Pitt Needs A Good Start

Just how big is this game for Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt and the Panthers football program?

Even though athletic director Jeff Long gave Wannstedt a vote of confidence in the preseason, that won't last long. Sooner or later, Pitt has to have results on the field to make the investment that the University of Pittsburgh has put into the program pay off.

With a home schedule built for success, including opening games against lightweight Eastern Michigan Saturday and Division I-AA Grambling State Sept. 8, Pitt most certainly should start the season 2-0 and be able to play everybody that needs to get some game experience.

"You have to get off to a good start; that's very important,'' fifth-year senior defensive end Joe Clermond said. "We're very excited about this first game, and we're looking forward to a big game.''

With the first of two toss-up road games in the third slot on the schedule, the first visit to East Lansing to face Michigan State in some four decades, the Panthers will need to be in their most positive state of mind to face the Spartans. Blowout wins against EMU and Grambling would accomplish that.

Wannstedt already was positive and hopeful.

"There's a fine line between being excited and nonsense chatter, which becomes a distraction,'' Wannstedt said. "These kids have been building, and I believe they're ready. I know they're ready. (But) for me to talk about what they've done out here is a coach talking. You're excited about your guys.

"It all makes more sense after you've played an opponent and you can say some good things about what happened. I'm as anxious and excited and looking forward to Saturday as anyone, just to see some of these kids get an opportunity. And I really believe that they'll take advantage of it.''

The Panthers should be confident in how well they performed during training camp, albeit against themselves, and the six seniors in the starting lineup -- Clermond, defensive end Chris McKillop, left tackle Jeff Otah, center Chris Vangas, cornerback Kennard Cox and safety Mike Phillips -- have been tremendous leaders and have kept the group focused.

With an inexperienced quarterback in junior Bill Stull at the controls, Pitt's offense might get off to a slow start. But it shouldn't panic. Stull can get the job done if Pitt can run the ball to set up the pass. Too many third-and-long plays could doom an experienced quarterback, so the running game will be crucial. And it's not like Stull has never started a game at Heinz Field.

He led Pittsburgh-area Class AA school Seton LaSalle to consecutive WPIAL championships in 2003-4 with wins at Heinz Field.

"I'm prepared, and so are my teammates,'' Stull said. "We're confident in what we can do and what we'll need to do to be successful. Now, we just have to go out and do it in the game.''

Pitt beat EMU in the only previous matchup, 66-30 in 1995 at Pitt Stadium, and is 9-1 the past decade in openers.

Look for the Panthers to push that victory total to double figures late Saturday night, a big win to start the season for a program that hasn't had many in the past two years.

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