'Awesome' line is key for Pitt's defense
By Mike Kovak, Staff writer
mkovak@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - The Pitt defense ended last season on a high note - shutting down the vaunted West Virginia spread offense and finishing with the nation's fifth-best unit in terms of yards allowed per game.

Seven starters, including defensive tackle and Monessen product Ernest "Mick" Williams, are back. So is former starting nose tackle Gus Mustakas, who had his 2007 season cut short with a knee injury. Highly talented Elijah Fields may have finally shrugged away off-the-field issues and is poised to contribute in the nickel and dime defenses.

It's a defense bursting with potential and a unit under the direction of new coordinator Phil Bennett, who spent the past six years as head coach at Southern Methodist.

Pitt, ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press preseason poll, expects a more aggressive approach on defense. It also expects a sturdy test from Bowling Green in the season opener Saturday at Heinz Field.

"Their offense is completely different from what we practiced against all spring and summer," Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday. "They'll go with four wide receivers, five wide receivers. They'll run read options. They'll spread the field with no backs about half the time. Fortunately, having it as the opening game gave us a few extra days of preparation."

Bowling Green is 11-10 in non-conference games since Gregg Brandon became head coach in 2003. Among the wins are games at Minnesota in 2007, at Purdue in 2003 and bowl victories over Memphis (2004) and Northwestern (2003).

Last year, Bowling Green had an 8-5 record with a 63-7 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl.

The Falcons do score points in bunches as they averaged 30.2 points and 402.5 yards per game last season. Among last year's key contributors is South Fayette High School graduate Marques Parks, the 2003 Observer-Reporter Defensive Player of the Year. A fifth-year senior, Parks is a starting receiver and caught 28 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns last year.

Most of the Falcons' offense, including Parks and quarterback Tyler Sheehan, returns.

"We lost three offensive lineman but, through the years, the offensive line at Bowling Green has been a strength of the program," Brandon said. "I don't see that changing."

Three new starters up front could be an area Pitt's deep, talented defensive line can expose.

"Our defensive line is unbelievable," Panthers quarterback Bill Stull said. "I've been hit by every single one of them during camp and, I can tell you, they're awesome."

Pitt finished 20th nationally with 35 sacks last season - 14 more than they had the previous year and the most since 2001. Most of it is attributed to the play of the defensive line.

"When we hired (Bennett), we had discussions about where we're at defensively," Wannstedt said. "Some of the things that we'll do are some of the things that his defenses have been doing for years."

Bits and pieces

Pitt's starting offensive line has been settled. It will be Jason Pinkston at left tackle, C.J. Davis at left guard, Robb Houser at center, John Malecki at right guard and Joe Thomas at right tackle. Wannstedt said freshman Lucas Nix of Thomas Jefferson High School will receive playing time. ... Wannstedt also said there has been talk of redshirting sophomore quarterback Pat Bostick. ... Pitt placekicker Conor Lee, an Upper St. Clair graduate, has been named a preseason candidate for the Lou Groza Award. Lee has kicked a school-record 75 consecutive extra points without a miss. ... Freshman Andrew Taglianetti, who played at South Fayette as a freshman, is listed as a second-string free safety. Taglianetti and freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin are two members of the 2008 recruiting class expected to play in the opener.