Beware The MAC

Don't expect a Big MAC attack when Eastern Michigan, from the Mid-American Conference, faces Pitt Saturday night at 6 at Heinz Field.

The Eagles are rated among the worst Division I-A teams, No. 116 out of 119 by Sports Illustrated, so it isn't likely that they'll pull an upset like others from the MAC have done over the years.

But Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt still pumped up the opposition.

"Since they've made the change in the academic requirements, since they've made the change in what constitutes a junior-college player and limited the amount of scholarships, the MAC and the other (non-BCS) conferences have really benefitted,'' Wannstedt said. "So, they've gotten a lot better.

"There's a lot of good football players out there, and they all can't go to Michigan. So, they've done a good job recruiting players, and all those schools ... are capitalizing on that. So, let's give them credit, No. 1, but in the one game I was involved with when we didn't win, we threw two interceptions for touchdowns and threw one interception in the end zone.''

Those turnovers and poor decisions by quarterback Tyler Palko at Ohio University during Wannstedt's first year helped sabotage the season before it could get started. The Panthers lost that game to the Bobcats in overtime to drop to 0-2. They were hammered by Notre Dame in Wannstedt's debut.

Pitt also had a promising season derailed by Toledo 35-31 in 2003 when they were ranked ninth in the nation. Tornadoes quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who Pitt coach Walt Harris did not recruit, burned the Panthers for 461 yards on 49-for-62 passing. Gradkowski led a 15-play, 83-yard drive for the game-winning score with 43 seconds remaining.

So, Pitt has gone 2-2 against the MAC after a 24-0 start, but the Panthers aren't the only ones who have had problems with the likes of Toledo, Akron, Ohio, Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, Buffalo, Temple, Kent State and Ball State.

Last year alone, Toledo upset Kansas, Akron knocked off North Carolina State and Western Michigan beat Virginia. But it would be awfully tough for Eastern Michigan, which was 1-11 last season, to beat Pitt Saturday night.

The Eagles have not had a winning season since 1995, and since their MAC title team in 1987 they have won more games than they've lost just three times. Under fourth-year head coach Jeff Genyk, EMU is 9-25.

"They were 1-11, but a lot of their games were really close and were decided in the fourth quarter,'' redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They have two returning quarterbacks, and their line is good. They have some experience, and we can't take them lightly.''

Pitt has been working on the mental preparation as the work week ends and game time approaches. The Panthers practiced indoors Thursday in shells and likely will do the same Friday. Wannstedt said he walked on campus for the first time in more than a month and noticed a buzz about the team.

"They've got the big, inflated Pitt helmet in front of the student union,'' Wannstedt said. "We've got a bonfire and pep rally tonight. That's neat. I think that all adds to the anticipation of Saturday.''

Wannstedt noted that four freshmen will play against Eastern Michigan, but that number could double in the next few weeks. Wideout Maurice Williams, tailback LeSean McCoy, safety Dom DeCicco and defensive end Jabaal Sheard should all make a considerable contribution for the Panthers this week.

Also, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Mike McGlynn has been cleared to play, and he'll dress for the game. However, Wannstedt noted that it will be a game-time position where and how much he'll play. McGlynn has been long-snapping extensively early in practice this past week.

Several walk-ons were added to the team after school started this week, but none appear able to be a kickoff specialist for the Panthers.

"We're taking all possibilities, so anyone who wants to come down and make an attempt,'' Wannstedt said. "The biggest thing we're looking for is that consistent guy who can kick it out of the end zone (70 yards away) with the new rule change. We haven't found that guy yet, but we've got about a dozen of them working on it.''

The Eastern Michigan game captains are three fifth-year seniors: center Chris Vangas (offense), cornerback Kennard Cox (defense) and outside linebacker Jemeel Brady (special teams).

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