Panthers eye first big test after a week off

Offensive improvements expected vs. Iowa

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The Pitt Panthers had off this past weekend and spent the week correcting some of their problems on both sides of the ball.

This week, they'll focus on their next opponent, Iowa (3-0).

The Hawkeyes will visit Heinz Field Saturday fresh off a 17-5 win against rival Iowa State.


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Game: Iowa (3-0) vs. Pitt (1-1), noon Saturday.

Where: Heinz Field.

TV: ESPN/ESPN 2.


The game was originally thought to be the first real test for the Panthers this season after two "tune-up" games, but given that the Panthers lost one of those games -- to Bowling Green in the opener -- this game is also a lot more important to their fortunes.

The Pitt coaching staff believes that it made improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 and is hoping the extra week to prepare for the Hawkeyes will mean an even bigger improvement.

Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said that the offense fixed some of the problems that plagued it in the Bowling Green loss and spent last week working on refining some things and paying more attention to details.

"We executed better [against Buffalo] than Bowling Green]." Cavanaugh said. "We had a nice mix of run and pass. We didn't get caught off guard and I thought [quarterback] Billy Stull was more accurate. For the most part, we made improvement and that's what we're trying to do.

"But you can always get better. And the bye week helped us clean more things up. I think the key no matter what is players have to make plays and you kind of go with what is working. We have to make our possessions count and we didn't do it the first week, but we did a better job in the second week."

Although the Panthers (1-1) did improve significantly in the second game, they will have to do more if they want to have any chance to get a victory.

That's because the jump from Buffalo and Bowling Green, two solid Mid-American Conference teams, to Iowa, a powerful Big Ten team, will be significant, and the Hawkeyes will be one of the most talented team the Panthers will face all season. This is particularly true along the line of scrimmage, where the Hawkeyes are big and physical.

The Panthers traditionally have struggled against Big Ten opponents, and usually it is because they lose the battle in the trenches.

The Hawkeyes, who opened the season with big wins against Maine and Florida International, are averaging 202 yards rushing and 35 points per game. The Hawkyes have seven rushing touchdowns in three games and average a healthy 5.2 yards per carry.

Iowa's offense is led by tailback Shonn Greene, who has averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 119 yards rushing per game.

The Hawkeyes' offensive line and rushing attack are going to present problems for every opponent they face, but the Panthers could have even bigger difficulties because of the health concerns at outside linebacker.

Buffalo was able to exploit the inexperience of the two players who started at outside linebacker -- Greg Williams and Austin Ransom --. Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said the youth there -- and at safety -- has forced the defense to do less than it is capable of but he is hoping that with an extra week of work they'll be able to do more.

Williams again will have to start at the strong side -- fifth-year senior Adam Gunn is out for the year with a neck injury -- but coaches are hoping junior Shane Murray can return to start at his normal weak-side position and enable Ransom to return to his role as a back-up.

"Right now we would all agree that Shane is about 70 percent and he has to make up some before we could put him on the field," Bennett said. "My concern going into that last was having at safety two very inexperienced guys. And the other concern was our outside linebackers.

"I would say to this point we have been rather conservative with what we have tried to do."

A victory by the Panthers is essential because it would put them back on track to reach their goal of making it to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.


Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-2630-1720.


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