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Malecki anchors Pitt's rugged O-line

For the most part, the Pitt offensive line has been overshadowed by the Panthers' skill players, including quarterback Bill Stull and freshman tailback Dion Lewis.

However, opposing coaches aren't overlooking the rock-solid performance of right guard John Malecki.

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound senior has been consistent all season. He has developed into one of the best pass-blockers in the Big East, but prefers a slugfest in the trenches where he's winning enough one-on-one battles to help fuel the conference's best rushing attack.

And Malecki expects a grueling trench war when No. 8 Pitt hosts Notre Dame on Saturday night at Heinz Field.

"Notre Dame plays a tough under-front, and they pursue to the ball fast," Malecki said Tuesday. "They have a good nose guard, and they will bring a lot of physical play to the field.

"We have to go out there and match them. We must execute to do the things we want to do offensively."

Malecki, anchoring an offensive line that has allowed Stull to be sacked only six times, will likely square up against defensive ends Morrice Richardson and Ethan Johnson. But he'll keep tabs on 6-2, 310-pound nose guard Ian Williams, who is considered one of the best run-stoppers in the country.

(Williams) is someone you have to game-plan for," said Malecki, who has helped Lewis lead the Big East in rushing with 1,139 yards. "We can't let him just tee off on the center (Robb Houser) all game. We might have to double-team him on some plays."

Williams, though, was largely ineffective against Navy, which has the second-best ground game in the country behind Georgia Tech. The Midshipmen kept the Irish off-balance with a series of option plays that helped a usually benign passing game produce several big plays Saturday in Navy's 23-21 upset.

The Irish appeared vulnerable in the middle. And the Panthers are hoping to exploit that perceived weakness.

"From watching the game on television, Navy was definitely having some success (attacking the middle)," Malecki said. "We'll have a game plan to see what they did wrong, and try to do it ourselves."

Said fullback Henry Hynoski: "I watched about three hours of film, and the (Notre Dame) defensive linemen and linebackers are very athletic. I noticed that USC and Michigan State were able to get to the next level (in the secondary), and think we can, too."

The strength of the Pitt running game has been its depth of talent along the line of scrimmage. Coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti haven't had to rely heavily on one side of the offensive line.

"It's important for our offensive line not to have a tendency - like, say run the ball 85 percent to the right side because the left side isn't as good," Malecki said. "It's one of our strengths that we don't have that problem.

"It's cool to have someone run for a touchdown behind you. It's not like we have to run this play because I'm blocking this guy. We trust each other that we can run any play, any side and get it done."

"Our balance has enabled us to open up so many other things with our offense," right tackle Joe Thomas said. "We've been able to show a lot of different formations to keep teams guessing."

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