Pitt faces challenge in Buffalo

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The Buffalo Bulls play their home games at UB Stadium, but Saturday that venue should be renamed "A Hornet's Nest," at least in terms of what it no doubt will become for Pitt.

That's because when the Panthers visit for a showdown at high noon, they will find a team looking to pull a major upset while being buoyed by a hostile and excited crowd.

In fact, the game is being billed as one of the biggest home games in Buffalo's history as a Division I-A program. The Bulls (1-0) are coming off a hard-fought, 23-17 win at UTEP, and they will be a confident group against the Panthers because they pushed them to the brink last season before dropping a 27-16 decision at Heinz Field.

Fourth-year Buffalo coach Turner Gill said yesterday that he is not sure where this game fits into the history of the program, but he knows a victory against Pitt would be a huge boost for his steadily building program.

"[It is the biggest game] since I've been here, particularly since they are not that far from us," Gill said on a teleconference. "And there is a rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills. They are also a BCS program. We had Baylor come in a couple years ago, but the proximity makes this different.

"Hopefully, our guys believe that we can win a football game. We go into every game believing that we have an opportunity to win if we execute our game plan. And, right now, we feel good about where we are at and we feel good about where we are going."

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said he remembers the 2008 game with the Bulls mostly because he believes it was the turning point of the season.

Pitt was 0-1 and coming off an opening-day loss against Bowling Green and needed a win in the worst way. But the Panthers led, 17-16, going into the fourth quarter before scoring the final10 points.

"That was a key win, our football team came together in that game," Wannstedt said. "I think we learned nothing is going to come easy, but being able to win it was a big turnaround for us. It was a game all the way to the end, and we are preparing ourselves for the same things this week."

If recent history is an indicator, the Panthers be in for a tough game because the past two times the Panthers visited a Mid-American Conference team, they lost. In both cases, the game was treated as if it were the game of the century by the home crowd, creating an extremely hostile environment.

The first of those two games was in 2003 when the Panthers, ranked No. 9 in the country, visited the Glass Bowl in Toledo and were stunned by the Rockets, 35-31. In 2005, the second game of The Wannstedt Era, the Panthers visited Peden Stadium in Athens, Ohio, and lost a 16-10 overtime decision to the Ohio Bobcats.

In both cases, the crowd rushed the field and tore down the goal posts, and that is the kind of reaction the Panthers should expect Saturday if they lose.

One thing that should help Pitt's cause is that, unlike those two games which were played at night, this one has a noon kickoff. That should take some of the edge off the festive atmosphere.

Also, the Bulls have a sophomore -- Zach Maynard -- who will be making his second career start at quarterback. That is a big difference from last season when the Bulls were led by Drew Willy, a senior and four-year starter.

"They have somewhat changed," Wannstedt said yesterday on the weekly Big East teleconference. "With Willy, they had an extensive package of dropback passes. [Maynard] is a better athlete, and they are doing a good job of moving him around, letting him roll out and keeping him out of bad situations.

"Our defense has to be aware of that and keep him in front of us."

NOTES -- Upon reviewing the 38-3 win Saturday against Youngstown State, Wannstedt said he is more excited about the performance of freshman tailback Dion Lewis (20 carries, 129 yards, 3 touchdowns). "Until a freshman plays in a game, you never know," Wannstedt said. "Dion showed he is a downhill runner, a [former Rutgers star] Ray Rice kind of player. He gives us an opportunity to be balanced on offense." ...

For more on Pitt sports, check out the new video report, Pitt Stop, with Paul Zeise at post-gazette.com/plus . Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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