The 2001 football schedule is interesting to say the least. The Panthers will host games in their third stadium, Heinz Field, in as many years. It is also the first year the Panthers have had really high expectations. What is really interesting about the schedule is that there are as many pitfalls as there are opportunities to vault the program into the top-20. The three-game home stand to open the season will be quickly forgotten once Miami comes to town for a Thursday night ESPN game Sept. 27. After that there are no breathers so it is imperative that the team start the season by winning its first three games. This is also a season of change for the conference with three first-year head coaches, Larry Coker at Miami, Greg Schiano at Rutgers and Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia.
Sept. 1 EAST TENNESSEE STATE
Sept. 8 SOUTH FLORIDA
Sept. 15 UAB
Sept. 27 MIAMI*
Oct. 6 @ Notre Dame
Oct. 13 SYRACUSE*
Oct. 20 @ Boston College*
Oct. 27 @ Temple*
Nov. 3 VIRGINIA TECH*
Nov. 10 @ Rutgers*
Nov. 24 @ West Virginia*
Sept. 1 East Tennessee State
@ Heinz Field
Division 1-AA East Tennessee State has had two straight 6-5 seasons and Panther fans remember how much trouble Villanova was at Pitt Stadium in 1998. The Bucs must replace quarterback Todd Wells, the Southern Conferences all-time total offensive leader. Look for either senior Matt Wihjelm or junior Jatavis Sanders to take over. Sanders is a transfer from North Carolina State.
There is an experienced offensive line to lead a stable of runners led by Corey Carter. Carter, a sophomore, is at tailback after playing last year at fullback where he gained 343 yards. Others to look for in the backfield are freshman Ahmad Ashkar and junior fullback Scott Carter.
Defensively the Bucs lost eight starters. ETSU likes to rotate six or seven defensive linemen so a leader is tough to name. Sophomores Brandon Calton and Travis Williams are two of the more experienced players returning. No starters return at linebacker and the secondary is led by safety Ocasio Cofield, a transfer from Kansas.
Sept. 8 South Florida
@ Heinz Field
South Florida continues its incredible transformation. In 1996 the school assembled its first football team. In 1997 it played its first game. In 2003 the Bulls will join Conference USA.
Last year South Florida finished 7-4. Quarterback Marquel Blackwell is the key to the offense. As he goes, so goes the offense. Blackwell completed 57% of his passes last year for 2,016 yards and 13 touchdowns with just four INTs. He is also a threat to run, 566 yards on 128 attempts.
The line is inexperienced and it could be a few games before they play well. That is not a good sign for an offense that lost its top four receivers and it its top rusher. Defensively the Bulls lost seven starters, including all four out of the secondary.
Sept. 15 Alabama Birmingham
@ Heinz Field
If anyone thinks this game will be a walkover for the Panthers call Nick Saban at LSU. The Blazers went to LSU last year and beat the Tigers, 13-10, and finished the season 7-4.
Head coach Watson Brown has scrapped the option and installed a wide-open attack. Senior quarterback Jeff Aaron who started six games last year leads the offense. He is helped by one of the top backs in the Conference USA, senior Jegil Dugger.
Three starters are gone from the offensive line. The line does have size however, and is led by junior center Kirk Tuck and senior guard Preston Fray.
Defensively, 10 starters return. The line is very good and held opponents to just 91.8 yards rushing per game. The key to the line is the end and nose-guard tandem of Bryan Thomas and Rodney Jones.
The Blazers play at Florida State the week before coming to Pittsburgh so it will be interesting to see how they react to what presumably will be a loss on the road.
Sept 27 Miami
@ Heinz Field
Miami was a sloppy first half away from being undefeated last season. The loss at Washington kept Miami out of the national championship game with Oklahoma. This year the Hurricanes are looking to continue their ascent to the top of the charts.
Larry Coker replaced Butch Davis, who left right before Letter of Intent Day in Feb. Coker was the Miami offensive coordinator so things should go smoothly.
The offense is loaded at every position. Quarterback Ken Dorsey threw 25 touchdowns last year and just five interceptions. The running game is stacked with junior Clinton Portis, senior Najeh Davenport and sophomore Jarrett Payton. Freshman tailback Willis McGhee could also force his way into the lineup.
If there is a question it may be at receiver where the Hurricanes lost some talented players. Tight end Jeremy Shockey is the top returning receiver with 21 receptions. An outstanding offensive line with All-America candidate tackles Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez should enable the passing game to develop at a steady pace.
If there has been a weak spot on defense it's been the line. More is needed from returning starters William Joseph and ends Cornelius Green and Jamaal Green. Junior Howard Clark leads the linebackers. Look for sophomore D.J. Williams, who was switched from fullback, to get on the field at linebacker.
The secondary is good. Three starters return led by seniors Edward Reed and Mike Rumph. Miami will know early what type of a season it will have. The Hurricanes open at Penn State and host Washington before traveling to Pittsburgh.
Oct. 6 @ Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium
Things turned around very quickly for Notre Dame in 2000. Many people thought an 0-4 start was possible last year but an overtime loss to Nebraska helped turn the tide. This year the Fighting Irish have a lot of promise. Sophomore quarterback Matt LoVecchio is back and his chief competitor, Arnaz Battle, is at wide receiver after breaking his wrist last season. Notre Dame should depend on the run this year but without relying on the option as much. Junior Julius Jones and senior Tony Fisher give the offense a solid one-two punch at tailback. Three starters return on the line led by big tackles Jordan Black and Kurt Vollers.
Notre Dame needs senior end Grant irons to be recovered from a shoulder injury. If he is the defense can be very good. The interior of the line will be new and two starters must be replaced in the secondary. Inside linebacker is a concern too because of the graduation of defensive MVP Anthony Denman.
Notre Dame's schedule is a killer. The Irish open with games at Nebraska and Purdue, host Michigan St. and travel to Texas A&M before the Panthers roll into town.
Oct. 13 Syracuse
@ Heinz Field
Syracuse is in the middle of a slump. The Orangemen have lost 19 regular season games the past five years including five in each of the past two. A lot of their problems come from uncertainty at quarterback. There is still uncertainty this year.
Will it be junior Troy Nunes, sophomore R.J. Anderson or freshman Cecil Howard? Howard was listed as the No. 1 option quarterback in the nation last year last year. Whoever gets the job will have senior tailback James Mungro to help carry the load. Mungro averaged a Big east record 6.97 yards per carry in 2000. Senior fullback Kyle Johnson will help clear the way for Mungro.
Defensively there are holes to fill. Dwight Freeney is the only returning starter on the line. Luckily three starters return in the secondary led by safeties Keeon Walker and Quentin Harris.
Syracuse starts the season with tough non-conference games against Georgia Tech, Tennessee, East Carolina and Auburn so the direction of the season will be known early.
Oct. 20 @ Boston College
Boston College has turned things around since the gambling scandal a few years back. There is still a lot to do though. Last year the Eagles finished 7-5 overall and beat Arizona St. in the Aloha Bowl. The problem for BC is that none of their wins came against a very good opponent. Boston College defeated Army, Navy, UConn, Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple.
Junior William Green leads a solid running attack. Green and sophomore Derrick Knight give the Eagles a good mix of speed and power. Brian St. Pierre is back for his junior season at quarterback. In spot duty last year St. Pierre threw for 543 yards and four scores. Senior Dedrick Dewalt leads a veteran group of receivers. The offensive line lost three starters but there has been enough depth recently that there should not be a problem filling holes.
The defensive line has been a strength at Boston College for a while. This year should be no different. Three of four starters return but the effectiveness will hinge on the return of senior Antonio Gray. Gray injured a knee on the first play from scrimmage last year.
In all, nine starters return on defense. Senior cornerback Lenny Walls is back. He is one of three starters returning in the backfield. By the time the Panthers travel to Boston the Eagles will have an idea of how their season is going. The Eagles open with West Virginia and travel to Stanford. The week before the Pitt game Boston College plays at Virginia Tech.
Oct. 27 @ Temple
It's kind of ironic that this is supposed to be Temple's final year in the conference and the Owls have their best team in over a decade. That's what head coach Bobby Wallace has to deal with. In his favor is a group that is talented and probably a bit angry at getting booted from the Big East Conference.
Junior Tanardo Sharps is among the best running backs in the conference. He needs to be because the play of senior quarterback Devin Scott is average at times. Sharps and senior fullback Jason McKie form a solid tandem in the backfield. The offensive line lost its left side starters and that could be troublesome.
Defensively the Owls return 10 starters. The line is good, but not spectacular. There really is no set lineup because the line rotates a lot of players. Junior Dan Klecko needs to be healthy. Three seniors, Raheem Brock, Russell Newman and Akeiff Staples, need to lead. Senior Taylor Sluman who is the leading returning tackler in the conference leads the linebackers. All four starters return in the secondary.
The opportunity is there for Temple to make some noise this season. Opening games with Navy, Toledo, UConn and Bowling Green are possible victories. The Owls need to win those games to build momentum for conference play.
Nov. 3 Virginia Tech
@ Heinz Field
Okay, so Michael Vick is gone, now what? Opposing fans should be careful what they ask for. Vick was not great last year as a passer and the Hokies ran the ball 72% of the time. A figure that could go even higher if junior Grant Noel doesn't recover from an injured knee. Noel injured the knee while lifting weights in July. His backup is freshman Jason Davis. Look for Bryan Randall. Randall, an incoming freshman, twice rushed and threw for over 1,000 yards in high school.
Luckily Virginia Tech has junior Lee Suggs who scored 27 touchdowns last year. Incoming freshman Kevin Jones was rated the top running back in the nation last year. He will get plenty of carries in spot duty. Senior fullback Jarrett Ferguson is back and provides that extra room Suggs may need. He will have to play well this year because Tech lost four starters on the line. Senior center Steve DeMasi is the lone returner.
Defensively it's the same story for the Hokies. A lot of players see a lot of action and make big plays. All four starters return on the line led by senior tackles Chad Beasley and David Pugh. Sophomore end Nathaniel Adibi is another speedy guy who can wreck an offense. Three starters return in the secondary led by junior cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. The linebackers, led by seniors Ben Taylor and Jake Housewright, should again be solid if they can return healthy after too many injuries last year.
The Hokies open with UConn, Western Michigan, Rutgers and Central Florida which should allow plenty of time to get the offense sorted out. Until then, look for more defensive domination.
Nov. 10 @ Rutgers
New head coach Greg Schiano has his work cut out for him. First, he has to turn around a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1992. And second, he has to do it without an experienced quarterback. Gone is four-year starter Mike McMahon. In his place most likely will be junior Chad Schwenk who has started four games.
Rutgers couldn't run the ball last year and ranked 97th nationally in rushing. The leading rusher, senior Dennis Thomas is back, but don't be surprised if one of three incoming freshmen wrest the starting job away. New Jersey Player of the Year Rikki Cook is the leading candidate.
Only three starters return on a defense that ranked 108th in scoring and 111th against the run last year. Even though Schiano does not have the type of players he had while he was Miami's defensive coordinator he will undoubtedly instill some enthusiasm, which should be good for an extra win or two this season. Defensive backs Brandon Haw and Tarell Freeney are the other returning starters on defense.
It's a safe bet to say that no starting job is secure this season. After the opener against Buffalo things get tough for the Scarlet Knights with a trip to Miami and visits from California and Virginia Tech.
Nov. 24 @ West Virginia
New head coach Rich Rodriguez has made heads turn and some heads roll after taking over the Mountaineer football program. The biggest change on offense will be the change in attack. Gone is the beefy front wall and deep-back ball control offense. In its place is a quick strike offense that utilizes speed and pressure.
Rodriguez served as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Clemson the past two seasons and he will have to find a way to mold senior quarterback Brad Lewis and junior running back Avon Cobourne into the new style. It could be difficult. Lewis is big and strong, not necessarily mobile. Cobourne is used to setting up in an I-formation and letting his linemen do the dirty work. All this must be done with an offensive line that returns just one starter.
Defensively three players lead the Mountaineers. Sophomore inside linebacker Grant Wiley is terrific. Up front, tackles, senior Antwan Lake and junior David Upchurch must clog things up to allow Wiley to make plays. The secondary could be under pressure early while the line and linebackers adjust to new defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian's scheme.
The schedule is conducive to learning a new scheme. Only a trip to Boston College in the opener should give the Mountaineers trouble. The next three games have Ohio in town, at Maryland and Kent State making a visit before hosting Virginia Tech.