It's time for another edition of "Who the Heck is Pitt Playing." Today, we're taking a look at the second game of the season against the Maine Black Bears.
*First off, this is a little late, but our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Charles Kyeremeh, Jr. and the Maine football team. Charles, a running back on the team, was killed last Sunday, July 10th, in a motorcycle accident.
Who the heck are we playing? The Maine Black Bears
When and where are we playing? September 10th at Heinz Field at 1 PM
Why should I care? See the Panthers hopefully work out all the kinks in the new system before heading to Iowa City the following week.
Have we played these guys before? Nope, this is the first game between both schools.
What conference do they play in? The Colonial Athletic Association (FCS)
How did they do last season? 3-5 in the CAA, 4-7 overall
Who's the coach? Jack Cosgrove, who is in his 18th season as head coach of the Black Bears
How many starters return? 9 on offense, 8 on defense, 2 on special teams
What's the offense like?
Maine runs a spread offense, like most teams in college football. The offense was average in 2010, finishing 84th in FCS (out of 117 teams) in total offense at 322 yards/game and averaged just under 18 points per game just two years removed from an FCS playoff berth (Playoffs? In college football?). So what went wrong for the Black Bears in 2010? Turnovers certainly didn't help; the Black Bears finished at -7 in the turnover margin. When you give up the ball that much, it's hard to win games, regardless of division. What else hurt this offense? Both passing and rushing attacks were simply average. Nothing awful, but nothing amazing either. And when you play in a powerhouse FCS conference like the CAA, where four out of the top ten teams in the final poll from 2010 reside, including national runner up Delaware and semifinalist Villanova, you need to be strong on both sides of the ball. One good thing came out of last season; Maine beat archrival New Hampshire.
The quarterback position should be improved (thanks in part to the line returning all five starters), but also because of returning senior QB Warren Smith. After transferring to the program in 2009 from Iona, Smith started every game for Maine the past season. He completed a fair amount of passes (65%) and threw for over 1800 yards and 9 TDs. But of course, there was a problem - he threw ten picks on top of those stats. Again, turnovers will kill a team, and if Maine wants to return to the playoffs, Smith will need to keep the number of interceptions down.
Maine returns its top four rushers from a year ago, starting with leading rusher Pushaun Brown, who also led the team in all purpose yards. Look for Brown, behind a more experienced line, to increase his total of 650 yards and five scores in this upcoming season. Another running back to keep an eye during Pitt's game against the Bears: Jared Turcotte. After missing 2009 with an injury, he led the team in rushing yards/game in 2010.
The wide receiving unit figures to take a hit after losing it's top two WRs from 2010. But the Bears do return leading receiver Derek Session (who's actually listed as a RB on Maine's roster). TE Derek Buttles, who finished third in receiving yards, also returns. Buttles was recently named to the second team of Consensus Draft Services' Pre-season All-Americans so he figures to be a large part of their offense against the Panthers.
As I've been saying throughout this preview, the offensive line should be a strength on this offense, considering they return all five starters. "Should" is the key word there, because it's also quite possible that the unit suffers, whether it's injuries or the opposition they're up against. It starts with RG Chris Howley, who was named an Honorable Mention on CDS' Pre-season All-Americans list. C Garrett Williamson and LG Matt Spearin also return after starting all 11 games for the Bears last season. LT Steve Shea returns after working his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season and RT Joe Hook also returns after starting most of the season. Again, this unit should get better this season and while Maine probably won't return to the playoffs (not with all the competition within their conference), the offense as a whole figures to get better.
Ok, now what about the defense?
Maine primarily works out of a 4-3 defensive scheme. Their rushing defense was actually pretty good, despite the record, finishing 29th in FCS. But of course, with that record, there was a problem. That would be their passing defense, which finished 87th in FCS. Opponents threw for 16 TDs and Maine only picked off eight passes. So what figures to improve for the Bears? Eight returning starters should help.
If the game is won in the trenches, Maine's chances of winning figure to improve. The defensive line from last season return all 4 starters, including 3 who started every game. Kevin Phanor and Raibonne Charles, as well as Douglas Alston started every game for Maine in 2010 and they should help the Bears rushing defense reach similar levels of success in 2011. Michael Cole also figures to contribute significantly in 2011. The one thing they need to work on is getting to the QB - the unit only had 11.5 sacks in 2010.
The linebackers return two of three starters from 2010. Fortunately for Maine, those two happen to be their two leading tacklers from a year ago - Donte Dennis and Vinson Givans. So it can be expected that the unit should be solid, barring injury of course. Dennis in particular was a star on the defensive end, recording 57 solo tackles in 2010. For some perspective, only one other player on Maine's defense recorded more than 40 solo tackles and no other player recorded more than 45. He, like Howley, was named as an Honorable Mention on CDS' Pre-season All-American list. For the third linebacker, look for redshirt sophomore Shawn Bodtman to see some serious time at linebacker. Although he didn't pile up stats like his teammates, he did see playing time in every game last season.
The defensive backs will have some turnover, losing both cornerbacks to graduation. That doesn't bode well for a unit that for the most part was not effective at stopping the pass in 2010. The Bears are hoping that young players like Kendall James and Darlo James (no relation) will be able to come in and improve what was already a weak pass defense. Trevor Coston and Jerron McMillan return and will give the unit some experience at both safety positions.
What about their special teams unit?
The Bears return both kicker and punter from last season in placekicker Brian Harvey and punter Jordan Waxman. They also return punt returner Trever Coston but lose their primary kick returner from a year ago.
This is another game which Pitt should walk away with a W. While they should be improved from a year ago and will certainly have a chance, Maine will have a tough time against the Panthers in Week 2. I predict Pitt wins by a score of 38-3.
**All stats are courtesy of the NCAA (ncaa.com)