Pitt football-The Citadel Preview

PantherDigest.com fans are hoping that Pitt can add another victory in the win column on Saturday when the Panthers play Citadel. Senior writer Dale Grdnic previews the Panthers grudge match against the Michigan State Spartans. Read on.

PITTSBURGH -- Duran Lawson bears little resemblance to Michigan State's Drew Stanton, but The Citadel quarterback has been just as important to his team's offensive success this season.

Lawson, a 6-foot, 191-junior, isn't as big, fast or strong as Stanton -- who guided the Spartans to a win against the University of Pittsburgh last week -- but he runs the Bulldogs' option offense just as well. And it's the option that gave the Panthers the most problems against MSU. Lawson will try to create the same havoc for Pitt's defense when The Citadel (0-2) faces the Panthers (2-1) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field.

"(The Citadel) offense (is) similar to Michigan State,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They're a one-back team, but mostly they spread you out with three, four receivers and their quarterback is the man who makes it go. He's their second-leading rusher. He runs the football. They run options, and they run quarterback draws. He'll be all over the place.

"Since we did not handle the option well, I expect to see a heavy dose of it. That's the No. 1 thing to look at. Then, they've got some quality receivers and running backs, but they'll mix it up. They'll throw the ball. The main challenge will be the quarterback and all the things they do with him.''

While Michigan State rolled to 335 rushing yards against Pitt, The Citadel didn't gain that in its two losses and averages just 138.5 yards on the ground. Nuru Goodrum, the Bulldogs' 6-foot, 233-pound tailback, has 124 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while Lawson has 76 yards on 28 carries.

Lawson has passed for 333 total yards (40 of 65) and one score against Texas A&M (35-3) and in double-overtime to fellow Division I-AA foe Charleston Southern (38-35). But don't tell Pitt senior middle linebacker H.B. Blades to look past the Bulldogs. He remembers Pitt's tough overtime win against The Citadel's Southern Conference-mate Furman in 2004. "You have to get up for every game,'' Blades said. "We almost lost that game a couple years ago, so you can't take anybody lightly. We know a I-AA team can play with us if we let them play with us. (And) we know how tough it is to defend the option. But the benefit is that we saw it once already.

"Now, we're more prepared for it. We know the problems it can give us, and we know how to align ourselves against it. We know what to do in our assignments, because we watched a lot of film from last week. So, we're looking forward to getting out on the field to see how much we improved.''

Pitt's mistakes on defense are correctible, but it won't be easy because they were numerous. The Panthers out of position up front and missed assignments at linebacker. The secondary provide much run support, either, and none of the players tackled well.

"We were in the right places, but we just didn't make the plays,'' Pitt safety Erik Thatcher said. "We didn't take that extra step or wrap up all the way when we were there. You need to take that extra step to bring a ball carrier to you and bring him to the ground.''

Offensively, the Panthers are also in store for a tough matchup. The Citadel has had a rough start in its two losses, but it has had a week off to prepare. And Wannstedt doesn't want his team to take anything for granted.

"They're a high-energy team,'' Wannstedt said. "They've been off to a little bit of a rough start, but watching their players, we all know that they're intelligent players, they're highly disciplined players. They play hard. They've got a brand new defensive coordinator.

"They're doing a lot of pressure stuff, a lot of blitz stuff, very similar to what Cincinnati did two weeks ago, so we've got to be ready to handle that. We need to bounce back and keep our focus on one game at a time.''

Strong safety Joshua Lawson, a 5-11, 194-pound junior, and 5-1, 213-pound junior middle linebacker Andrew Rowell are the top defensive players. Lawson, no relation to the quarterback, leads with 26 total tackles (10 solo), while Rowell has 23 (10 solo), a sack and two forced fumbles.

"They do pressure a lot, and they move around a lot and are very active,'' Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko said. "They play a lot of man coverage with zone pressure. They don't just sit back and play vanilla zone coverages.

"And I don't see them changing anything against us. I see them coming after us to see how we'll react to it. That's what I would expect, and it's what I would do if I were them. I'd force us to play their game.''

One difference from last season, as far as Palko is concerned, is the play by Pitt's offensive line. The Panthers have allowed just two sacks in three games this season, but they gave up 10 during that stretch last year.

"I think our offensive line is doing a better job with the sack totals, and I think that has a lot to do with confidence in themselves,'' Palko said. "We struggled a bit against Michigan State, but we're gaining confidence in our passing game and ourselves. We're getting a lot better.

"And every mistake is correctable. If you could just see what we see on tape, you'd see that we're getting better every game. We're making improvement, and we're very close to being a good offensive team.''

One negative aspect, though, has been a penchant for turnovers. The Panthers have seven in three games, including five by Palko, with three interceptions and two fumbles. Wannstedt said they are a concern.

"He (Palko) needs to protect the ball better when he runs with the football,'' Wannstedt said. "The interceptions didn't bother me. Both of those could have been touchdowns if we make the plays.

"Those jump balls in the end zone, we've got to take shots like that because we believe that our guys will come down with the ball more times than not. So, I have no problem with those.''

Palko looked slow and awkward for his fumble at Cincinnati and against Michigan State when he stretched out his arm with the ball in one hand. Both times, he stumbled and fumbled. "Both times, a guy hit directly on the ball, and I didn't have it tucked,'' Palko said. "Against Cincinnati, I was diving for the first down, and when I dove the ball came away from me. The guy hit it back, and it came out.

"The one against Michigan State, I was scrambling up, and I went to cut up. I tripped, and when that happened the ball came away. The guy hit my arm, and it came loose. So, that's bad ball security, but we'll fix it.''

One might believe that the Pitt coaching staff would want Palko to stay in the pocket a bit more, since he's so valuable to the team, but the fifth-year senior quarterback offered a different viewpoint.

"There's a time to lower your head, and a time not to,'' Palko said. "If I dove out, I would have gotten the first down. Lowering my head wouldn't have solved anything. Against Michigan State, it was just a scramble, and I slipped. ... A guy hit my arm, and the ball came away.

"I haven't been instructed not to do anything or to do something a certain way. You just have to be smart about those things. I'm only 220 pounds, and it's not like I can lower my head and make a living against guys who are 250-260 and live to talk to you guys about it.''

* Pitt TB LaRod Stephens-Howling (ankle), OG John Simonitis (ankle) and FS Mike Phillips (ankle) returned to practice and are probable for the game.

* The Panthers have faced two teams from the Division I-AA Southern Conference. They beat East Carolina 31-0 in 2001 and Furman 41-38 in OT in 2004. Wins against Division I-AA opponents now count toward bowl eligibility.

* Coach Kevin Higgins, in his second season, was not with the school for those games. He was the quarterbacks and wideouts coach with the NFL's Detroit Lions prior to taking over at The Citadel.

* The game isn't on TV, but on Sirius Satellite Radio (Channel 153), the Pitt Radio Network, www.pittsburghpanthers.com and www.espn360.com.

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