Pitt's undersized line takes on powerful Hawkeyes

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Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has built a defensive line out of sleek, quick athletes who are a bit undersized but can beat blocks with speed.

For the most part, that type of player has worked well for the Panthers and has developed into one of the team's strengths.

But because it is undersized by design, it usually has been overpowered any time it has faced a bigger, stronger and more physical offensive line.


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

Where: Heinz Field.

TV: ESPN2.


When the Panthers (1-1) play Iowa (3-0) at noon Saturday at Heinz Field, it could boil down to the ultimate battle between quickness (the Panthers' defensive line) and size and strength (the Hawkeyes' offensive line).

Pitt's defensive fronts have not fared well in past games against teams that feature big offensive lines. Notre Dame gained 275 yards rushing against Pitt in 2005, and Michigan State had 335 yards rushing in 2006.

But Wannstedt believes his philosophy of building smaller, quicker defensive lines is a sound one and Saturday the unit will have another chance to prove it.

On paper, that battle looks like a mismatch, as Iowa's starting offensive line averages 6 feet 5, 296 pounds. That means the Panthers' defensive front is giving away a little more than 2 inches and 21 pounds per man.

The Hawkeyes' line is anchored by tackles, Kyle Calloway (6-7, 305) and Bryan Bulaga (6-6, 290) and also features 6-foot-5, 305-pound guard Seth Olsen.

By contrast, Pitt's two defensive ends are Greg Romeus (6-5, 265) and Jabaal Sheard (6-4, 250), and the Panthers' biggest defensive tackle is Rashaad Duncan (6-2, 295).

Wannstedt, however, said he believes his unit should be up to the challenge and that "undersized" doesn't necessarily have to equate to "weak."

"I relate [Iowa] a lot to Michigan State," Wannstedt said yesterday in his weekly news conference. "But I think our conditioning is better, and I think we're stronger [than last year or the year before.] We're not going to be physically pound-for-pound as big as these teams but I think our quickness and the strength of our players will show up.

Wannstedt also offered this nugget -- though the Panthers' first priority will be to try to stop the Hawkeyes' run game -- they can pass very well, too, and that's what makes them so efficient on offense.

"They're a very physical team. The determining factor is their offensive and defensive line, and that's what separates them," Wannstedt said "But when you look at their offense, they're balanced."

The size and strength difference up front means the Panthers' defensive linemen are going to have to be quick getting off the ball. But it also means the linebackers will have to get to the gaps quickly, particularly since the Hawkeyes' massive offensive linemen could dominate up front.

Wannstedt said he hopes starting weak-side linebacker Shane Murray (knee) is able to return to the lineup in order to help alleviate some problems the outside linebackers had filling gaps against Buffalo in Pitt's 27-16 victory Sept. 6.

"[Linebacker] is a concern but I think the bye week will help us firm that up a little bit," Wannstedt said. "Also, Shane Murray is practicing now so hopefully he'll continue to progress throughout this week and we'll be able to get some things out of him.

"A lot of Iowa's runs have come from strong physical play by their running backs. I think [Shonn] Greene breaks as many tackles as maybe any back we'll face all season long."

Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said that he knows the Hawkeyes' offensive line and running backs will be a handful, but he has confidence that the Panthers' front seven will be up to the task.

"They are a typical Big Ten team, they have a big powerful offensive line, a really big and physical back and they will come out and try to set the tone physically from the first snap," McKillop said. "We understand that, we know this is a big challenge but we feel like if we do some things fundamentally well we have a chance. We know they are bigger than us, we know that, but if we can execute the things we are trying to do, we'll be OK."


NOTES -- Murray (knee) should return for the game but Wannstedt said how much he'll play will be determined by how well he practices this week. ... Wannstedt also announced that he was moving reserve middle linebacker Max Gruder to strong-side linebacker and reserve strong-side linebacker Brandon Lindsay to middle linebacker.


Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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