The first thing that comes to mind as the University at Buffalo formulates a defense to contain Pittsburgh tailback Dion Lewis is the magnitude of the chore. At 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, Lewis isn't overly prepossessing but it hasn't taken the Albany native long to prove he could potentially blossom into a force in the Big East. And he's only a true freshman.
The Bulls are looking to start the season 2-0 for the first time since returning to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1999 when they host Lewis and Pitt at noon at UB Stadium. The last time the Bulls started 2-0 was in 1983 when they opened up against Cortland and Baldwin-Wallace.
The Panthers' visit to Amherst marks the fifth time a Bowl Championship Series opponent has visited UB Stadium since 1999. The Bulls played at Pitt last year and lost, 27-16, in a game that wasn't decided until the fourth quarter.
"That gives us a lot more confidence," senior tight end Jesse Rack said. "We know they have a good team but we also know we have a good team and we left some plays out there on the field last year. Certain plays, if they went our way, you never know what the outcome of the game could have been."
Meanwhile, Pitt is 1-0 after its 38-3 season-opening victory over Football Championship Subdivision Youngstown State. Not only is Pitt 26-3 versus Mid-American Conference opponents but 6-1 in its last seven road games. Its only loss was at eventual Big East-champion Cincinnati (28-21) last Nov. 22.
"It's a big step up from Youngstown State," said Pitt senior tight end Nate Byham. "They have a lot of talent. They are not a team to be overlooked like other teams will when they play a MAC school. We can't do that. But at the same time, as long as we keep our focus and keep our discipline, it should not be a problem."
Lewis at least is the main challenge the UB defense faces. And it's not only Lewis' talents the Bulls must account for. He will undoubtedly draw an inordinate amount of attention, which could spring others like senior tight end Dorin Dickerson, sophomore split end Jonathan Baldwin and senior flanker Oderick Turner.
But Lewis appears to be the key. The Panthers were expected to take a dip in their running game after the departure of LeSean McCoy, who was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles. It's still early, but Lewis is apparently making an easy transition into college.
"He showed his great speed and showed his great quickness and running ability," said UB coach Turner Gill. "He runs over people but more importantly he can make people miss with his great speed."
If UB has any advantage at all it's that it has tape on Lewis. Youngstown State opened the season last week against Pitt with nothing to go on except Lewis' YouTube highlights, which are actually quite impressive.
"He's a talented back and he runs hard so we have to hit and wrap up," said UB junior linebacker Justin Winters. "He's a good running back but if we do our job, everything will be straight."
Lewis graduated from New Jersey's Blair Academy early and joined Pitt last January. He was rated one of the nation's top 20 tailbacks and averaged 14.1 yards per carry as a senior at Blair, rushing for 1,243 yards on 88 carries.
In last week's opener, he rushed 20 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns and also caught a swing pass and took it three yards for a touchdown. That represented the best opening-day rushing performance by a freshman in Panthers history and the best debut since Curtis Martin's 251-yard effort against Texas in 1994.
"When a freshmen gets out there in a real game when the lights go on and everything that's involved in playing a live college football game you don't really know for sure how he's going to react and how he's going to handle the outside variables," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I thought Deon handled things in a very mature way and you didn't get the feeling there was a freshman out there."
Tailbacks usually enjoy big days against the Bulls. The last time UB faced a team from the Big East, Connecticut's Donald Brown tortured the Bulls for 261 yards and a touchdown in the International Bowl. In the Mid-American Conference championship, Ball State's MiQuale Lewis rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns and just last week in the opener at Texas El-Paso, Donald Buckram had 108 yards on 14 carries.
Pitt is expected to run counters in a three-by-one formation similar to UTEP, which means Winters and true freshman Darius Willis have to play close to the line of scrimmage and junior strong safety Davonte Shannon has to come up for support.
"We have to get guys to get off blocks," Gill said. "We have to make some adjustments, but we will."