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The big question: Can Pitt regroup, beat Texas A&M

The Pitt football team moves into the fourth week of the season with a make-or-break game already staring it in the face.

These things tend to happen when you unexpectedly lose at Toledo, which not only shattered any hopes of an undefeated season but also left little margin for error the rest of the way.

And so it goes at 3:30 today, when the No. 17 Panthers (2-1) visit Texas A&M (2-1) in a nationally televised contest at legendary Kyle Field, which is expected to be filled to the brim with 82,600 onlookers.

“We’re not going to dwell on that last loss,” said senior linebacker Lewis Moore, who was part of a defense that allowed 551 yards last week, including 461 through the air. “Good teams move on. That’s what we’re going to do.”

The Panthers have seen these Aggies before — who can forget the swinging-gate fiasco of 2002 that arguably cost the Panthers the game in a 14-12 loss at Heinz Field• — but this is a different version of Texas A&M.

Brash first-year coach Dennis Franchione was plucked from Alabama to breathe life into a program that went 6-6 last season under R.C. Slocum.

Franchione immediately put his fingerprints on the program by bringing in his entire staff from Alabama and completely cleaning house. He also deemed sophomore Reggie McNeal his starter, avoiding the quarterback carousel that hampered Slocum last season.

McNeal is arguably the biggest threat for Texas A&M, coupling his blazing speed with efficient passing.

“You start with a plan, and you follow it,” said Franchione, the seventh winningest active coach in Division I-A with a 157-54-2 record (678). “We’re going to win here. We face a big test in Pittsburgh. It’s going to tell us something about ourselves.”

Franchione, whose team has the third-toughest schedule in the nation according to one survey, took a shot at Pitt and its early-season schedule early this week.

“I might not mind playing Kent State or Ball State,” said the Texas A&M coach, whose team defeated Arkansas State, 26-11, and Utah, 28-26, the first two weeks of the season before falling to Virginia Tech, 35-19, nine days ago.

Franchione’s Aggies barely resemble the Wrecking Crew defenses that were signatures during the Jackie Sherrill and Slocum eras. While it’s true that Texas A&M ranks third in the nation in pass defense at 122.3 yards allowed per game this season, it also yields 197.3 rushing yards.

Worse yet, their leading tackler is their free safety, sopomore Jaxson Appel, who averages 15.0 stops per game.

“You don’t like to see your safeties making all the plays,” Franchione said.

Texas A&M is adjusting to a switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense. It’s also adjusting to growing pains along the defensive front and the loss of middle linebacker Jared Morris for the season with a knee injury.

Nine days ago, the Aggies defense was exposed by Virginia Tech tailback Kevin Jones, who rolled up 188 rushing yards. Pitt tailback Brandon Miree, who transferred from Alabama due to differences with Franchione two years ago, could be looking at a breakout game this afternoon.

“I’m not going to overdo it and try to push too hard,” Miree said. “I’ll let the game flow and see what happens.”

You can expect the Aggies to bring the heat today — literally. Temperatures could reach 90 degrees, and the heat index on the field could surpass 100.

“That’s our home-field advantage,” said senior linebacker Scott Stickane, a former walk-on who replaced Morris in the middle. “We’re used to this heat. It’s harder when you’re not dealing with it on a daily basis.”

It’s also hard to account for the impact of a blistering crowd, a crowd that comprises upwards of 30,000 students who scream, yell and stay on their feet the entire game. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called Kyle Field the best environment in college football. The Aggies went 55-4-1 there in the 1990s but were 3-3 in 2002.

They are 2-0 at Kyle Field this season, but have yet to face a team of Pitt’s caliber. The question is: Can the Panthers bounce back from last week’s upset loss at Toledo — particularly on defense — in such a hostile environment?

“Why wouldn’t we,” said Moore, who had 22 tackles last week. “We have a lot of seniors, a lot of leadership. We’re moving on. We’re going to be all right.”

No. 17 Pitt (2-1) at Texas A&M (2-1)


When: 3:30 p.m.

Where: Kyle Field, College Station

TV/Radio: WTAE-4/WRRK-FM (96.9)

Bendel’s Prediction: Pitt wins, 29-20


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