Today, I am starting a series where the blog looks at the teams Pitt will be playing in the upcoming season, called "Who the Heck is Pitt Playing?" This is a trial run of sorts, so if there is anything else you want to see written about the opposing teams, leave a comment below. The title is also subject to change. I'll do a series on what Pitt should do against each team prior to each game, but this offers some overview as well as a prediction.
Who the heck are we playing? The Buffalo Bulls
When and where are we playing? September 3rd at Heinz Field at 6 PM
Why should I care? It’s the first game of the season, first game at home, and the first game for Todd Graham as head coach of the Panthers.
Have we played these guys before? The last game was September 12th, 2009 in Buffalo, a 54-27 win for Pitt. Pitt leads the series 2-0.
What conference do they play in? Mid-American Conference (MAC)
How did they do last season? 2-10, 1-7 in the MAC East
Who’s the coach? Jeff Quinn, formerly the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati under Brian Kelly, currently in his 2nd season as head coach.
How many starters return? Nine on offense, three on defense, one on special teams
What’s their offense like?
UB mainly runs out of a spread offense, although their offense was largely ineffective during the 2010 season. After finishing 57th in total offense in 2009, the last season under then coach Turner Gill, the Bulls struggled mightily, finishing 111th in the country in total offense last year. They also finished last in points per game at 14.2 points. There was a reason why the Bulls finished 2-10 and the offense is primarily that reason as they couldn't score.
The passing game was average, finishing 84th in the country in passing yards. The starting quarterback figures to be Jerry Davis, who started the first 6 games for the Bulls and was then yanked for then-freshman QB Alex Zordich, who started the next 3 games. Zordich was then injured in the game against Ball State and Davis reclaimed his role as the starting QB for the remainder of the season. But Davis was hardly a dominant QB. One of his main problems is that he had trouble getting the ball to his receivers. He had a completion percentage of 47.7%, which is not good if an offense wants to be successful, especially a spread offense which relies heavily on the QB (remember Cincinnati in 2009). Davis also threw 16 picks and 16 TDs last season.
UPDATE: With the transfer of Chazz Anderson from Cincinnati, he'll now be the starter for the Bulls.
The ground game was not great for the Bulls either, finishing 101st in total rushing yards with only three TDs coming on the ground. The work was spread around evenly amongst the Bulls’ running backs, with the top returner, sophomore Branden Oliver, rushing for 298 yds on 102 carries, a 2.9 YPC (yard per carry) average. Look for junior Jeffvon Gill to get his fair share of carries against the Panthers. Gill finished second on the team in yards with 273 yards. Jeff Quinn also has high hopes for redshirt freshman James Potts, who had offers from Big Ten and ACC programs. He figures to be another part of the Bulls’ rushing attack.
The wide receiving corps returns two starters in Alex Neutz and Marcus Rivers. Rivers led the team in receptions and yards, with 50 receptions for 690 yards and 5 scores. Another name to watch is senior Terrel Jackson, who finished second on the team in receptions and yards, with 43 receptions for 497 yards. All three are good receivers and if the quarterback play can improve, the receiving corps will put up better numbers.
The offensive line returns four starters from last year's team and hopes to improve after the line was affected by injuries. The unit will be led by senior Josh Violanti, a two-year starter at center. Other returning starters include senior Matt Ostrowski, junior Graham Whinnery, and sophomore Pat Wilson. Ostrowski is recovering from a broken leg he suffered in week three and was unable to fully participate in spring drills, but Jeff Quinn hopes he can return to the level he was at prior to injury, when he was potentially an All-MAC candidate. The line hopes for better health this season as it has potential to be a strength with so many starters returning.
Ok, now what about the defense?
The Bulls play in a 3-4 scheme, like Pitt will this season. The defense was actually pretty good last season, finishing at 32nd in total defense at 340 yards per game. The Bulls were excellent against the pass, finishing at 18th with 180 passing yards allowed and 15 picks, which is great because the rush defense was not. They allowed nearly 160 yards allowed on the ground. They allowed around 28 points per game.
The strength of this defense figures to be the linebackers, who return their outside linebackers from last season in junior Jaleel Verser and sophomore Khalil Mack. Scott Pettigrew, who missed 2010 with an ACL tear, returns on the inside and could be joined by a variety of players, including seniors Fred Branch and John Syty or redshirt freshman Lee Skinner. There is plenty of depth in this unit, which leads to the overall strength.
The defensive line, while losing two starters, returns junior defensive end Steven Means, who finished third in tackles and tied for first in sacks on the team at 4 1/2. Other starters of this unit should be senior Richie Smith at nose guard, the only interior lineman with game experience for Buffalo, and senior Gordon DuBois at end. Quinn thinks that the front seven will help stabilize the defense after losing so many starters from last year's team.
The secondary is where the defense may run into some problems. The team loses both safeties and cornerbacks from last year, which, as I said above, was 18th in the country against the pass. It's unlikely that the secondary will be as good as there really isn't a whole lot of starting experience in this unit. One should expect sophomore Okoye Houston to get a spot at safety, as he played well in reserve last season. Other options include senior Alan Hayes and juniors Ray Anthony Long and Isaac Baugh. At the corners, Cincinnati transfer Romel Dismuke and sophomore Carlos Lammons should be the starters, although they will have competition from senior Joe Petit, who has been a good backup for Buffalo. Sophomore Najja Johnson will also see some time at corner.
What about their special teams unit?
Buffalo returns their punter from last season, but loses placekicker A.J. Principe and backup John Rachuna. They have two reliable options at punter in senior Peter Fardon and Jacob Schum. Fardon will handle placekicking duties for the start of the season.
I would be surprised if the Panthers lost this game. Buffalo loses so much on defense and that secondary could be easily exposed by the high-octane offense. The offense does return a fair number of starters, but can they score enough points? If we’re looking at last year’s results, it seems unlikely. I see Pitt winning by a score of 31-7 and starting the Graham era at Pitt with a victory.
If you want any further information about Buffalo, be sure to visit SB Nation's Buffalo blog, Bull Run.
*All information about players comes from Buffalo's 2011 Spring Prospectus http://static.psbin.com/7/m/evcpzh808g6ccb/2011_FB_Prospectus.pdf
**All statistics come from the NCAA http://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs