1. PREVENT PITT'S BIG PLAY ABILITY - Pitt has survived on the big play this year. In the opener, the Panthers had four one-play scoring drives. Two were on two long touchown passes, and the other two were interception returns for touchdowns.
In game two against Cincinnati, again, they had three touchdown passes, two that covered 80-yards, and 55-yards respectively. They also had a 57-yard interception return for a touchdown, and had another interception that set up their first touchdown.
Offensively, Pitt gets its big plays by effectively using play-action passes to bring in the safeties so quarterback Tyler Palko can go deep to find open receivers. They also effectively use the draw play to keep defenses honest. Palko also effectively scrambles from pressure.
The MSU secondary will have a tough test as they have a penchant for giving up the deep ball, as EMU found out three or four times, one on a nifty double-pass "trickeration".
The Spartan secondary must be on its toes so they don't get sucked in by the play-action. If the MSU defensive line and linebackers do a good job stuffing the run, this will allow the secondary to be more effective in stopping the pass.
Defensively, Pitt gets its big plays from having an aggressive front seven with upfield pressure that rotates in nine different defensive linemen to pressure the quarterback, which in turn, forces errant throws and interceptions.
This ability is enhanced when you consider that they absolutely stuff the run with lighting fast linebackers, giving up just 57-yards, and 35-yards on the ground the last two games. When you make a team one-dimensional and make them throw it, bad things are going to happen for your offense.
Therefore, this is a game when MSU will need some offensive balance, and some quick quarterback three-step drops so quarterback Drew Stanton can get rid of the ball. Offensive cordinator Dave Baldwin will have an interesting week trying to come with a gameplan. However, this is a major key. If MSU can prevent Pitt's big plays on both sides of the ball, that alone should keep them in the game and give them a solid chance for victory.
If the Spartan secondary bites on play-action, Palko could have a field day. While they must support the run, Pitt has yet to show it can open consistent holes in the ground game, well, except for the draw play, which can be lethal.
Proper film study will be important for the entire Spartan defense this week. A blown coverage here of there could the difference is the Spartans don't use caution.
3. MATCH THE PANTHERS INTENSITY AND PHYSICAL PLAY - The Spartans have looked lethargic at times against their first two games against largely inferior opponents. They will need more consistency and a faster start against a Pitt team that has played well at home, and will be ready to hit and play with emotion. Pitt won all five of their games at home last year, so the Spartans need to be ready.
4. THE SPARTAN OFFENSIVE LINE MUST STEP UP - This will be a key area to see where the Spartan offensive line is at. This will be the best defensive front they have faced thus far, and Pitt will putting a lot of pressure on MSU in the trenches.
The running backs must find some holes, Stanton must be protected. If they do that, there are a few seams in the Pitt secondary, as Cincy found out in the fourth quarter. But it all begins with the Spartan offensive line, and their ability to block the intial man, and get to the second tier and Pitt's great linebackers.
The Spartans simply cannot let the Panthers great linebackers crew of H.B. Blades, Clint Sessions, and Tommie Campbell take over the game. It should be noted that guard Kenny Shane did a solid job of filling in for Pete Clifford, who has been bothered by a sore knee. In fact, Shane played well enough that he could start at Pitt. The Panthers defensive end Doug Fulmer will have to be contained off the edge.
5. MAKE PITT HANDLE ADVERSITY - If last year was a proper indication, along with the Cincinnati game, this team struggles with adversity at the end of games. Last year it was missed assignments, blown coverages, ill-timed turnovers, and mental mistakes.
The Bearcats nearly made another comeback that could have sunk Pitt again. Luckily for Pitt, the Panthers held on, but if MSU forces it own turnovers and puts pressure on Pitt, they may crumble under the weight. So it will be important for MSU to play 60 minutes, and keep forcing the issue. A Palko interception here, or a fumble there, could be of enormous help to MSU.
Testing the confidence of Pitt will be crucial. Is this Pitt team for real, or is it a house of cards? The MSU defensive line must come with pressure and hands up for some deflections, and to interfere with Palko's sight lines. The Spartans need some disruption so they can take over the game.
Pitt has been prone to the fumble, (three against the Bearcats), and MSU needs to make sure that trend continues. Darrelle Revis, while being an outstanding cornerback, mishandled two punt return versus the Bearcats, and perhaps the Spartans may have an opportunity in this area to make something happen.
6. WIN TIME OF POSSESSION BATTLE - It's a pretty simple theory, if Pitt doesn't have the ball, and MSU does, Palko can't make plays. The Spartans need to make each play count and stay on the field. The Panther corners come up quick in run support, as do the safeties, so Drew Stanton should be able to find spaces in the secondary if the offensive line gives him time to throw.
7. SPECIAL TEAMS - The Spartans need to win the battle of field position and cover kicks. Special teams often play an important role in a game like this. They were a little lax in covering an onsides kick against EMU, and also fumbled a kickoff return, and in the previous week nearly had a kick return break for big yardage against them. They just need a little work in those areas to tighten things up. Pitt punt returner Darelle Revis did fumble a couple of punts against the Bearcats, perhaps the Spartans can make him hear footsteps this week as well.
8. SPARTAN SKILL PLAYERS NEED TO SHINE - Jehuu Caulcrick didn't play against EMU, which means John L. Smith probably feels the big guy matches up well with Pitt or Notre Dame, and is keeping him fresh. He does have a sprained foot, but could have played against the Eagles. Receiver Matt Trannon set a Spartan record for receptions with fourteen against EMU. He also threw a touchdown pass, and actually went to his second read instead of the primary target and used good intelligence. He can humble and motivate himself with the thought he also dropped a touchdown pass, and got caught holding on a Terry Love touchdown. Second chances don't always present themselves against quality opponents like Pitt or Notre Dame. MSU will have to get it right the first time by protecting the ball, and not committing any penalties or mental mistakes in crucial situations.
Javon Ringer has a sore ankle, so look for AJ Jimmerson to continue his improvement and playing time. Jimmerson was solid in giving Javon Ringer some relief. Jimmerson carried the ball for 79-yards on ten carries and scored three touchdowns, including using good hands to haul in two touchdown receptions. Having a running back as an additonal receiver is good news for the Spartans. Despite Ringer's sore ankle, he is a competitor and should be ready to go, if not, the Spartans must also find a kick returner and edge rusher for the punt team to replace the versatile Ringer.
Look for Jerramy Scott to emerge in the next two weeks. GSN mentioned in the spring that wideout TJ Williams was coming on, and he indeed caught a touchdown pass against EMU. His continued improvement will be important for the Spartans as the season goes on. As defenses look at how to handle Matt Trannon, look for the veteran Scott to step up his game with Terry Love, and of course, TJ Williams. Williams showed his poise in catching a critical third down touchdown crossing pass, and using his speed to get into the endzone.
10. STAY FOCUSED - MSU has this perpetual ability for letting opponents back in the game. Sure, they dominated EMU both statisically and on the scoreboard, but they let yet another out-manned, inferior opponent hang around. EMU cut the Spartan lead to 24-20 early in the second half. The Spartans fell asleep on a double-pass, they were lax to cover an onsides kick. They had no one near a EMU receiver on a wheel route, and the Eagles scored on a fourth down pass. So sure, we can say MSU dominated against an inferior opponent statistically, and yet, that lack of attention to detail can hurt you against better teams. Dominate teams simply do not give up 17-unanswered points and need a chewing out at halftime by John L. Smith.
This is not a negative look at a great Spartan victory that included record-setting performances, but rather, the ability to look at the red flags as they break the surface.
Certainly in the last 30 years of Spartan football, premature bowl talk, Heisman hype, and giddiness over big victories have taken the focus off the job at hand, the focus of areas that need to be improved, and getting things done in a week in, and week out basis. This could be one of the bigger keys as the year goes on. Paying attention to and correcting mistakes, and keeping focus on the job at hand, will be job one for the Spartans.
STATISTICALLY SPEAKING - It's a little early to compare teams statistically because of the level of competition played so far. However, it can give us an early indications of strengths, weaknesses, and trends. So let's take a look:
One stat that jumps at us that could continue for both teams throughout the season is the ability for both teams to defend the run. Pitt has given up just 43.5-yards per game on the ground against two decent opponents in Virginia and Cincinnati. The Spartans have been stout in stopping the run as well at 77.5 yards-per game but against lesser competition.
Being able to run and stop the run are two keys indicators in winning a football regardless of the passing ability or the spread attack of a football team. By contrast, Pitt has run for an average of only 98.5-yards per game, while MSU has averaged 219.5 per game. Again, one must consider the level of competition involved, as MSU has played Idaho and Eastern Michigan. On the other hand, Pitt has not faced the kind of run/pass attack MSU can bring to the table. We must remember that attack may vary as well. With Caulcrick and Ringer expected to play but nicked up, will that result in more carries for AJ Jimmerson, or more reliance on the passing game? Film study will reveal what attack the Spartans will present.
You can see the reliance on the big play Pitt has had so far. The Panthers are only converting 29% of their third down conversions, yet they are averaging 19.6-yards per catch.
The importance of that is that MSU must make them drive the length of the field, hope for a stop, and not give up the big play. MSU on the other hand has had an inflated third down conversion rate of 58% that will come down as the level of competition steps up, but also has a lower yards per catch average of 12.2-yards.
Once MSU plays a quality Pitt team on the road, and Notre Dame later, the statistics will be a better indicator of where the Spartans fit in the mix, and how they match up with other teams. At this point they are skewed, but we can expect decent run defense for the most part from both teams, and that could be an important indicator.