Interestingly enough, Pitt (2-0) and MSU (2-0) have not played each other since 1960, with that game ending in a 7-7 tie.
Pitt ended last season with a 5-6 record after being picked in the Top 25 to begin the season. Notre Dame crushed them in their first game, and the year did not go as expected, as they dropped a game to Ohio University from the MAC in the second game, and did not beat a quality opponent all year, that is, unless you call Syracuse and Connecticut quality opponents.
They did go on the road to Nebraska and played them tough in a one-point loss (7-6), in a game that saw more futility than execution.
It was a tough 2005 year for Pitt, they seemed to lacked leadership, chemistry, and were confused at other times, blowing defensive and special team assignments. On offense they struggled to run the ball, and had a hard time protecting Palko. One bright spot for Pitt in 2005 that could be troubling to MSU in 2006, is the fact that all five of their wins came at home, where they finished 5-1.
However, it's a new year and head coach Dave Wannstedt and his staff have done a superb job of recruiting as they attempt to rebuild a once proud program that won a National Championship in 1976.
In fact, it is the thirty year anniversary of that feat, and that team was honored during halftime of the opener with Virginia, a game that Pitt won by the score of 38-13. Pitt followed that game with a victory over Cincinnati by the score of 33-15 in a game they nearly gave away in the fourth quarter after dominating for the most part.
Pitt's current recruiting class was ranked in the Top 15 nationally, and is considered the top class in the Big East, even ahead of Louisville's, and they will be counting on these youngsters as time goes by.
The opening game featured a number of big plays by Pitt in the drubbing of a rebuilding Virginia team. The Panthers scored on pass plays of 72-yards, and 78-yards, and had an interception returns of 19-yards for a touchdown, and a added a 78-yard interception return for a touchdown. Virginia simply could not overcome four one-play touchdowns.
Pitt also put up a number of big plays against Cincinnati, including two long touchdown plays to wide receiver Derek Kinder, a interception for touchdown return, and another interception that set up a Pitt touchdown. Pitt has lived by big plays on both sides of the ball, and MSU will have to be ready.
Davey O'Brien Award candidate Tyler Palko looked sharp for Pitt versus the Cavaliers, hitting on 17 of 25 passes for 283-yards and three touchdowns. Against Cincy, Palko hit on 11-of-22 passes for 267 yards and added three more touchdowns. They've shown the ability to connect on the deep pass that has to make the MSU faithful worry. Certainly, not giving up the big play will be 'job one' for the Spartans.
This was suppose to be a 2006 Pitt team that lacked depth at receiver, at running back, and in the kicking game. However, that was not apparent in the opener as Wannstedt pointed to senior leadership as being important to the solid opener, and hanging on in game two.
MSU will be tested to the maximum in this game. So let's break down the Pitt team further, starting with the offense:
SCOUTING THE PITT OFFENSE
Offensively, Pitt featured an attack that burned Virginia and Cincy for the big play by using play-action passing, and running the draw play. Although they struggled against their own defense in fall camp, they got untracked against Virginia.
Palko in the past has been prone to forcing the ball into traffic and making the big interception. Through fall camp he improved in that area, and was pulling the ball down and running with it, although he threw a pick in the Virginia game. One thing that Wannstedt and offensive cordinator Matt Cavanaugh have stressed is getting the ball to the open receiver instead of looking for one certain guy for a particular play, and that strategy has worked like a charm.
Another emphasis by Wannstedt toward Palko is similar to the approach MSU has taken with Drew Stanton, and that is, let your teammates make plays, don't try to do it all yourself, and quit looking at the scoreboard. The Spartans must also be aware of Palko's ability to roll away from pressure and make key throws. Cincy did hold Palko to one of eleven conversions on third down, something the Spartans would like to mimic.
The receiving corps took a hit with graduation, and T.J. Porter was expected to contribute, but he has had off-field problems, leaving the team twice this fall before returning. Reports came in that the highly touted receiver couldn't get off the line in press coverage against defensive back Darrelle Revis. However, Wannstedt claims it was not football related. Porter did return against the Bearcats, and caught one pass. Pitt instead has turned to wideouts Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner, both of whom came through with 78-yard and 72-yard touchdown receptions respectively against the Cavaliers. Kinder added two more long touchdown receptions against Cincy of 80-yards, and 55-yards. Turner added a 15-yard touchdown reception himself in game two.
So, although a bit thin at receiver, they have been productive. Greg Lee is gone from last year as their deep threat, but the trio of Marcel Pestano, Oderick Turner, and Derek Kinder combined for ten catches, 198-yards and two touchdowns against Virginia and had 224-yards and three more scores against the Bearcats.
Kinder is considered the most dependable and consistent of this group by far. Tight End Darrell Strong is solid, and is a good target at 6-foot-6. He had three catches for 30-yards against Virginia, including a spectacular grab that he made over a Cavalier safety and a touchdown reception on a misdirection play. The return of wide out Joe Delasardo after a recent two week suspension should help this group as well.
We won't lie, there is no one on the field to compare to recent Pitt and Biletnikoff winners Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald. However, this group is coming on, Kinder has become dangerous, and if if recent success is any indication, they will be just fine.
Wannstedt wants to play four running backs this year, but is counting first and foremost on the solid contributions of two, Larod Stephens-Howling, who scampered for 58-yards on 17 carries and who caught two passes for 37-yards before being sidelined with an ankle injury against Virginia, and Shane Brooks.
Brooks won a backup role in a key fall scrimmage with a 13-carry, 92-yard, and two touchdown effort. In the opener against the Cavaliers he rushed for 45-yards on nine carries. Brooks also has deceiving speed on the perimeter and was the primary ball toter against the Bearcats and had 79-yards on 22-carries.
Also in the mix is super phenom Dorin Dickerson who has been slowed by an ankle injury, and another highly touted youngster, Kevin Collier. Especially effective against Virginia was the draw play, something the Spartans will have to be aware of. Stephens-Howling sat out against Cincy and his status for MSU is yet to be determined.
Something that could help MSU is that Pitt has the propensity for fumbling the football. Last year Pitt turned the ball over quite a bit on the ground, and lost all three fumbles they had against Cincy, including some botched punt returns that gave the Bearcats some temporary life. Jarring the ball loose should be a priority for MSU.
The offensive line was a glaring weakness last year as they generated only 3.2 yards per carry on the ground, and allowed Palko to be harrassed throughout games. Part of that was due to injuries, and the fact that a set line-up was not settled until late season as they rotated in different combinations. However, once they settled on a regular line-up the last part of the year, they played much better.
Now, four of those five starters return, and the new starter is prized JUCO recruit Jeff Otah, a 6-foot-6 340-pound behemoth, so the expectations are much higher. They were much improved against Virginia, allowing only one sack and opening holes for the ground attack.
McGlynn came under heavy criticism for poor play at times last year. This should be an advantage for MSU as the Panthers struggled some against Cincy in pass protection. They didn't give up sacks, but Palko was hurried all night.
NEXT: SCOUTING THE PANTHER DEFENSE