Pitt football--Michigan State preview

PantherDigest.com fans are excited after the University of Pittsburgh's 2-0 start to the football season. Senior writer Dale Grdnic previews the Panthers grudge match against the Michigan State Spartans. Read on.

Pitt football--Michigan State preview

PITTSBURGH -- This group won't stir fond memories from powerful teams in the early 1980s, but the current University of Pittsburgh defensive unit is talented, fast and exciting nonetheless.

And the Panthers (2-0) are making their own mark so far this season.

"We've played well, but I think we'll continue to improve this season,'' Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said. "But they'll need to do that for us to be a good football team. And if you're going to be a great defensive football team, you have to be able to rush the passer with four guys.

"You don't always have to create a pass rush. And we're getting better. The guys are working hard. The effort is there, and it's outstanding. But we have to start winning more one-on-one battles. And I think (this defense) will continue to do that as they gain more experience.''

The Panthers defense is second in the Big East against the run and total defense and nationally ranked in both categories as well, but they face a huge challenge both literally and figuratively against Big Ten foe Michigan State (2-0) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field.

The Spartans are extremely high-powered and talented on offense, led by quarterback Drew Stanton and a mammoth offensive line that averages nearly 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds.

"They're a big, physical football team, and they'll be a big challenge,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We'll get tested in all phases.''

First, there's the offensive line. Senior center Kyle Cook is the pup of the group at 6-3, 295, but the tackles are more like twin towers than bookends. On the left is 6-7, 307-pound junior Mike Gyetvai, while 6-6, 306-pound sophomore Jesse Miller is on the right. The left guard is 6-5, 312-pound redshirt junior Kenny Shane, while the 6-5, 325-pound sophomore Roland Martin is at right guard.

"Any time our defense is lined up against an offensive line that's as big as this group, there's always the fear that we're going to get locked on blocks and not going to be able to get off,'' Rhoads said. "So, we're going to have to move our feet and ... stay off the contact to make plays.''

Then, there's Stanton. He should be taken in the first round during next spring's NFL Draft, but Wannstedt believed he could be a high pick. Stanton's two-game numbers, albeit against Idaho and Eastern Michigan -- two warmup games, as MSU coach John L. Smith said -- are spectacular.

Stanton has completed 70.2 percent of his passes (40 of 57) for 479 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. At 6-3, 230 pounds, he's a threat to run as well. Michigan State utilizes the option with Stanton, and he is second on the team with 88 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

"He's athletic,'' Wannstedt said, "so ... that presents a whole other problem for our defense. He's just not a drop-back (passing) quarterback. And that really puts more pressure on you.''

Michigan State scored 79 points in two games, including 52 last week, and can move the ball on the ground or through the air. The Spartans average 219.5 yards rushing per game with sophomore scatback Javon Ringer leading with 200 yards (6.5 per carry) and one score. And they pass for 273.5 yards per game, as 6-6, 235-pound senior Matt Trannon has 18 catches and two touchdowns. He averages 10.2 yards per reception.

"When you put all those numbers together, you have a national-recognized offensive football team with a quarterback who arguably is as good as there is in the country,'' Rhoads said.

Defensively, Michigan State isn't as stout with 37 points allowed to two inferior opponents. However, it will be tough to run up the middle on them with two tackles -- senior Clifton Ryan and junior Ogemdi Nwagbuo -- weighing in at about 6-3, 300 pounds. The Spartans aren't particularly quick, either, and safeties Nehemiah Warrick and Otis Wiley are the leading tacklers.

"They're not bad on defense,'' Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko said. "But they don't have the same type of players that they do on offense. We still have to make sure we play smart, and I take care of the ball. We can't make any mistakes or they'll make us pay for them.''

* Sophomore OT John Bachman fractured his left ankle this week and is out for the season. He is a candidate for a medical redshirt.

* Some personnel were shuffled on the line due to injuries. Frosh Joe Thomas will be the first OL off the bench if senior OG John Simonitis (ankle) can't play, although he practiced this week, but backup OG Dom Williams -- a redshirt sophomore -- will back up LT Jeff Otah instead of Bachman.

* Other tackle candidates are redshirt sophomore Chase Clowser, redshirt frosh John Brown, moved from OG, and freshman Jason Pinkston, moved from defensive tackle.

* Sophomore TB LaRod Stephens-Howling (ankle) returned to practice as well this week and should play, but redshirt freshman Shane Brooks is expected to start for the second straight game.

* Michigan State fans likely are hopeful that size matters, as far as their football team is concerned. Along with their enormous offensive line, the Spartans' tight end is 6-6, 253-pound junior Kellen Davis. Stanton and wideout Trannon have good size as well.

* KO specialist Todd Boleski, a sophomore, is 6-6, 214 pounds, while senior punter Brandon Fields is also 6-6 and 235 pounds.

* Defensively, MSU's front line averages 6-3, 275 pounds because the ends are light and quick. The linebackers (240) and safeties (205) are around 6-1, but the cornerbacks aren't that big.

"The first thing you notice about this team is their size,'' Wannstedt said. "We will not play a team that's any bigger. ... We know what kind of size they have on the offensive and defensive lines, so they are massive, just a huge football team. And they'll be a big test for our defense.

"I know that our defensive line is playing better, but this will be a whole new challenge. Virginia had good size, but not as big as these guys. So, we'll have to rely on our quickness and our athletic ability. There's no question about that, because they're a big, tough, strong group.''

* The Panthers haven't played many Big Ten teams lately. The last one was against Penn State, a 12-0 win in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium. The last time Pitt faced the Spartans was a 7-7 tie in 1960 at Pitt Stadium. TE Mike Ditka scored the Panthers lone touchdown that day.

"It's exciting,'' Wannstedt said. "It's another opportunity for our football team to play a quality opponent, and Michigan State's got a great reputation in the Big Ten and a great tradition and great history up there. They're nationally known, and I think all those things make the challenge exciting. And that's how we're going to approach it.''

* Palko and Stanton have been friends for several years thanks to being scholastic all-star quarterbacks.

"Drew and I are really good friends,'' Palko said. "We went to the Elite 11 quarterback camp (in Los Angeles) in high school in 2002, and then this past summer we were counselors (there) and got a chance to spend a lot of time together. ... Drew and I developed a close relationship. We talk every week and just exchanged text messages (Monday morning).

"We wished each other luck and that we'd see each other (this week). He's obviously a great quarterback and deserving of all the preseason honors that he's had. So, I'm excited for him, but I hope he doesn't put up those Heisman-type numbers on us.''

* Palko ran (and passed) in fast company with numerous friendships developed at the Elite 11 camp, and he has maintained contact with QBs like Troy Smith (Ohio State), Vince Young (Texas), Jamarcus Russell (LSU), a ballboy at the camp, Jordan Palmer (UTEP), Justin Zwick (Ohio State), Trent Edwards (Stanford), Drew Olsen (UCLA) and Stanton.


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