THE RETURN OF FOOTBALL
Above all else, the September 3rd season opener against the University of Buffalo marks the return of Pitt football, and the beginning of a new regime. The Saturday evening game will give Pitt fans their first look at head coach Todd Graham and his newly installed offensive and defensive philosophies.
The Pitt Panthers will be looking to rebound from somewhat of a disappointing season in which they finished at 8-5, concluding with a 27-10 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Pitt's first opponent of the 2011 football season, the Buffalo Bulls, are also on the mend, as they finished the 2010 season with a lowly 2-10 record.
Buffalo's head coach, Jeff Quinn, will begin his second season at the reigns of this Bulls team. In his first season, the Bulls finished with a 2-10 record, including a 1-7 record in the MAC.
In 2010, Buffalo fielded one of its better defenses of late. Led by All-Mac performers Davonte Shannon, Domonic Cook and Josh Thomas, playing free safety, strong safety, and cornerback, respectively, Buffalo was very good against the pass. They allowed only 181.4 passing yards per game, a very strong defensive average. Buffalo, however, lost its big 3 defensive backs to graduation, and they now must find younger players to step up and fill their respective roles.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, the 2010 Bulls were very weak both running the ball and also stopping the run. They relied on redshirt-freshman Branden Oliver to tote the rock for them, but he managed only 336 yards on the season, good for a team leading mark. If Buffalo is going to be successful, they are going to need a much higher output from the now redshirt-sophomore running back.
Defensively, the Bulls gave up a very high 159.1 rushing yards per game. Buffalo will look to pre-season All-Mac LB Khalil Mack to help reduce some of this damage. Buffalo had better hope that last season's run defense woes can be corrected in 2011, otherwise, Pitt RB Ray Graham could have a career day on September 3rd.
This year's schedule for Buffalo includes two solid Big East teams in Pitt and Connecticut. Following these tough games, things get even more difficult on October 1st, as Buffalo travels to Neyland Stadium for a non-conference matchup against Tennessee. The tail end of the schedule is slotted exclusively for MAC opponents, always a rough spot for the Bulls. The 2011 schedule has some brutal patches for Buffalo, but, if the defense can step up to its 2010 level, they may surprise some people en route to a decent season.
PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Marcus Rivers, WR-The 6'5" redshirt-senior from Lackawanna, NY is the ideal combination of size, speed, and strength. He led Buffalo in every receiving category in 2010 with 50 catches for 690 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Rivers has been pegged as a 2011 pre-season All-MAC selection and enters 2011 with very lofty goals for himself. Rivers will be a very tough matchup for any Pitt cornerback.
Terrell Jackson, PR-Jackson is a 6'0" senior wide out from Temple, Texas. The lightning quick receiver is one of the most dynamic players in the MAC, as he finished the 2010 season with a spot on the All-MAC First Team. Jackson racked up 1,057 all-purpose yards, including 647 return yards and 397 yards receiving. Pitt is going to have to bring their A-game on special teams, or else this explosive athlete could burn them badly.
Khalil Mack, LB-The aforementioned Mack is a 6'3, 241 pound redshirt-sophomore linebacker for the Bulls. He set the freshman record at Buffalo for most tackles for loss in a season. He also recorded team highs in both sacks, 4.5, and tackles for losses, 14.5. Mack was a strong candidate for MAC freshman of the year, and is viewed by many to be an up-and-coming defensive player on the NCAA scene.
Steven Means, DE-The 6'3, 246 pound redshirt-junior from Buffalo is a very fast, rangy defensive lineman. He finished the 2010 season with 4.5 sacks, and he now has 9.5 total in his first two seasons. Means has become better and better as his career progresses, and Buffalo will be leaning on him to put pressure on Pitt QB Tino Sunseri.
Pitt RB Ray Graham vs. Buffalo LB Khalil Mack While Mack is a very promising young player for the Bulls, Graham should be able to spring some big runs on this leaky Buffalo defense. Mack may be placed as a spy on Graham in an effort to slow him down, but, behind the blocking of OGs Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson, Graham will consistently find holes throughout the game.
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri vs. The Buffalo secondary Buffalo has three new starters in their secondary, and appears to be susceptible against the pass. Sunseri, with the help of Todd Graham's quick attacking offense, should be able to have a great game in his first outing of 2011.
Pitt CBs Antwuan Reed and Buddy Jackson vs. Buffalo WRs Marcus Rivers and Terrell Jackson In one of the more intriguing matchups of this season's opener, Buffalo may actually possess the advantage with its two All-MAC receivers. Both of the Bulls' wide outs are 6 foot or taller, presenting a challenge to the 5'9" Reed. Pitt's corners may need some safety help over the top against these dynamic threats. Keep an eye on this matchup, as this should be the best, most evenly matched battle of the game.
Look for Pitt's offense to take advantage in the air against a reeling Buffalo secondary. Quarterback Tino Sunseri should be able to exploit Buffalo's first year starters and have a very strong game while doing so.
Defensively, Pitt should be able to control the line of scrimmage, forcing Buffalo to beat them through the air. If cornerbacks Reed and Jackson are up to the challenge, the Panthers will be a tough team for Buffalo to gain any ground on.Buffalo will be a nice test early for the 2011 Pitt Panthers, but the Bulls should be no match for Pitt's overall team play.