Pitt-Buffalo Preview

Sure, it was only the second game, but Pitt's football team reached a turning point with its home win against Buffalo at this point last season.

Pittsburgh was coming off a season-opening loss to Mid-American Conference team Bowling Green, and the eventual MAC champion Bulls scored first and hung tough for three quarters against the Panthers in Game 2 at Heinz Field.

Pitt only led Buffalo 17-16 through three quarters, but dominated the fourth quarter to secure the win. The Panthers (1-0) don't want to go through the same scenario against the Bulls (1-0) when the two meet today at noon at BU Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Reflecting back on the Buffalo game last year, it was such an important game for us in order get back on track,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "When we looked at the game, in the fourth quarter with about ten minutes left, we were only up by a point. We know that we're in for a 60-minute ball game. Buffalo is playing with a lot of confidence right now.

"They've just come off a huge road win at UTEP. They were MAC champions last year and by starting their season off on the good note, we know this is a huge game for them. We've talked about that as a team and we need to make sure that we address and correct the mistakes we made against Youngstown State. We have to be totally focused on the road.

"And we have to make sure we perform at a higher level that what we did last week,'' Wannstedt added. "That's the message (that) Buffalo is a little bit different. They're more experienced on defense than a year ago. They've switched to a more athletic quarterback. ... They live and die by the run, (and) understand the importance of running the ball and playing defense.''

Buffalo sophomore quarterback Zach Maynard isn't really a drop-back passer, but he can sprint out and run more than just stand in the pocket and fire downfield. However, he was 12-for-19 for 159 yards and one touchdown and also ran for 19 yards on five carries in his first career start at UTEP.

As a high school senior, Maynard passed and ran for more than 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns combined.

"Buffalo's quarterback definitely presents a different challenge for us,'' fifth-year defensive tackle Gus Mustakas said. "We have to do our best to keep him in the pocket and not let him get loose. We can put pressure on, but if he gets out of there that causes more problems for our defensive backs. And we don't want that to happen.''

When Maynard decides to throw the ball downfield, it's a good bet that he'll hook up with senior Naaman Roosevelt, who has more than 200 career catches for 2,688 yards and two touchdowns. He had five catches for 91 yards and a 42-yard score at UTEP.

The other wideout is senior Brett Hamlin, who has 124 career receptions for 1,308 yards and six touchdowns. Junior tailback Brandon Thermilus, senior fullback Lawrence Rolle and senior tight end Jesse Rack also are passing targets for Maynard, but Roosevelt "will be one of the most-talented receivers we'll face all year,'' Wannstedt said.

"Everybody talks about Roosevelt, and he's a really good player,'' Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "But Hamlin, their other receiver, is really a good player, too. He's got 120-some career catches. Their tight end, they say, is one of the best to come out of there. And if you look at them, losing Starks is a lick, but they're very athletic at quarterback and have a lot of team speed.''

Bennett referred to James Starks, out for the season with a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. Starks has more than 3,000 career rushing yards, but the powerful 5-foot-11, 224-pound Thermilus ran for 79 yards and one touchdown last week at UTEP.

The Bulls have a lot of faith in the untested Thermilus. He has the potential and genes to be a good player. His father is former NFL first-round pick Alonzo Highsmith, who won a national championship and Super Bowl at Miami (Fla.) and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively, when Wannstedt was a coach there.

Buffalo's offensive line averages about 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds with sophomore tackle Matt Ostrowski (6-7, 300) the least experienced, but biggest upside. The remaining linemen are upperclassmen. Tight end Rack is a solid blocker as well as a sure-handed pass-catcher.

Senior free safety Mike Newton, the MVP in the MAC title game, again is the key to Buffalo's defense. Junior outside linebacker Justin Winters makes a lot of plays, along with junior cornerback Josh Thomas and junior strong safety Davonte Shannon.

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