|Pitt's opener often foretells season|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 28 August 2008 11:01|
In 2005, the Panthers began coach Dave Wannstedt's first season ranked No. 23, with huge expectations going into a much-hyped opener against unranked Notre Dame. But all the Panthers' previously unseen weaknesses were quickly revealed in a 42-21 loss that led to a 5-6 season.
Last year, quarterback Bill Stull badly injured a thumb a few plays after halftime of a 27-3 opening-night win over Eastern Michigan, and the Panthers' offense needed every one of freshman LeSean McCoy's 1,328 yards rushing after that to keep from being overwhelmed. The passing game never developed during a 5-7 season that was saved only by a 13-9 win at then-No. 2 West Virginia.
No wonder Stull, back at quarterback, and the No. 25 Panthers, back in the Top 25 to start a season for the first time since that 2005 debacle, are wary of Saturday's opener against Bowling Green.
Sure, Pitt is 25-2 against Mid-American Conference teams and has never lost to one at home, but there are some danger signs with this one - and not only because Pitt is coming off three consecutive underachieving seasons.
Bowling Green, one of the MAC preseason favorites, was 8-4 last season despite a 62-7 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. The Falcons return an excellent quarterback in Tyler Sheehan, who threw for 3,264 yards and 23 touchdowns out of a spread offense.
Bowling Green also proved it can hang with the big boys, upsetting Minnesota on the road 32-31 in overtime to start its season.
``It's the MAC vs. the Big East, and all eyes are on us and, hopefully, we can do what we did last year,'' Falcons receiver Marques Parks said.
Coach Gregg Brandon must think the Falcons are capable of doing it, too, saying as training camp ended, ``Everybody is a little fired up and is ready to wax somebody else.''
Stull, even more so than McCoy, might be the Pitt player who can singularly make sure that doesn't happen.
With freshman Pat Bostick at quarterback most of last season, Pitt's passing game was elementary and low risk. Not only was Stull injured and out, so was top wide receiver Derek Kinder, who injured a knee on the first full day of training camp and never played.
With Stull and Kinder back, Pitt's offense is likely to open up, if only to provide more running room for McCoy, who set a Big East freshman rushing yardage record.
``We've been through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of blood, sweat and tears,'' Stull said. ``We've grown a lot, and we're better for it.''
With Pitt's offense likely to be more complex, a Bowling Green defense that was suspect all season figures to face an even greater challenge. Despite the Falcons' 4-0 closing stretch last season, their defense allowed averages of 4.7 yards per carry and 207.8 yards rushing per game.
If the Falcons aren't any better this season, the question won't be whether McCoy gets his usual 100 yards-plus but whether he gets 200.
``We're going to do what it takes to win,'' Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. ``If that's run the ball 50 times, we'll run the ball 50 times. If it's throw 50, we'll throw 50.''
Of course, Bowling Green nearly always plays a team as good as Pitt in its opener, so this opener will be no different. And when the Falcons played Minnesota last season, Sheehan threw 51 times - and the Falcons won.
``In the last five years, we've played Minnesota, Wisconsin twice, Oklahoma,'' Brandon said. ``I mean, let's go.''