Pitt Defense Versus Michigan State

Those who remember Pitt's game against Michigan State last season certainly recall fifth-year senior quarterback Drew Stanton keying an offense that rolled up 533 total yards, including 335 on the ground, and one can bet that the Panthers are still having nightmares about it.

Those can dissipate quickly with a strong defensive performance against MSU beginning Saturday at noon at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., and it's coordinator Paul Rhoads' task to provide a game plan to help Pittsburgh achieve that lofty goal.

"They're going to run first and offset that with nice a play-action pass game and a vertical passing game,'' Rhoads said, "very similar to the way they were at Cincinnati. ... I think what we'll have to do is play more North than we have the past two games. Against a spread team, it goes more East to West.

"So, this team is very North to South, and we're going to have to play with low pads and with a great surge at the line of scrimmage. And we're going to have to play more physical than we've been forced to play the first two weeks (because) they're going to carry the ball with lead blockers.''

Rhoads was discussing MSU running backs Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick, who were a big part of the Spartans' option game last fall with Stanton leading the way. Ringer had 156 yards, while Stanton added 105 and one touchdown. Caulcrick had 64 and two touchdowns. MSU switched to a power game this season, and the two are just as dangerous.

Ringer leads with 163 yards (4.7 average) and one touchdown, while Caulcrick has 146 (6.1) and five scores in just two games. Quarterback Bryan Royer is sharp as a first-year starter with a 67.4-percent completion rate, 451 yards passing, three scores and two interceptions. Devin Thomas is the leading receiver with nine catches for 262 yards (29.1) and two TDs.

"You have to start out with their line,'' redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They're very big with a good quarterback and two great running backs, so we're going to need a group effort to tackle them. You can't get them with arm tackles, so we've been stressing this week to wrap up and to not just hit them and go.''

The Panthers realize that the Michigan State game was a turning point for their season last year. Pitt was playing well and opened a quick 10-0 advantage on the Spartans. However, MSU tied the score at halftime and scored four unanswered touchdowns in the second half.

"This was one of the games we wanted to look forward to on our schedule, and we're glad it's here,'' McKillop said. "We were on the rise, and after the game we kind of fell down and didn't play well. We had a good first half, but we didn't come out hard in the second half. And that happened the whole entire rest of the season for us.

"So, we just want to put all four quarters together and play every play as it's our last play. If you look at our first two opponents, they're not at the same level as Michigan State is right now. Michigan State is a great team, and it's a great opportunity for us to stop the run to show that we have a good defense. So, it's a great test, and hopefully we'll pass it.''

McKillop also pointed out that the game will be nationally televised by ESPN, so that's some additional pressure. But that doesn't mean the Panthers won't be fired up and confident in their game.

"I don't think we'll be any more confident than we were a year ago, and we certainly won't be overconfident,'' Rhoads said. "We're playing very sound and solid defense right now, and that's what we need to maintain.''

Rhoads said that his players missed six tackles in the second game for 25 extra yards, after missing two in the opener, with two muffs coming on "on one bad third-down play.'' But no comparisons have been made to last year's team which missed considerably more tackles.

"Tackling will be huge, because they break a number of tackles,'' Rhoads said. "Not just that, they run people over, bounce off people, and we feel that we've done a very nice job of tackling through two games. ... But, if we don't put their runners on the ground before we release them, we'll struggle.''

And that would create more bad memories for the Panthers.

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