Spread The Word

Eastern Michigan has been rated among the five worst NCAA Division I-A football programs in the nation, but the Eagles offense likely would have struck fear in Pitt's defense in past years.

But not this season. Expect the Panthers to get a good night's sleep before their season-opening game against EMU Saturday at 6 p.m. at Heinz Field.

Redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop believed that the University of Pittsburgh could handle the Eagles read-option offense, also known as the spread, better than ever this season. The Panthers have watched West Virginia run all over them the past two years, so they have worked on defending that style extensively in practice during training camp.

"It's tough to play against this type of offense, but it's a good test for us to start against EMU so we can have confidence for the end of the season against West Virginia,'' McKillop said. "Speed, reading and being in the right alignments and gaps ... every person on the field has responsibilities.

"So, all it takes is one person to be out of their gap and then the big run hits. So, if you try to run to the ball, your gap is open, and with a quick cutback the guy can run for a touchdown. But if we hold our positions, we'll be able to stop them and every other team that runs the spread offense.''

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, speaking at his initial weekly press conference for the season Monday afternoon, believed that the Panthers have the scheme and the players necessary to stop the spread.

"That style of offense ... puts some pressure on your defense from a preparation standpoint, because it's something that you don't see on a week-in and week-out basis,'' Wannstedt said. "So, as we get ready for this game, that's the highlighted points (for the defense).

"(But) the combination of West Virginia, South Florida and with Eastern Michigan as our first opponent, we've made a concentrated effort in the spring and summer not just practicing it but looking at some different schemes that might give us the best chance to defend it.

"There's schemes out there,'' Wannstedt added. "Like anything else, you have to get in position to make plays. The quarterback has to be accounted for on every play. He's the guy who makes it go. ... The threat of the quarterback to run and make plays is what separates this offense from others.''

McKillop is responsible for keeping the Panthers in line on defense, and the coaching staff believes he is more than capable of running the show. It's McKillop's first start, but in his fourth year in the program he should know the calls inside and out.

"I think our defense is going to surprise some people, and we've done a lot of things in the past with our schemes and obviously our players are different than the past couple years,'' McKillop said.

"So, there's some things that they can bring to the table that people didn't have last year, and I think with those different players and a different scheme hopefully we'll be able to stop it and minimize the run.''

With players like himself, redshirt sophomore Shane Murray and redshirt junior Adam Gunn at linebacker, the Panthers have three responsible starters that play their reads extremely well. They also have sophomore Dorin Dickerson and redshirt freshman Nate Nix who are more athletic and able to make more big plays.

But it's the defensive line that's the key, McKillop noted. With eight players to rotate in the mix, the Panthers have a nice combination of quickness, athleticism, size and strength that can thwart an offense like this before it even gets untracked.

"Having a quality D-line in front of us will help us make plays and stop the O-line from coming up on us a lot quicker,'' McKillop said. "And that should help us stop the run a lot better this season.''

And that would also eliminate a lot of headaches for Wannstedt and the Panthers this season.

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