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Pitt faces Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt faces Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl on Thursday and unless you’re a die-hard, I imagine you might have a tough time getting up for this one.

Yes, it’s a bowl game. Yes, it’s Pitt football. And yes, I’m glad the players get a trip out of this (as well as the extra practices, which are probably sorely needed for the young guys). But really, there’s just not much excitement around this one.

A good indicator for a bowl game’s interest is to determine how much interest there would be for such a game if it was the regular season. Sure, those regular season games mean more but I’m talking about just the buzz around such a game between two teams. Pitt and Eastern Michigan as a regular season game would have no real buzz and that’s why it as a bowl game doesn’t generate much traction.

The storyline for Pitt here is less about the opponent and more about getting Pat Narduzzi his first bowl win. Or, if you prefer, Pitt getting to eight wins. The Panthers have been to three bowl games under his watch and have struck out each time. A win here would not only give him his first postseason win but allow him to reach the 8-win mark for the third time in his five years as a head coach.

Those eight wins are the most he’s been able to achieve. But while those are records for him, each time he’s achieved that mark, it’s been somewhat of a disappointment. In 2015, the team was 8-4 heading into the Military Bowl when the team was routed by Navy, 44-28. In 2016, the team was 8-4 going into the Pinstripe Bowl — a game that was seen as very winnable against a 6-6 Northwestern team. The Panthers lost that one, too, 31-24.

And while eight wins here would be an achievement, this will ultimately go down as a year that was a disappointment to a lot of fans regardless of the outcome.

Eight wins is a really important barrier in my mind. 8-5 just sounds much better than 7-6 even if the difference is only one game. I think there’s less of a difference between 8-5 and 9-4 than there is 8-5 and 7-6. At 7-6, you’re barely .500. At 8-5, you’re three games over it. After eight, the next significant barrier is to get to ten and that’s where Pitt really needs to get to if they’re to prove they’re getting better as a program. Eight wins is fine for a school like Pitt, but you can’t hover around there forever. At some point, you need to take the next step.

To get to eight, though, there’s some work to do. And that’s in the form of the Quick Lane Bowl game against Eastern Michigan. The good news is that the Panthers should be in decent shape to pick up a win should they decide to show up.

Putting it bluntly, Eastern Michigan is not a great team. The Eagles come into this game with a 6-6 record and finished dead last in their MAC West Division. Their losses include defeats to five MAC teams, including Central Michigan, Ball State, Buffalo, Toledo, and Kent State. Only one of those teams, Ball State, finished with a losing record (5-7) but the level of competition in the MAC is clearly below that of the power conferences.

There are no common opponents there but Pitt did defeat fellow MAC school Ohio with little trouble this year, 20-10.

But back to Eastern Michigan. Speaking of power conferences, Eastern Michigan scored a 34-31 win on the road against a 6-6 Illinois. But they were also beaten badly by a solid Kentucky team, 38-17. Sort of a mixed bag on that front. You obviously give them credit for the Illinois win. But as mentioned, it’s real hard to look at this team as a last-place Divisional team in the MAC and think this is a team that Pitt should struggle against, assuming they play well.

Eastern Michigan has also had some problems defensively. They’ve allowed at least 29 points in seven of their 12 games this year and have managed to hold teams below 20 points only twice. Those two times, by the way, came against two of the MAC’s worst teams — winless Akron and 5-7 Northern Illinois. Any competent team has managed to score points against them, which should bode well for Pitt here. If nothing else, the Panthers should score points — even with an extended break since their last game.

Sounds good, right? Well, despite all of that, there are a few reasons why this may not be the gimme win that many expect.

The biggest thing here is that bowl games are utterly unpredictable. You never know what you’ll get with teams in what essentially boils down as a glorified exhibition. Sure, the games matter in terms of overall win-loss record. And wins can help a team finish the season ranked and/or help a team to appear on the radar for preseason polls. But aside from the Playoff, it’s hard to make a case that the games mean all that much aside from win-loss record. Some players will show up and be engaged while others won’t. It’s just the nature of it and the better team doesn’t always win.

How the players treat this game will be a big deal. I can’t speak for the players on either side but Eastern Michigan’s group seems very interested in winning the game and considers it a big deal.

Chris Creighton, the football coach at Eastern Michigan, was speaking to about 300 people at his team’s banquet Sunday night when the words “Quick Lane Bowl” appeared on his phone.

When he relayed the good news to the crowd, “The place went nuts,” he said. “I mean, it went nuts.”

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“You just need to know that’s it’s an absolute big deal for us to be here,” he said Wednesday at a news conference in Detroit to promote the game. “We are absolutely fired up.”

Frankly, I can’t help but wonder if Pitt’s enthusiasm will meet that of Eastern Michigan’s.

Beyond that, Eastern Michigan does have an ability to move the ball through the air. Like the Panthers, they have a running game that has been nearly non-existent this season. But quarterback Mike Glass has had a nice year, throwing for nearly 2,900 yards with 22 passing touchdowns against ten interceptions. He’s also a threat to run the ball as he has seven rushing touchdowns and 345 yards on the ground.

Pitt’s defense has been pretty solid this year but Glass did throw for more than 300 yards against both Illinois and Kentucky, so he’s definitely a player that can cause some problems.

The Panthers should also find themselves in a bit of a road environment. I don’t know how many tickets Eastern Michigan has distributed but, with the game in Detroit, it’s a much shorter trek for their fans. At about 40 minutes drive from their campus in Ypsilanti, it is probably a shorter drive than a good many Pitt fans have in traveling to Heinz Field on game days. That’s just a much easier trip than the roughly four hour drive to Detroit from Pittsburgh — especially when you consider the game is the day after Christmas.

That fact isn’t lost on Eastern Michigan, which is banking on having a big advantage in terms of fans, as their head coach, Chris Creighton, recently mentioned.

“We look forward to our fans, students and the southeastern Michigan community being able to make the short trip to help us create a tremendous home field environment,” he said.

And, as mentioned, Eastern Michigan has already proven it can be a power conference threat with that win at Illinois.

Despite all of that, how this game ends up will be dependent upon which Pitt team shows up. The Panthers are, to me, easily the better team. But a lackluster performance against a team that will want to prove they can hang with the power conferences under a spotlight probably won’t be enough to get the job done.

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