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Making a Statement

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It’s not unusual to hear Pitt players echoing the messages that have been pounded into their membranes all week, and that’s even more likely when the Panthers have an extra week to prepare for an opponent.

The bye week between the Buffalo and Iowa games provided the Panthers ample opportunity to absorb the implications involved. They are 1-1, despite opening the season at home against a pair of Mid-American Conference opponents, and about to face a 3-0 Big Ten foe.

Which, of course, makes this a certain kind of game for Pitt.

Quarterback Bill Stull: “We struggled a little bit against the Big Ten last year with Michigan State. We look at that game and we killed ourselves with turnovers. We’re obviously trying not to do that this game. We look at this as a ‘statement game.’ We’re just trying to go out there and execute. We’re very confident in our game plan. We’ve had a week-and-a-half to prepare for it, and we’re going to do everything we can to get a victory.”

Tailback LeSean McCoy: “This is kind of a statement game to let us know we’re where at. If we get this win, it would be big for the program, for the team.”

Tight end Nate Byham: “This is definitely a statement game for us, definitely a game to let people know what we’re about. This is the first big-time opponent. We’ve got a Big Ten team coming into our house and this is where we’ve got to make a name for ourselves.”

Which prompts this question:

If Iowa is a statement game, what was Bowling Green?

It says here that opening your season with a loss at home to a MAC contender makes a bigger statement about your program than beating a lower-level Big Ten opponent does.

Of course, Pitt is 0-5 coming out of bye weeks under Dave Wannstedt, and 1-5 against opponents from BCS-affiliated schools. The victory came in a 38-13 win over Virginia in the 2006 opener. The losses, to Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State (twice) and Virginia, are by a combined 148-77. Nebraska and Michigan State have since fired coaches Bill Callahan and John L. Smith, respectively, while Virginia’s Al Groh is on the hot seat.

Much like Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

And, for that matter, Wannstedt – especially if Pitt loses this game.

That might explain why Wannstedt downplayed all of the talk about it being a “statement game.” A loss would further define his tenure as one where the Panthers came up short against so-called quality opponents.

“I don’t know about ‘statement game.’ It’s a game like all of them that we’ve got to go out and try to do everything we can to win,” Wannstedt said this week. “I’m looking at it as it’s exciting. You’ve got a chance to play an outstanding football team like Iowa that has great tradition and they’re coming into our stadium. We’re going to find out a lot more about our football team come Saturday.

“After the first two games, there’s some good, some bad. You’re not sure. You get into the psyche of who you’re playing and when you’re playing. This should be a pretty good indication, when you’re playing a team that’s 3-0 and leading the country in scoring defense and has a running back (Shonn Greene) that’s averaging 100 yards a game. We’re going to find out real quick what type of team we are.”

* Can’t argue Byham’s take that the Bowling Green loss, as much as it drained the momentum from the West Virginia win in the ’07 season finale, might have been a blessing in disguise for the Panthers.

The Bowling Green loss exposed Pitt’s problems early, forcing it to address the shortcomings at certain positions and the vanilla play-calling that made the Panthers so predictable. Wannstedt also seems to be more focused and, as a result, coach better with his back against the wall.

“I definitely feel us losing to Bowling Green, that kind of helped us a little bit,” Byham said. “We kind of got that bitter taste in our mouth already and we don’t want it again. Going against a team like Iowa, we all know they’re going to be a tough opponent. It makes us work that much harder so we don’t have that taste in our mouth again.”

* McCoy is one of the most candid Panthers, which usually makes him a great interview. Our opportunity to talk with him this week was short and sweet, but he made an interesting analogy about Iowa’s defense not allowing a touchdown through the first three games:

“It’s like a fight. You’ve got some guys who go in there and fight, and every time they fight they never get knocked down. So when you get knocked down, it’s how you respond,” McCoy said. “I think that’s what we have to do, go in there and try to knock them out a little bit. It’s going to be a 15-round fight. That’s what coach Wannstedt has been saying. We’ve got to respond. They haven’t been scored on yet.”

McCoy is fifth in the nation in scoring, with four touchdowns in two games. He is coming off a three-TD performance against Buffalo, which tied a career high, and getting in the end zone appears to be more important to him than putting up 100-yard rushing games. (He has 233 all-purpose yards – 164 rushing and 69 receiving – and is becoming a greater dual threat).

McCoy believes Pitt’s speed will be the difference.

“If we can get a chance to use our speed, utilize that to our advantage …,” McCoy said. “They’re big and strong, but speed is their weakness. Everyone knows that. We’re going in there trying to execute that.”

* Which, of course, brings us to the talented trio of quarterback Greg Cross, receiver Jonathan Baldwin and safety Elijah Fields.

Wannstedt refused to name a starting strong safety, preferring instead to make a game-time decision, but said Fields and Dom DeCicco have “been alternating with the first unit” will both play. They join the tight end trio of Byham, Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi as “co-starters” and a number of positions that have “or” involved as backups.

“Just like with other positions on our team, it’s a real positive,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a win-win when you’ve got two guys you’re comfortable with playing, and that’s what the circumstance is there.”

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to call it indecisiveness. It’s really this simple: Somebody has to start the game. The one who isn’t starting is the backup. The players who perform best should be the starters. A starter who performs poorly and thereby loses his starting job is the backup. Even if both play, one is the starter and the other the backup.

It’s a little thing called accountability.

Here’s the win-win situation: Fields is an upgrade over DeCicco athletically, and DeCicco is a great athlete. There shouldn’t be a major drop-off when one replaces the other, although both have their strengths.

“Elijah is one of the better athletes on our team, to be quite honest with you,” Wannstedt said. “So you’re really looking at two kids that have ability and are going to be great players for us, but there’s some inexperience there. That’s what we’re working through.”

Last week, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said that Cross will likely (finally) make his Division I debut. Cavanaugh said the Panthers weren’t saving Cross for Iowa – although it’s not a stretch to think that Pitt believed it could beat Bowling Green and Buffalo without using him – but that the timing just never seemed right.

Even Stull said he is looking forward to Cross playing.

“Greg Cross is a tremendous athlete,” Stull said. “I think we’ll see that this week. It’ll benefit me. The defense might not know what we’re trying to do. I think we’ll see a little mixture of that this week.”

If Ohio State could do it – with more success using Terrelle Pryor than starter Todd Boeckman – against top-ranked Southern Cal…

As for Baldwin, Cavanaugh also believes the bye week gave Baldwin time to learn what he is doing and an opportunity to expand his role. We’ve been hearing promises that Baldwin and right tackle Lucas Nix will play more. Until we see it, it’s kind of a moot point.

Wannstedt explained the difficulty in using them in a game.

“At certain positions, we have a real definite plan when you’re going to substitute,” Wannstedt said, likely referring to tailback, where he likes to play LaRod Stephens-Howling on the third offensive series. “Other positions, with some of the younger kids, you just say you’re going to get them in and play them and you hope that the game unfolds that way, to give them an opportunity. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

As for Cross?

“It’s more of a situational thing,” Wannstedt said. “He would fall into the category of Jonathan Baldwin and Lucas Nix and some of these guys we’d like to get them some playing time and the intent is to get them some playing time – more than what we have. We’ll wait and see what happens.”

* Much has been made of Iowa’s size advantage on the offensive line, and how the Hawkeyes could overpower the Panthers. Iowa’s front five averages about 6-foot-5, 294 pounds. Pitt is giving up about two inches and 20 pounds across the board, but the Panthers have a decided edge in quickness and Big Ten lines haven’t fared as well against faster foes.

Wannstedt, for one, doesn’t seem too worried.

“I think it comes to the scheme and what you’re doing. Their offensive scheme is not a lot of pulling, trapping, counters, power plays, sweeps where the linemen have to do a lot of pulling,” Wannstedt said. “They’re more of a zone-step, where size is a factor. We don’t sit in there on defense. We’re on the move. If our defensive linemen don’t make plays, we don’t function.”

Wannstedt also isn’t too worried about which quarterback Iowa uses, sophomore right-hander Ricky Stanzi or junior left-hander Jake Christensen, but said the key is being aware of who is in the game and how that changes the Hawkeyes’ side of strength in “movement passes and sprint-outs.”

“We’re prepared to adjust either way,” he said

* Speaking of Iowa’s quarterbacks, Christensen is the one the Panthers are expecting to start the game. But Ferentz, like Wannstedt, took a page from the NFL playbook and refused to reveal his starter.

Conventional wisdom says that Christensen will start, mostly because he started all 12 games last year and the opener this year and replaced Stanzi in the third quarter of last Saturday’s 17-5 victory over Iowa State.

Christensen completed 198 of 370 passes (53.5 percent) for 2,269 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions in 12 games last season, as Iowa went 6-6. His best game was against Indiana, when he was 24 of 42 for 308 yards. Ferentz practically apologized for the line play of last season.

“Jake’s garnered experience. It was a real tough year for him last year. We didn’t have much support for him. We were real young and experienced up front, and had lost our top three playmakers,” Ferentz said. “It was a tough year to be a quarterback, but he did a good job overall. He’s continued to improve. He’s got some experience.”

As for Stanzi? “Rick put that to his advantage and has been a good leader for us,” Ferentz said. “Rick is a guy that just emerged. He was not a factor at all a year ago. He made a push a little bit in the spring and has played and practiced very well since August. It’s a good, competitive situation. It’s fair to say both guys will play this week.”

* The real story is Greene, who has rushed for 359 yards on 55 carries (6.5 per) and has three touchdowns. He has been something of a savior for an offense that lost almost its entire tailback corps.

“We’ve been really pleased, first of all, to get him back and the way he’s worked and progressed,” Ferentz said. “He let his academics get away from him and sat out last year and had to go to (Kirkwood) community college to get his credits. He was able to come back and join us about midway through June, got accepted back into the university and has been working hard to get in shape.

“I think with each game we’ve seen him get closer to being back in game shape. He’s a guy that we’ve never seen him carry the ball as much because he just didn’t have that opportunity the first two years. He’s improved his conditioning and his attitude has been outstanding from Day One. We’re thrilled to have him on the team. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew he’d done a great job on special teams for us. We were hopeful that he could be a guy that would emerge as one of our leaders.”

* Wannstedt said two thoughts come to mind when you look at Iowa: The first is that the Hawkeyes are physical. The second is that they are disciplined. He expects those traits to be represented by their line play.

“The determining factor when you look at Iowa is their offensive and defensive lines. That’s what separates them. They’re a very disciplined team. That’s a reflection of their head coach,” Wannstedt said. “They don’t do too much, but what they do, they do very well.”

Defensively, Iowa is very good. The Hawkeyes rank first in the NCAA in both red-zone defense (0.0) and scoring defense (2.7), third in pass-efficiency defense (80.6 percent) and 21st in punt returns (17.7).

By contrast, Pitt is tied for first nationally in red-zone efficiency (7 for 7) and tied for 14th in punt return yardage defended (2.0 yards per).

The Hawkeyes haven’t allowed a touchdown in defeating Maine (46-3), Florida International (42-0) and Iowa State (17-5).

“If you look at their defense, not giving up a touchdown yet this year, I can tell you that’s very difficult to do, regardless of who you’re playing or when you’re playing,” Wannstedt said. “If you go three games and do not give up a score, that’s outstanding.”

The last time Pitt failed to score a touchdown was in 2005, in a 7-6 loss at Nebraska.

* Iowa is averaging 202.7 rushing yards and 201.7 passing yards a game – although the Hawkeyes managed only 118 yards rushing and 122 passing against Iowa State – but is more balanced than you’d expect.

“Everybody would like to say, they’re going to line up and run the ball down your throat,” Wannstedt said. “They would like to do that, but when you look at the passing yardage – a little over 200 and running for over 200 – they are a balanced football team. One fits with the other.”

Pitt is hoping to balance its act, as well, after averaging 252.5 passing yards to 120 rushing yards in the first two games. But Iowa holds a slight statistical edge in yards total offense, averaging 404.3 to Pitt’s 372.5.

It could be argued that both Bowling Green (1-2) – which has lost to Minnesota and Boise State – and Buffalo, which beat Temple on a Hail Mary, are as good or better than anyone Iowa has played. (Iowa State is 2-1, but was 4-8 in 2006 and 3-9 last year).

All of these points are made to show that Iowa probably isn’t good as its record indicates and, to some degree, probably not as good as Pitt. No matter what the Panthers try to say to make beating the Hawkeyes look like a big win. The thing that no one at Pitt is saying – not publicly, at least – is that it’s a must-win game for the Panthers and their coach.

“They’re a very good team. Obviously, they’re 3-0. They’ve got a lot of confidence going right now,” Wannstedt said. “This will be a good challenge for our football team. We’re looking forward to it, to find out where we’re at and what type of team we’re going to have.”

In other words, it’s a statement game.

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