Michigan State attracted an average crowd of 67,536 to Spartan Stadium for its first two games, against Alabama-Birmingham and Bowling Green, or 501 more than Pitt drew to Heinz Field for the Eastern Michigan and Grambling State games combined this season.
Michigan State also is having a “white out,” creating a festive atmosphere that should draw 75,000-plus for Saturday’s noon kickoff in East Lansing, which will be nationally televised on ESPN.
“Our players are excited about playing this game,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “We’re excited about coaching in a game like this. This is college football. We’re going to have a nice crowd, a gorgeous day in September and national TV. We’re going to find out about our football team; we’re going to find a lot out. That’s why kids come to school at Pitt, to play in games like this.
“That’s what makes it exciting.”
Or potentially nerve-wracking, especially if you’re a redshirt freshman quarterback making the second start of his college career, the first in a hostile environment.
Wannstedt is confident that Kevan Smith won’t allow the crowd to bother him, even though it promises to be at least twice as big of a crowd he’s ever played before. “I think Kevan will be fine,” Wannstedt said. “Tyler (Palko) was about as emotional as you can get from a quarterback standpoint. (Pat) Bostick is similar. Kevan Smith is on the other end of the spectrum. He is about as even-keeled as you’re going to find. When he throws a touchdown pass, he’s pretty much the same mentality as when something bad happens.
“I think that’s good. When we go on the road, I don’t expect him to react any different than what he did when he played at home.”
Aside from an interception and a fumble on a sack, Smith handled himself pretty well in his starting debut. His teammates raved about his huddle presence and his quiet confidence, and Smith showed similar poise in handling questions while conducting an interview Wednesday.
Even so, he knows it’s a long way from Seneca Valley.
“It’s going to be a totally different atmosphere,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a great college atmosphere. That’s going to be the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in.
“Something like that doesn’t really put pressure on me. When you get on the field, you zone everything out. It’s just like you’re practicing. You just go out and execute the game plan and go from there.”
The Panthers are expected to rely on the run, and Smith repeatedly complimented offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh’s game plan for attacking Michigan State’s defense. With his first college start out of the way, Smith has had “a good week” of practice preparation.
“That’s probably more important than where we play or what goes on,” Wannstedt said. “Now, the thing that has to happen is we’ve got to be able to play good defense, we’ve got to be able to run the ball and not get in a shootout situation where he’s going to drop back and throw it 45 times a game. That would not be the best thing for our team right now and obviously not the best thing for him.”
Michigan State, however, appears most susceptible to the pass. The Spartans have held opponents to 29.5 rushing yards but allowed 254.5 passing yards while giving up an average of 17.5 points in the first two games.
Although Pitt is expected to expand the role of freshman tailback LeSean “Shady” McCoy, Smith realizes that the Spartans are likely going to focus on stopping the run and putting pressure on the passer. A self-described perfectionist, Smith is taking the advice of Pitt’s coaches:
Don’t try to be the hero. Just do what it takes to win. If Smith can block out the white out, Pitt will have a chance.
* Wannstedt said “there’s a good possibility” that McCoy could start at tailback against Michigan State, but only if LaRod Stephens-Howling (bruised ribs) is held out.
“The biggest question mark is how LaRod feels after (practicing) today,” Wannstedt said.
* Wannstedt wanted to assess their practice performance before naming a starter to replace Gus Mustakas (knee) at defensive tackle. It’s likely Mick Williams will get the nod over fellow redshirt sophomore Tommie Duhart. Another possibility, although it’s probably a long shot, is that Rashaad Duncan could move over from nose tackle and start next to John Malecki.
“They’re all going to play about the same amount of plays,” Wannstedt said. “I’d like to get through the practice and meetings and I may take it up to game day to see who’s the starter and how they approach this trip from a focus standpoint. I think that’s all part of making the decision.”
* Tight end John Pelusi, who didn’t dress against Grambling because of a shoulder injury, has practiced and is expected to play against Michigan State.
“Pelusi practiced yesterday and looked good,” Wannstedt said. “He felt good this morning. He did full-speed work yesterday and that was very encouraging.”
* Defensive end Greg Romeus is wearing a cast on his right hand, but it isn’t keeping him from practicing or playing.
“Greg’s fine,” Wannstedt said. “He’s got a little thing on the back of his hand, but nothing that will affect his play or his status. He’s fine, ready to go.”
* Finally, Pitt coaches are downplaying last season’s 38-23 loss as a motivating factor for Panthers players – largely because they shouldn’t need it.
“There’s a new staff, a lot of new players,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got a new set of leaders. Our guys want to win, that’s the most important thing. We know this is a very good football team. … You don’t want to get caught up in any other forms of motivation.”