, the Pittsburgh offensive line will be tough unit to handle.
"Their size is huge. I think their left tackle (Jeff Otah 6-foot-6, 340-lbs) is like 340 and their inside guys are just big, plus their a Big East team, so we'll have our hands full," he said
Indeed the Pitt offensive line with Otah, left guard C.J. Davis (6-foot-2, 300), center Joe Villani (6-foot-4, 300), guard John Simonitis (6-foot-5, 315) and right tackle Mike McGlynn (6-foot-5, 315) have NFL type size.
Their run game may have suffered due to the inexperiences of their running back.
Sophomore Larod Stephens-Howling is expected to start over true freshman Shane Brooks, the Panthers leading rusher to date with 124 yards on 31 carries and a one 55-yard burst so far this season.
Stanton says he likes the way the unit is playing heading into their first road contest. "The competition is bringing out the best in all of us," he said. "Especially so with Ervin Baldwin and Brandon Long. They're both playing real good and it's also bringing out the best in me and "O.G." (Ogemdi Nwagbuo)."
Stanton said new defensive line coach Derrick Jackson won't accept anything less than full effort and he is prepping the team hard for the big physical Panthers offensive front.
So what's the bottom line heading into Pitt?
"Every time we step on that field, we've got to be productive or (we know) we're not going to play."