Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Thanksgiving Weekend Recap

As always on Sunday night of Monday morning, here's my weekend recap, complete with thoughts, links, stories, and inane anecdotes about all the teams from around the Three Rivers, with some other stuff thrown in to boot.

-Sidney Crosby suddenly is a man on a mission these days. Granted Geno still holds a 5 point lead on Sid for the scoring title, but there is little question as to the identity of the hottest player on the planet right now. In the past few seasons, Sid would often go on these tears where he'd put up (at a minimum) a couple points a night, but the point totals usually were heavy on the assist side, as the playmaking gene in the Kid emerged. But this time, it's been mostly the actual scoring of goals that Crosby has been involved with. Which leads me to this bold statement: The way Sid is playing right now is the best total hockey he has played in his entire career. The goal scoring, the playmaking, the work on the PK, the way he and Geno can take over a game when they are paired together. If Crosby can even come close to sustaining this pace, he will run away with the scoring title, and the Pens will blow past the Rangers to the division title.

-I don't want to shortchange Geno, either, as he is having one unbelievable season right now. I've been very surprised to notice his development as a playmaker this season, as evidenced by his huge assist total. It's sort of interesting to note that he and Sid have sort of reversed their stereotypical roles of late, with Sid having a comfortable team lead in goals and Geno having the edge in assists. I might be an enormous Pens Homer, but I really think there is a very good chance these two end up being far and away the 1 and 2 in the scoring race come season's end. Not sure who finishes on top (at gunpoint I'd probably say Sid) but I wouldn't be shocked at all to see each go well past 120 points, assuming they both stay healthy.

-While John Curry certainly is no Ty Conklin, I thought he at least proved he has the ability to be a backup 'tender in the league. Of course, he'd be best served spending this season with the Baby Pens developing himself. Still, I was highly skeptical of his future prospects, but I thought he showed poise and skill in his two appearances.

-And of course, there's the work of Dany Sabourin, who has really brought his A game since the Flower went down. He also still sits atop the league in Goals Against Average. A downright jaw-dropping achievement if you had seen him a few years ago in his first start for the Pens when he gave up 4 goals on 14 shots in just over a period of work.

-Janne Pesonen's bizarre season continues to amplify in bizareness. The Swedish import, who some thought might spend the season playing on the wing of Geno or Sid was sent back down to Wilkes-Barre yet again this morning. It's not surprising that he was sent down if you watched the two games he actually dressed for, as he played about 6 minutes Friday night and just over 7 minutes last night. Still, I thought he put together solid efforts when he was out there, and although he was a -1 last night, I think he deserves more of a chance up here to show himself. Apparently Mikey Therrien disagrees though.

-It was also interesting that Pesonen dressed for the Buffalo game Friday night when Ruslan Fedotenko was a healthy scratch, and that Pesonen dressed again last night while Pascal Dupuis was scratched for reasons unknown.

-Marc-Andre Fleury's injury looks like it will hold our top netminder out for at least a few more games, as he was described by Mikey Therrien as being "week-to-week"

-Dave Molinari has an interesting look at the state of nutrition in the NHL these days, which includes an amusing little anecdote about our beloved Super Mario, and also gives us a reason to ask, "What do Eric Godard and Elvis Pressley have in common?"

-If you watched the game last night, is there really any player in the league that is more dramatic and breathtaking than Sidney Crosby? I mean don't even think there can be a debate on this topic. Even if you think Semin or Ovechkin or Zetterberg or whoever is the best player in hockey, none of them can make you rise to the edge of your seat like Sid can when he is playing like he is now. He was flying around the ice all night, and each of his three goals were "WOW" goals, even the empty-netter.

-That was one heck of a show the Steelers just put on earlier tonight in their statement game win over the Patriots. To answer the question that I asked earlier today in my game preview, yes, the Steelers are a legit, top-of-the-AFC contender right now. I would put them on an even plane with the Titans, and ahead of the rest of the AFC's squads and behind only the Giants in the entire NFL after this tour de force performance.

-After a shaky start, Ben Roethlisberger really came around today. His final numbers might be a bit deceiving: 17/33 179 2 TD 1 Int, but if you watched the game, you saw a very solid performance. His receivers hurt him big time, as Heath Miller uncharacteristically dropped 2 very catchable passes, Willie Parker dropped an embarassingly easy swing pass, and Nate Washington dropped a sure touchdown pass that was perfectly thrown after making two more difficult catches earlier on.

-The defense was, in a word, dominating. The Patriots were able to make some head way on the ground with 122 yards rushing, most of it coming on 6 wildly effective carries by Kevin Faulk. Sammy Morris also grinded out 45 tough yards too. However, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were monsters in the second half after struggling through the first. Troy Polamalu also had a monster of a game, with several passes defensed and was all over the field as usual, and added a league high 6th interception. Polamalu is even better than I thought possible now that he has been consistently healthy.

-Mewelde Moore and Willie Parker were once again a very effective tandem. Parker had some early issues and sat out the entire second quarter, probably due to lingering issue effects, but was excellent toward the end of the game at killing the clock. Moore, meanwhile, was a very dangerous run in Parker's absence, and for someone his size is also a very tough runner as well. I was also pleased to see Gary Russell punch one in for a touchdown, but with 3 carries for 1 yard, Russell still has quite a bit to prove as an everydown back.

-Ryan Clark's hit on Wes Welker was RIDICULOUS. I don't think I have ever seen a more violent hit that wasn't head-to-head in my entire life. Just a sickening sound, a sickening sight, and a sickening result.

-It would have been a very different game if Randy Moss doesn't drop that touchdown pass from Matt Cassel that he would have had 99 times out of 100. When Gostkowski shanked that field goal, you knew the Pats were in trouble, but if Moss snags that sucker, the game is on.

-Not much to report on the Pirates these days, but you should check out Dejan Kovacevic's story about the Pirates happenings in the Dominican Republic. If you are a real baseball fan and understand the workings of the league in present day, it will give you some renewed faith in the Pirates organization's overall workings, even if their major league club may struggle mightily in 2009. Also, this is the first part of a 3-part series on the Bucs in Latin America, so be sure to check back on the PG's website the next few days for the remainder.

Pitt Football
-I covered quite a bit of Pitt football stuff in my post-Brawl column, but thought of a few more things I wanted to add.

-The experts seem to like our Panthers heading to the Brut Sun Bowl to play Oregon State. Would be interesting to see how they would fare against a team that was on the cusp of going to the Rose Bowl. It's also worth noting that this is all assuming that Pitt beats UConn.

-With one game remaining, there is a pretty strong chance that LeSean McCoy will at least tie for the national lead in touchdowns at the end of the regular season, and maybe even lead the thing outright with his 20. Javon Ringer currently leads with 21 but is done until bowl season, and Shady is tied for second with MiQuale Lewis of Ball State (who has the MAC Championship this weekend) and Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State (who is done until the Bowls).

-The Panthers are back in all of the rankings thanks to Friday's win.

Pitt Basketball
-Sam Young continued his march toward all kinds of postseason awards with a pair of excellent performances Friday and Saturday night to go with his career performance from Tuesday. What's more, those were two nice wins the Panthers put together as well over Washington State and Texas Tech. Hard to say if either is a tournament-caliber squad (I doubt Tech is, not sure about Wazzu) but wins over Big Conference schools, no matter which ones, are looked upon favorably.

-I was more than a little surprised to notice that Nasir Robinson didn't get into the game at all last night against Wazzu. Not that he'd be lighting the world on fire or anything, but I would not have expected him to be a guy to plummet to the bottom of the bench so quickly given his athleticism and reputation as the top recruit from this class. I can't really argue much with it, though either, and I think that Gil Brown's return to the lineup might make it difficult for Nas to get minutes, as they are similar types of players, and Gil is obviously the better player right now.

-While I made quite a bit about the Panthers bench and depth early on in the season, I also want to add that I think this could quickly become a team whose minutes are dominated by 6 players: Fields, Dixon, Young, Biggs, Blair, and Brown off the bench. Of course McGhee will get his minutes spelling the big guys, and Woodall and Gibbs will see time at the point when Fields is given a rest, and Wanamaker and Robinson will carve out some minutes as well, but the versatility of the top 6 guys makes it so that Jamie Dixon can rely heavily on the cream of the crop for probably 25+ minutes each. I mean think about it: Gil can play the 2,3, and even 4. Sammy is adjusting to the 3, and has a brilliant history at the 4. Blair and Biggs can both move seamlessly between the 4 and 5. And while Dixon and Fields are both probably only going to play their respective guard spots, Fields is a warrior who will probably average 35 minutes a game in Big East play, and Dixon has been nothing but impressive in his early play, and should have no trouble assuming a heavy workload.

-I've been very impressed by Levance Fields' newly found scoring touch. I would not have pegged him as the guy most likely to pick up the Panthers scoring slack this season, but he has been excellent this season. He has emerged as a surprisingly potent 3-point scoring threat, nailing over 40% of his bombs so far this year, establishing himself as the definite top option on the team in that regard.

Other Stuff
-This Texas/Oklahoma/ Texas Tech mess really makes its own case for a college football playoff system of some sort, doesn't it? I mean this is absolutely ridiculous. And since I already have my plan for a playoff system laid out, here's what it would look like as of now, if the season ended today.
1 Alabama (SEC Champ)
2 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ)
3 USC (Pac-10 Champ)
4 Utah (Mountain West Champ)
5 Texas (At-Large Bid)
6 Penn State (Big Ten Champ)
7 Cincinnati (Big East Champ)
8 Boston College (ACC Champ)
9 Florida (At-Large Bid)
10 Texas Tech (At-Large Bid)
11 Boise State (WAC Champ)
12 Ohio State (At-Large Bid)

First Round Matchups:
Texas vs. Ohio State
Penn State vs. Boise State
Cincinnati vs. Texas Tech
Boston College vs. Florida

Second Round Matchups
Alabama vs. Boston College/Florida
Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati/Texas Tech
USC vs. Penn State/ Boise State
Alabama vs. Texas/ Ohio State

-Lastly, I wanted to give you a heads-up, for the next week and a half or so, I will be forced to dive headfirst into school work, what with Finals week looming on the horizon, and because of this, the blog is likely to take a hit as far as activity. I'm not giving up entirely, but will be forced to tone it down. I will give it my best effort to be on here with something at least every other day, but circumstance will dicatate that.

Steelers- Patriots Preview

One of the most unfriendly foes in recent years for Steeler fans to see on the schedule has been the New England Patriots, and today the Steelers match up against the Patsies yet again in what has lately been a very one-sided matchup. I can't even call it a rivalry it's been so one-sided. However, today's game will sport a much different look than past games have, mainly because of the man under center for New England, Matt Cassel. In the wake of Tom Brady's nasty knee injury, Cassel was forced into taking the reins for New England. Many fans figured the Patriots season was as good as over. But Cassel has turned in some very surprising results, and has likely earned the right to be overpaid by some foolish team this offseason when he hits the free agent market. While he has been very good for much of this season, Matt Cassel still is no Tom Brady, especially the Tom Brady of a year ago who declared war on secondarys league-wide.

Here are my collected random thoughts for today's game:
-Sure Cassel has had a surprising amount of success this season with a 90.5 passer rating and twice going over 400 yards, but he hasn't faced a defense with teeth like the Steelers D yet. Really his worst game of the season came against a very mediocre San Diego Chargers squad in Week 6, so I will be watching him like a hawk early on to see how he handles this tough, tough defense. Particularly, the play of Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, and James Harrison will be worth watching. Cassel has never seen a set of blitzing 'backers like the latter two, and has never seen a player go all over the field and cause the havoc that Troy can cause.

-I have heard a pretty good deal made about the Patriots' inept running game, but I'm not sure I really see that as being a big deal. The Patriots don't have a dominating running back, but against this Steelers D, is that really going to matter? I mean nobody runs well against this team, and while I think Kevin Faulk could be effective today in smaller bursts, the Pats are more than used to having to operate without a running game. This might actually end up hurting the Steelers, as they typically use this stingy rush D to throw teams off their games, but that won't work against New England.

-Randy Moss sparked early season questions about his work ethic shortly after Cassel took over, but he has come on strong lately, and had an absolutely monster game last weekend for New England. Ryan Clark figures to be brought over to help with Moss quite a bit today. It's still unknown whether Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend will play, but being that both practiced most of the week, I think we will see them both, and that will give the Steelers a much better chance of containing Moss and his counterpart, the wildly productive Wes Welker, who has 80 receptions on the season.

-It's now being reported that Willie Parker will play today for our Steelers, which is definite good news. I don't expect a ton out of Willie or Mewelde Moore, but it helps to have them both in the backfield along with the bigger guys, Gary Russell and Carey Davis. Parker figures to have limited touches due to his injury, so a healthy dose of these other guys should be expected, which I think may be a bonus for the Steelers running game, as Parker, with the exception of the San Diego game, has been ineffective for much of the season when he's been the every-down guy.

-Last week agains the Bungles, Ben Roethlisberger looked like he had gotten past the shoulder injury that hindered his early-season performance. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to continue to play at that level, because the Patriots are most vulnerable against the pass right now. In their last game, the Patriots were gouged for 341 yards by noodle-armed Chad Pennington, so I bet Ben and Bruce Arians will test that secondary early on with Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.

-This game presents a giant opportunity for the Steelers to establish themselves as a legit AFC contender. Granted, most "experts" already consider the Steelers to be among the 2 or 3 favorites in the AFC, but I'm not yet convinced to this point. The reason for my skepticism is that twice this year the Steelers have matched up against elite-level teams (Giants and Colts) and both times they came close, but just couldn't get the job done. And in the Ravens game (a team that I am not sold on being a title contender, merely a playoff contender), while they did pull off a win, it was an OT nailbiter at home on primetime that didn't swing me much. A win today in New England, any kind of win even if it is 2-0, would establish the Steelers in my mind and at 9-3 would position them for a run at a bye.

-Bill Belichick, after being absolutely pwned for years in Cleveland but our Black and Gold, has similarly returned the favor since taking over the Patsies. He consistently out-coached and out-gameplanned Bill Cowher basically every time they locked horns, and last season, he similarly (and somewhat depressingly I might add) did the same to Mike Tomlin. Be quite sure that with a struggling secondary and a still-pretty-green QB, Belichick will attempt to throw a few wrinkles in to tilt the edge his way, because if the two squads just line up and play without these other variables being thrown in, his team is at a definite disadvantage. Few coaches make better game-day adjustments than Belichick, so it will be worth watching to see how Tomlin and company handle these tactics.

The Bottom Line
This is a different looking matchup than in years past, and I think that Dick LeBeau and his countless different blitz packages make the difference for the Steelers against the inexperienced Matt Cassel, as the Steelers win a close one on sacks and Ben Roethlisberger putting together a nice day, Steelers 23 Patriots 17

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Links From Around the 4-1-2

-Brian Benett from ESPN's Big East Blog has lots of stuff regarding the Brawl, including some postgame thoughts.

-Sid is slowly closing the gap on the 3 Canadiens for the 3 All-Star starting spots. He's down by about 70,000 votes, and it's looking more realistic that the might actually catch them.

-Dejan Kovacevic has returned to the PBC Blog on the Post-Gazette's website, making that officially the ultimate hot spot for Pirates fans. And if you happen to be one of those crazy people that stayed on the blog's comments board even after DK shut it down for almost 2 months, my hat's off to you, or should I say my hap cap's off to you?

-Remeber how the Pirates just signed those two Indian pitchers? Well, it turns out they have a blog that they have been writing, and if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out, it seems almost surreal to read it the comedy is so high.

-Ron Cook tries to talk Shady McCoy into turning pro. Someone needs to smack him around a bit and tell him to stop trying to talk our super-duper star tailback into turning pro.

-Steve Pederson, one of the most well-spoken people that I have ever met, makes an appearance on Stan and Guy for ESPN 1250.

-Peter King fawns all over Ben Roethlisberger in his weekly Monday Morning Quarterback column. Interesting to read about a guy who has been stereotyped as being not that close with a lot of teammates.

-Joe Starkey rains all over the Pitt Football parade. Whatever Joe. He calls the game ugly because it was a defensive heavy game with some definite bad offensive mistakes. He says this kind of football makes for bad TV and claims that no one cares about the Big East because of how bad these games are. Clearly, Joe hasn't watched the SEC play any football this season. This game was very remiscent of some of those SEC games. He also does everything short of running around in a coonskin cap and firing off rifle rounds he's such a WVU apologist. In fact, don't bother reading this, as it defines the derogatory fishwrap term that is typically handed on lower-tier papers live the Trib.

-Will the Steelers just cut Anthony Smith and get it over with? The guy is useless.

-Rob Rossi tackles the hot-button Penguins alternate blue uniform issue. Kinda interesting as he does take a lot of fans' opinions into account.

-Some injury news for the Steelers/Patsies game tomorrow afternoon.

How Sweet It Is: Panthers Win the Brawl

I typically reserve my thoughts on specific games that occur over the weekend for my weekly "Weekend Recap" column, but I had to make an exception just this once. I mean come on, it's the Brawl! I just couldn't contain myself until Sunday night/ Monday morning, this is just too special. After watching the Panthers spend the first two years of the Dave Wannstedt era getting run over, around, and through by the Mountaineers, it has been a glorious sight the last two brawls to shut those Hoopies up. And although last season may have been sweet because the Panthers W knocked our rivals out of the National Championship and ended up costing them their coach, thus causing the Mounties more pain than ever before, this win is an even better feeling, at least for me. Last year, after the win, the season was over, and after the celebrating ended, and the fires in Oakland were put out, the Panthers were still 5-7 and staying home for the holidays yet again. This year, though, the Panthers just nabbed their 8th win of the season against the hated Mountaineers, are more than bowl-eligible, will likely slide into the low end of the top 25, and have put themselves in position for a pretty good bowl game if they can win in UConn next weekend. The Dave Wannstedt era, while it is still very much a work-in-progress, has finally delivered some of the fruit that was promised when he arrived on the scene in 2005. There are still times when Wanny and his BFF Matt Cavanaugh will leave Pitt fans scratching their heads with play calls and gameday decisions (like that maddening goal-line opportunity yesterday just before the half), but Wanny has shown he can win, as an 8 win (at least) season is nothing to sneeze at. And, if the Panthers can get another win to give them 9, this would equal the most successful season the Panthers have had in a year since Dan Marino was throwing the ball around back in 1982, as the only other 9 win season since then was Walt Harris' 2002 squad. And to be honest, I'm not sure I can rationally discuss a possible 10-win team yet, so let's not go jinxing it all up just yet.

So without further ado, here are some of my random thoughts from yesterday's game
-Thank the good lord for LeSean McCoy. That man is an absolute beast, and I still find it very difficult to believe he is going to pass up the NFL for another year, but it gets me all kinds of excited nonetheless. If this team didn't have McCoy and had spent the season substituting LaRod Stephens-Howling, Kevin Collier, Shariff Harris, and Chris Burns in for McCoy, this squad would be about 5-6, and hoping to knock off UConn next week to grab a spot in the International Bowl or something like that. And you've got to tip your cap to Wanny for getting McCoy to come here despite all the negative signs around the program at the time. I have no idea how the 'stache does it, but he is one tremendous recruiter.

-Speaking of recruiting, would it kill Wanny to find a better QB? Bill Stull scares the living daylights out of me, and I just really don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think he may have even regressed from some of the earlier games this year. I thought he showed some progress in 4 games in a row at midseason against Syracuse, South Florida, Navy, and Rutgers, and was even solid against Louisville after missing the ND game, but was dreadful against Cincinnati and nearly cost them the game yesterday against WVU. I mean at no point was he a guy who you could rely on to win the game for you, and his deep balls have consistently been miserable, but he was at least showing signs of being a good game manager until crapping out the last two weeks.

-My prediction for yesterday's game: Pitt 20 WVU 17. The Final Score: Pitt 19 WVU 15. That's pretty good.

-As I suspected, Phil Bennett clearly studied the game plan that Paul Rhoads put together in last season's Brawl. That Pitt defense, with the exception of that one absurd Pat White run, put the clamps on the vaunted Mountaineer run game, and dared White to beat them with his limp noodle throwing arm. White did an okay job throwing the ball around, and while his receivers had a few key drops that hurt them, White also very predictably made some very bad decisions as well. I also liked Jovani Chappel's quote after the game where he indicated that the Panthers basically knew what the play was going to be on Chappel's pick based simply on how the Mountaineers lined up out of the huddle. Not sure, but that might be an indication you don't have enough passing plays in your playbook.

-Hey, did you know Pitt had a ridiculously talented tight end? Because I sure didn't until I saw Nate Byham have the second best day for any Pitt offensive player yesterday with 4 big catches. So where the heck has this been all season long? I mean, for a struggling QB, isn't a good tight end often times a cure-all and a great security blanket? How has Matt Cavanaugh not called Byham's number more often and more consistently this season for Billy Stull. I mean what's the difference between hitting Byham underneath for 7-8 yards and him getting hit immediately and dropped and Bill Stull tossing one of his 50 bubble screen passes that typically go for about the same, and often don't even do that well.

-Speaking of Matt Cavanaugh, I know we will be coming off (at least) an 8 win season this year, and hopefully more, so there is no chance anyone on the coaching staff is let go, but I still don't think he's a good offensive coordinator. He tries to be too cute and tries to out-think his oppsosition too often. When your team stinks and you don't have enough talent at the skill positions to execute, I completely understand this mentality, as it gives you a way to make up the talent difference, but when you have a future NFL starting running back in your backfield, a deep, if not spectacular, corps of wide recevers, and the aforementioned underrated and underutilized tight end, the cutesy crap isn't necessary. The Byham case I just talked about is one example of this, but situations like the goal-line situation just before halftime yesterday are what really drive me crazy. That drive started with 4:27 to go in the half. The Panthers marched from their own 43 down to the 2 in about 3 minutes. On the drive, either Shady or Stephens-Howling had accounted for all but 4 yards on the drive. Yet, after going to Shady once for a yard on 1st and goal at the 3, Cavanaugh, instead of giving to his goal-line ace McCoy, went for the fade pattern in the end zone, which was promptly intercepted by West Virginia. How is that playing to Pitt's strengths? Is there any way that if you give that ball to McCoy 2 more time he doesn't get in? I mean WVU could have put 22 men on the field and stacked them all in the box, and I still don't think Shady gets denied twice. When you have Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress, or even Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald for that matter, the fade pattern can work when you are that close, because those receivers know how to play a fade, and those QB's know how to throw one (in Rutherford's case, I think that was the only pass he actually knew how to throw). But when you have a below-average QB with a history of making mistakes and underthrowing throwing to a true freshman wideout who, while wildly talented, is still learning how to play receiver at the college level, a fade pattern into double coverage probably isn't the best option.

-I was wildly impressed with the way Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Mick Williams, Rashaad Duncan, and the rest of that D-Line played yesterday. Sure Scott McKillop ended up with the big tackle numbers, as he always does, but those D-Linemen were the ones who made the plays. They were smarter than last week against Cincinnati, and instead of going for the big play sack and risking White or Devine breaking free if they got the ball past them, they instead were just as content at getting containment and stopping any chance of screens or outside runs around end. I think all four of these guys have what it takes to play on Sundays some day, and Romeus and Sheard both look like they could be pretty high draft picks if they can keep maturing.

-The Pitt secondary has taken a lot of heat this season, but I think they all did a pretty nice job yesterday, even the much-maligned Aaron Berry and Dom DeCicco. Berry, who has legit NFL talent, still looks like he is relying too much on his natural ability and not enough on smarts and technique, but I think maybe yesterday talent was enough to keep the Mountaineers at least in check. And DeCicco, who had a very nice interception that no really talked about, had probably his best game of the season. Too often he has been caught out of position or has come over to help too late in plays, but I didn't see any of that yesterday, and he also looks like he might finally be using his monstrous size to give him an advantage back there.

-I'll be back tomorrow night with the Weekend Recap, and will probably have a few more things Panthers to add, along with my typical coverage of the Pens, Steelers, Pirates and Pitt Basketball.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Malkin and Sid: Reunited and It Feels So Good

Last night in the dump on Long Island, we witnessed the full blunt force of what happens when the Pens combine their dynamic duo, Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin, and pit them against mere mortals. And it was a sight to be hold. An astonishing 4 third period goals as the Islanders begged for mercy from these two gods of ice. So, the question is now going to be raised in many 'burgh circles: Should this combo be paired together more often?

I think we certainly saw strong evidence to suggest that this should be a pairing that is used in overtime situations, and should continue to be used at the very end of games. Some critics will say that you shouldn't switch players around that much in game, but Sid and Geno are no ordinary players and certainly have the chemistry well-developed to play together, especially in overtime when the wide-open spaces play even more to their astounding strengths.

I don't think this is a move that coach Mikey Therrien will resort to often for entire periods, as he did last night though. The other three lines just aren't potent enough, and unless Therrien feels the Pens need their weekly swift-kick lineup change, I think he'll keep these two separated for the most part.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Backyard Brawl Preview

It's that time of year again folks... THE BACKYARD BRAWL! Nothing gets the blood pumping for a Pitt fan (and I'm assuming for a WVU fan too) more than talking Pitt/WVU football these days, especially after last season's monumental win for the Panthers that firmly put the Dave Wannstedt Era Panthers on the right path. It also re-ignited a rivalry that, quite frankly, had grown a little stale the previous two seasons as WVU elevated its program to elite national status. This season, the Panthers will head to their first bowl since Walt Harris was whining up and down the sidelines. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, opened the season with sky-high expectations, but their new coach Bill Stewart had some definite growing pains early on in the season. Pat White also had some injury issues that contributed to a wildly disappointing start. Despite a 26-23 loss to Cincinnati three weeks ago, the Mountaineers appear to have righted their ship in time to battle the up-and-coming Panthers. So let's break this puppy down for all to see:

Pitt Offense
It was maddening to watch that Panther offense against Cincinnati. Our beloved blue and gold continued to try to stretch the field with a quarterback who almost never hits on a deep ball, and the offense ignored Shady McCoy for long stretches despite his excellence when he did get the ball. Still, the Panthers saw what Shady did last season against the 'eers and it will be hard even for Matt Cavanaugh to ignore the tape from a year ago and overthink this thing, as he tends to do. It would help the Panthers to have LaRod Stephens-Howling back at full strength after he all but sat out the Cincy game due to injury. Certainly, LaRod is no Shady but he is still an effective offensive weapon to have in the fold. Despite Stull's downfield struggles, Matt Cavanaugh has shown he will continue to try to get the ball to Jonathan Baldwin downfield. If Stull can hit one downfield early on it could make all the difference in the world, and that's what Cavanaugh is going for.

West Virginia Defense
Though their schedule hasn't been the most imposing one around, the Mountaineers Defense has been steady, if unspectacular, when its mattered. They gave up 24 points in their Week 2 upset loss against East Carolina, but even in that game they kept WVU in the game until very late in the third quarter, when the offense's incompetence just cost them too much. In the Cincinnati loss, the Bearcats scored 26 points, a season high against the Mountaineers, but 7 points of that was a kick return for a touchdown, and the Mountie D also forced a safety. This is a team that will keep the score close and relatively low scoring in Friday's game. They did a much better job defending Cincy than our Panthers did, giving up less than 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. Stull's tendency to take shots downfield at Cavanaugh's urging could provide an opportunity for West Virginia's defense to create some turnovers. The 'eers have 12 picks on the season, LB Mortty Ivy is the team leader with 3 picks and is very good in coverage, and is a guy the Panthers will have to account for in this game. Sophomore corner Brandon Hogan has come on very strong of late after taking over a starting cornerback spot early in the year.

Pitt Defense
The Panthers had some major issues adjusting to the Bearcats game plan early on, and it was almost embarassing to watch them make career backup Tony Pike look like a future first round pick. Yet the Mounties run a very different scheme than the Bearcats do, and the Panthers have a pretty sound understanding of the WVU offense after watching Pat White run the show for 4 years. Let's hope Phil Bennett has been closely studying the tapes of a year ago when Paul Rhoads, despite all the aggravation of his tenure here, put on an absolute clinic. Scott McKillop was a beast among men in that game last year against WVU, and has similarly been excellent this year, and I would expect similar results Friday. I will be very interested to see what happens with the defensive line this week. We saw Cincinnati execute those sickening screen-type plays several times last week after Pitt's D-Line burst upfield, and it was one of the things that led to the Panthers' demise. WVU has not shown much of a tendency to run those types of plays, but if Romeus, Sheard, Duncan, and Williams are getting past the WVU O-Line early on, I would look for the Mounties to make an effort at incorporating these screens to try to neutralize that disruptive defensive front. And, as always with the Panthers this season, their secondary will leave Panther fans taking a big gasp every time Pat White puts the ball in the air. Thankfully, WVU is one of the most run-happy teams around, and while White and Noel Devine could easily burn the Panthers, I'd rather take my chances with them then a QB who can stretch the field on our porous secondary.

WVU Offense
The Panthers may have an excellent D-Line and a spectacular middle linebacker, but the speed and athleticism of this bunch will be tested, as Noel Devine has emerged as one of the biggest home-run hitters in college football this season. If Devine gets space to move around, the opposition is typically in some deep stuff, so the work of the Panthers depleted outside linebacker corps will be a definite key. However, Devine, while a very dangerous weapon, has also been very inconsistent this season. He has 5 100 yard games, but has also had 3 games where he averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less, with at least 17 carries in each of those 3. As scary as Devine can be though, Pat White is still what makes this offense go. Barring two big games to finish the season (and I am by no means discounting this) White will likely have the lowest rushing total for this season of his brilliant 4 year career, and will almost certainly have the lowest yards-per-carry average as well. The 'eers have developed something of a horizontal, west-coast type passing scheme this season to complement their lethal ground game. Backup running back Jock Sanders has a team-leading 41 catches, a shockingly high number, and Noel Devine is second on the team with 28 grabs of his own. Receiver Alric Arnett and Dorrell Jollah are okay at getting downfield to open up running lanes, but are nowhere near the downfield threats the 'eers have employed in years past like Darius Reynaud and Brandon Myles. All this makes for a strange yet effective offensive scheme where the vast majority of the offense is generated when the end-ball-carrier gets possession at or around the line of scrimmage.

The Bottom Line
The bad blood here should be much worse this year than in the past several years, as the Mounties finally have a reason to respect our Panthers, and they know just how much Pitt cost them a year ago. The Panthers' hopes lie with Shady McCoy, and if he can get some things going early on, it will make all the difference in the world for Pitt. The WVU defense is stingy, though, and I'd be a little surprised to see any patented Shady long TD runs, but all we need is him to run like the guy who won that WVU game last season. The Mountaineers will need Pat White to have another monster game, and any Panther fan who tells you he's not absolutely terrified of Pat White is lieing to your face, as this guy is one of the deadliest players college football has seen in years. The defenses for both squads will have their work cut out stopping these two, and my prediction is that whichever one can have a bigger impact earlier on in the game will be the one that leads their team to victory. Forunately, the Panthers showed last season they can keep White in check after two years of flailing around hopelessly, but the Mounties had no answer for our superstar, Shady McCoy.
Panthers 20 Mountaineers 17

Where will the Panthers be Bowling?

If you've so much as looked at a reputable sports website that follows College Football in the past few weeks you've surely seen bowl projections everywhere, and yet everyone seems to have a different idea of where our beloved Pitt Panthers may be headed. Part of the reason is that the wacky Big East conference has its team play in an astonishing 5 separate months, and the other reason is that the wacky Big East conference has a confusing scheme for its teams going to bowl games. So I thought I would look at likely destinations for the Panthers under a few different scenarios:

Scenario 1: The Panthers win out, Notre Dame loses, Cincinnati and Rutgers win
Wins over West Virginia and Connecticut would firmly establish the Panthers as a very attractive team for the middle tier bowl games. With Cincinnati basically having the BCS game all but locked up, the Gator or Sun Bowl will pick next among the Big East teams. It's likely that the Gator will go with a Big 12 team this season, which means the Sun Bowl will pick either a Big East team or Notre Dame. However, if ND loses to USC and Rutgers knocks off Louisville, then the Sun Bowl HAS to pick a Big East team. And if the Panthers were to win out, they would almost certainly be that team.
Scenario 2: The Panthers win out, Cincinnati wins, Notre Dame and Rutgers lose
This scenario differs from the first in that the Big East would no longer have enough 7 win teams to fill out its bowl lineup, and therefore all 6-6 affiliates, including Notre Dame, would become eligible for all of the remaining bowls. Notre Dame would then be the logical pick for Notre Dame. If this happens, the Panthers are probably the next in line of the Big East teams still, though, and would probably go to The Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, a so-so destination.
Scenario 3: The Panthers beat WVU, lose to UConn.
Despite the Panthers having beaten WVU head to head, the Mountaineers would have at worst the same conference record as the Panthers, and traditionally are a stronger traveling team than Pitt for bowl games. This would likely make WVU the Sun Bowl pick still, and Pitt, Rutgers, and UConn would all be fighting it out for the Continental Tire Bowl, with the Birmingham Bowl, and the International Bowl waiting in line. The Panthers are a bigger school and have more history, and still are headed to The Continental Tire Bowl.
Scenario 4: The Panthers lose to WVU, beat UConn
This would likely have the same result as the previous scenario, as the Mountaineers would definitely be the superior pick and they would go to the Sun Bowl and our Panthers go to The Continental Tire Bowl.
Scenario 5: The Panthers win one and lose, and Rutgers loses to Louisvilles
As I said before, the Scarlet Knights will determine if there are enough 7 win teams or not in the Big East to fill all of the bowls, and thus keep Notre Dame out of the running for a bowl game. If the Knights do lose, though, ND would likely take the Sun Bowl, and at worst would take the Continental Tire Bowl while WVU takes the Sun Bowl. This would leave the mess of less than desirable bowl games to pick among the clutter of Big East teams in Pitt, UConn, South Florida, Louisville, and Rutgers. In this scenario, though, other bowls that aren't conference-affiliated that didn't have enough teams from their affiliations to get 2 teams would be in touch with the Big East about getting one of their teams. And with the lack of good Bowl options, the Big East might let their highest-profile team, probably our Panthers, play in one of these bowls if it is viewed as being a better location. Some possibilities would be the Emerald Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, or Texas Bowl. Still, I think the Big East keeps the Panthers in house, so they go to the St. Petersburg Bowl, a decent spot with no history.
Scenario 6: The Panthers lose out
This is the doomsday scenario for Pitt, as they would have 3 straight losses and would be an unattractive team for any bowl. WVU sows up the Sun Bowl, red-hot Rutgers takes the Continental Tire Bowl, and the Panthers are left fighting for scraps with the tradition-less UConn Huskies, with one going to Birmingham and the other to Toronto. The bet is that Birmingham, which picks before the International Bowl, takes the Panthers and Pitt has a very poor attendance at The Birmingham Bowl. Ugh.

Updated Version of My College Football Playoff

It's been two weeks since I first made my college football playoff proposal in this space and gave the rundown of how it would look as of that point. Anyway I was thinking about that today and decided to update how that playoff system would look if the playoffs started right now, even though there are still two weeks to go in the season. If you need a refresher of the rules, or didn't catch it the first time around, click the above link for the details. So here are my 12 seeds, the matchups that would be produced, and how I think it would shake out.

1- Alabama
2- Texas
3- USC
4- Utah
5- Oklahoma
6- Penn State
7- Cincinnati
8- Florida State
9- Florida
10- Texas Tech
11- Boise State
12- Ohio State

So that would give us the following matchups:
First Round
Byes:Alabama, Texas, USC, Utah
Oklahoma vs. Ohio State at San Diego
Penn State vs. Boise State at Atlanta
Cincinnati vs. Texas Tech at Tampa Bay
Florida State vs. Florida at Houston

Second Round
Oklahoma/Ohio State vs. Alabama at New Orleans
Penn State/Boise State vs. Texas at San Francisco
Cincinnati/Texas Tech vs. USC at Orlando
Florida State/Florida vs. Utah at Dallas

Now try and tell me with a straight face that this tournament wouldn't make a ton of money and get a boatload of national attention. So, here's how I see this all shaking out:
First Round
Oklahoma 41 Ohio State 14- The Sooners roll over an inexperienced Buckeye team that is on it way to greatness, but isn't ready yet. Sam Bradford's potential Heisman campaign continues to gain steam.

Penn State 24 Boise State 10- I love Boise State and certainly have no affection for the Nittany Lions, but this is a case of the little guys not ready to play with the Big Boys. PSU isn't likely to put up any big numbers, but they throw talent at Boise State that the Broncos haven't seen before.

Texas Tech 42 Cincinnati 28- Hey look! It's two teams that got obliterated by Oklahoma. As much as I would love to say that the Big East could pull an upset, this isn't a good match-up for the Bearcats, as the Red Raiders have faced much better spread teams all year in the Big 12 and can easily keep Cincy's O in check while their own O goes to work.

Florida 41 Florida State 21- I must admit, I thought about changing the seeds around because these two teams will meet shortly in the regular season, but for now, the seeds stand, which is horrific news for the Seminoles who can't play with Tebow and company.

Second Round
Alabama 27 Oklahoma 21- The ultimate immovable object vs. unstoppable force game as the Tide's vaunted D takes on the Sooners potent O. The Tide are on too much of a roll, though, Roll Tide Roll.

Texas 31 Penn State 14- Another intriguing game, but the Nittany Lions can't hang with the Longhorns, as Colt McCoy and company coast on through to the semis.

USC 38 Texas Tech 24- USC cements itself as the trendy dark horse type pick with this solid W over the Red Raiders, as the Trojans demonstrate their talent once and for all.

Florida 45 Utah 24- The Utes are playing for the pride of the little guys, but Florida is not the team they wanted to get paired against. The Utes have been excellent this season, but the Gators are sniffing another title, and blow away the slower Mountain West champ.

Alabama 28 Florida 20- The soon-to-be SEC Championship game is played a second time, and the Tide prove victorious in a close one.

USC 41 Texas 31- USC pulls something of an upset as Mark Sanchez continues his excellent play and the Trojans, long considered the most talented team in the country, are clicking on all cylinders.

National Championship
USC 24 Alabama 10- The Tide just don't have enough offensive firepower for this one, as USC's lighting quick D is too much for Bama's offense, and the Trojans are able to muster up enough points to give Pete Carroll that elusive third National Championship.

So there you have it, at least in my mind. Please keep in mind that these projected seeds are based on where we are now, not where I think we will be in two weeks. That would be a whole different look.

So, if you agree, disagree, or just want to let me know how you think it would play out, drop me a line.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DeJuan Blair Takes A Seat, Sam Young catches fire

Word has come down that DeJuan Blair sat out tonight's game against Belmont due to a swollen knee. No real word on how bad the injury really is, but there is no indication from any sources that it is related to any muscle or ligament issues, so that is certainly good news. If he has to sit out a game or two or three in the next week or two and is back to 100% for the big games, it's more than worth it to make this short-term sacrifice. In his absence, Gary McGhee got the start and put together 16 minutes of doing his best impersonation of Casper, as he was an absolute ghost out there. He took 1 shot, had 1 rebound and 1 block in that time. The Panthers frequently went small with Tyrell Biggs, Nasir Robinson, and Sam Young taking turns being the "center" at different times. Gilbert Brown returned to the lineup tonight with 15 minutes, but looked like he was still trying to get his sea legs under him.

On a sort of related note, do you remember those old NBA Jam games when you would hit three consecutive baskets with the same player without the other team scoring and your player would catch fire and make shots from all sorts of ridiculously angles? Yeah, evidently that's Sam I Am Young right now tonight. Our Panthers idled along tonight, coasting to a so-so win by a score of 74-60, but Sam sprung for a ridiculous 33 points on 13/17 shooting, including a pair of long-range bombs. One caveat that is worth noting is that Sammy and Levance Fields combined for a sick 50 points, Tyrell Biggs and Jermaine Dixon complemented with 6 and 10 points, respectively, which means that the rest of the squad put together just 8 total points, a downright alarming number. I really don't think depth is something this team should really worry about, as this team has as much talent in as many positions as any Pitt team I can ever remember seeing. Still, a lot of these guys are pretty raw, and there are very few players who have shown the ability to consistently fill the basket. If several of the rotation guys end up struggling in a given night things like this will happen, and I guarantee it's not what Jamie Dixon wants to seem, no matter how good Sam is.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Some very interesting bits of news

Two bits of news have come down the pipeline today for our local teams and I figured that they were worth mentioning:
-The Pirates today announced that they had signed not one, but two young pitchers from....India? No, not Indiana, read that last word again. INDIA! Rinku Singh and Dinesh Kumar Patel were inked today by our PBC. According to the Bucs they are the first two Indians to be signed to a major professional contract outside of their country. I like the creativity, but India and South Africa are some strange places to mine.

-The Steelers brought Mitch Berger back into the fold as their punter earlier today. Its absolutely no surprise that Paul Ermster was released, as he had one of the worst games you can ever have for a punter Thursday night. Still, the signing of Berger seems a strange one to me. Berger was a mediocre option even when he was healthy, and after he tweaked his hamstrings he was nearly as bad as Ermster. I refuse to believe that Berger is the best leg the Steelers could find.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Weekend Recap

I wrote about half of what follows on the way back from the city of Queens...err the Queen City, Cincinnati, this morning following a wildly disappointing Saturday night performance from my beloved Pitt Panthers football squad. The remainder was pieced together in the waning minutes before the Sunday night return of the one and only Jack Bauer and on Monday afternoon.

It was a very erratic weekend in sports for us Pittsburghers. We reached a nice little peak Thursday, and it had the makings of a spectacular weekend if some things broke right Saturday, but that wasn't in the cards. What follows are the usual impressions from the weekend that was in Pittsburgh sports, with this particular weekend recap spanning a fourth day in Thursday.

-As I said, we hit a nice and easy high Thursday night with a pair of wins by our pro teams as the Steelers dispatched the Bengals in a pretty comfortable win. Though it wasn't the sexiest or most impressive win I've ever seen, they made few mistakes and the defense looks downright terrifying right now. The Pens were going at it with the Thrashers at the same time, and they put together a nice 3-2 win, with Sid the Kid piling up 3 points (1 goal 2 assists) and Dany Sabourin continued his solid, steady play of late. Friday night continued the upward trend, as the Pitt basketball team coasted past Akron in an 86-67 romp. Sure, the score was a little close for a game against a MAC team, but from the first-hand accounts I've received and the info on the stat sheets, it wasn't anywhere near 19 points type close. Sam Young had a solid 26 point effort and DeJuan Blair added the first of two weekend double-doubles. All day Saturday saw the traditional annual WPIAL Championship games at Heinz Field that bring with them a second tradition, the destroying of the already crappy Heinz Field surface. Saturday afternoon brought the Pittsburgh weekend to a crescendo with a very predictable walloping of IUP by the Pitt basketball team. From there, though, it was all downhill. The Penguins dropped a tough game against the frisky Vancouver Canucks, 3-1. And then of course, Saturday night saw the Cincinnati Bearcats take control of the Big East Championship race in a 28-21 win over our Pitt Panthers in one of the biggest games in recent school history. The final result did not give a good enough indication of the game, though, as Cincy was clearly the better team on that field, as the Panthers were outplayed, outcoached and outmaneuvered in a disappointing finish to the Pittsburgh games for the weekend.

-I predicted in this space last week that the Steelers would crush the Bengals, and while the score certainly wasn't close, the Steelers didn't put together quite the performance that I was expecting. Sure, the defense looked pretty darn good, but even though everyone is laying accolades all over them for winning that game, I personally wasn't satisfied. They clamped down on the Bengals' ability to move the ball, but one sack is pretty weak considering they were going against one of the worst offensive lines in football. But the D isn't what worries me.

-Nope, it's the O that is really vexing me these days. Big Ben was reasonably efficient, and Mewelde and Willie combined for nearly 100 yards, but this group is nowhere near in sync right now. Parker and Moore both broke off a couple of longer runs that boosted their numbers, but neither one was nearly effective enough running the ball, and while Gary Russell looks like an okay short-yardage back, he looks incapable of going any further then about 3-4 yards on a carry. Meanwhile, Ben still looked like he was having issues with getting the ball downfield and stretching the defense. The short yardage passing game was mildly effective though, and I think that we will see more of the underneath stuff to Mewelde Moore, as he was most dangerous in these types of plays.

-It was encouraging to see Santonio start making a difference out there. It was one of the best games he has had all season, and refreshses the hope I have in him becoming a legit offensive focal point. Of course, he did come down with a concussion from a ridiculously vicious hit by Chris Crocker to potentially further damage what has been something of a disappointing season from our young wideout.

-A few weeks ago in my live blog of the Steelers-Redskins game, I called for a new punter to replace Mitch Berger because of the two bad hamstrings that were causing him to shank far too many punts. This was not quite what I had in mind, though. I don't think I have ever seen a punter with such a bad performance at any level of football. I've seen numerous high school punters who can routinely boot it at least 35 or so yards, so I find it awfully difficult to accept that Paul Ermster is really the best that the Steelers can do. I mean that guy is indescribably bad. If he is still on the active roster for this Sunday's game in New England, I'm calling for an immediate coup d'etat against Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert (sorry, I added this reference after watching 24: Redemption and just couldn't help myself). I mean I love what those guys have done here and think they are both among the best around, but at some point, you've just got to cut your losses and move on.

-I like Marvin Lewis, he seems like a pretty nice guy, he has a solid (but overrated thanks to Ray Lewis' greatness) defensive mind, and could be one of the better defensive coordinators in football, but he is no head coach in this league. That ridiculous decision to kick a field goal when down 20-7 was one of the most boneheaded decisions you will ever see a coach make. After their first possession, it took them all game to get back to that point, and Lewis' decision meant that they were going to have to do it two more times after the field goal to get into the game. If the Bengals are going to get their organization going in the right direction again, they are going to have to get rid of Lewis and soon.

-Much has been made of the different style the offense has taken the past few games, and almost all of it has been criticism, and most of that has fallen on the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. I think that is mostly unfair. Certainly, he has not been the force he once was due to injury, but on Thursday night I thought he demonstrated a new kind of efficiency and effectiveness that we had not really seen previously in the mastery of the underneath stuff. Really, the big issue facing the Steelers now is not that Roethlisberger's shoulder is keeping them from playing their usual style of offense. The problem as I see it is that while the passing game can adapt, the running game cannot. The two most talented players at the running back position are both juking, jiving speedsters who work well in space and at making people miss 1 on 1, yet the Steelers continue to plunge both forward into the line hoping that the maulers on the O-Line can open a hole for them to scurry through. Moore and Parker are never going to be consistently effective runners right at opposing defenses, and yet this is the strategy that is continually employed.

Pitt Football
-Well, Saturday night was about as crappy as it gets for me. Sitting in the icy cold at that dump that the University of Cincinnati calls a stadium watching my team get outplayed all over the field while 30,000 idiot Cincinnatians (is that the right word? Ehh I don't really care enough to look it up) scream in excitement. And then, having to trudge back to your car through the frigid temperatures while people all around you taunt you for wearing Pitt clothing. It's a miracle I'm not writing this from the computers at an Ohio prison right now.

-Bill Stull is just totally and completely underwhelming, isn't he? He does just enough to make you say, "Yeah okay I guess he's better than Bostick" but he might be throw the worst deep ball that I have ever seen. It's not even consistently bad. By that I mean that sometimes he'll under throw Jonathan Baldwin by 10 yards, causing him to slow up and get hacked like Shaquille O'Neal as he tries to make a Larry Fitzgerald-esque catch, and then sometimes he'll throw it 20 yards over poor Baldwin's head, and sometimes he'll even throw it to a guy along the sidelines but throw it to far to the outside and it will be uncatchable out of bounds. You know the old addage applied to fast receivers about how you can't overthrow them? I think Bill Stull could find a way, and his arm isn't even that strong!

-It also remains a mystery to me as to why the Panthers don't utilize Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson more underneath and why they don't send Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner and whoever else more underneath as well. They throw WAAAAAAAAAAAY too many deep balls (for the obvious reason given directly above any number of deep balls is probably too many) and Byham was open on a number of plays 5-8 yards from the line of scrimmage in front of Stull and they just didn't want to look his way. It's completely insane. And Derek Kinder should not be trying to out-run one-legged people at this point he's lost so much speed from his ACL surgery, but he has very good hands and would make for an excellent option going across the middle, but he seldom does.

-I have become convinced this season that Dave Wannstedt can definitely be a success on the college level, but I remain very much unconvinced by Matt Cavanaugh. He had a very good game plan against Notre Dame when they had to throw Bostick out there and he has done a decent job in some other games as well, but he was a mess early in the season, and just when I thought maybe he was figuring it out, he goes and calls a game like he did last night. I mean, look at the way the Bearcats attacked Pitt's defense with the quick screen type stuff early on in the game because they knew Pitt's D-Line would rush upfield. In his four years here, has Cavanaugh ever come up with that kind of creative game plan? Hell no. He doesn't play to his strengths enough, and seldom seems to tailor a game plan according to a defense's weaknesses, and while those are common things to see at the NFL level, it's next to impossible to have a consistently dangerous offense when you operate that way in college football. I'm not calling for Cavanaugh's head (yet) as many folks have over the past few seasons, but I think the one thing standing between the Wanny era and consistent success is the lack of an imaginative offensive coordinator.

Pitt Basketball

-DeJuan Blair continued his declaration of war on all small schools, as his monster season continued to march onward with back to back dominating performances Friday and Saturday. A friend of mine who went to the IUP game said it was one of the most dominating 21 minutes he had ever seen a college player put together. As he put it "The IUP guys looked like they were going to (soil) themselves every time DeJuan crashed the boards." Only he didn't use the word soil. You figure it out.

-Sam Young's play at the small forward continues to be, as I put it last week, a work in progress. He is still downright lethal when he gets around the paint, and he is obliterating everything in sight defensively, but he is doing an awful lot of lurking out on the perimeter right now. His three point shot looks like it is slowly coming around, but give me the ticked-off, driving to the hoop, crashing the boards Sam Young any day of the week, even if it means we are basically playing three power forwards at the same time.

-Jermaine Dixon spent most of the weekend cooling off as he had just 9 points in 2 games after pouring in 20 in the first two. I think this puts his starting job very much in doubt for whenever Gil Brown gets back to 100%, but Dixon figures to have at least a few more games to prove himself before that happens.

-I am very much looking forward to that Pitt game on Friday, and no I am not referring to the Backyard Brawl (though of course I am looking forward to that one as well), but instead I'm talking about the Pitt-Texas Tech basketball game Friday night in the finale of the Legends Classic. The Red Raiders run a run and gun style of offense, and were involved in a ridiculous 167-115 win over some school called East Central that set back defense in the game of basketball by about 15 years.

-It was also just announced that the Panthers cracked the top 5, slipping past Duke and UCLA and into the number 4 spot in this week's poll. That gives the Big East the numbers 2,3,and 4 ranked teams in the country. Care to debate that ACC?

-It's a little hard to believe that the Pens are already at the quarter pole of their 2008/09 season isn't it? I think that's because it feels so much like this team is still trying to find a definite identity and still trying to round itself into shape with so many new pieces.

-Your NHL Goals against Average Leader right now? Mr. Dany Sabourin!
Of course by the time someone clicks on this, that could easily change, but there's no denying Sabo has been a very nice surprise this season, and yet again Ray Shero is justified in a highly questioned move by trusting in Sabo to be the backup this season.

-I know it's not Friday yet for links, but I just wanted to post another link to update you on the NHL All-Star Balloting race. At last check about a week ago, Sidney Crosby was in 4th place and Geno in 5th place for the forward spot behind those three Canadiens who are completely undeserving. Sid was trailing 3rd place by about 111,000 votes and Geno was trailing 3rd by about 140,000 votes. The latest results show some progress though. Sid is trailing 3rd by about 80,000 votes and Geno is trailing by 122,000. Still, though we can do better Pens fans. Sid and Geno both deserve this All-Star game start, and let's show these Montreal losers what real fans are. I'm not asking for much just a few votes a day here.

-It's looking like Ryan Whitney may be getting back into the lineup sooner than most people expected, as he has begun practicing with the Pens. It will be VERRRRRRRRY interesting to see what Ray Shero and company decide to do with the suddenly overcrowded blue line that we have known was coming for months. Originally the conventional wisdom was the Goligoski would be up here only until he didn't have to be anymore, but he has been very, very good, and I think it would be a huge surprise to see him sent down at this point in the season. Still, Shero has known this day was on the horizon for some time now, and I'm sure he has an idea crafted in his head. I expect Whitters to be brought along slowly though even when he does return to the ice, as a foot injury can be a tough one for a skater to overcome, especially a Pens defenseman, with all the shot blocking that they do. I expect he will need some nights off early in his return.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Pirates Column at Long Last

I haven't done much, actually anything, with the Pirates since firing this blog back up, and because they finally did something worth analyzing this offseason, I figured now would be a good time to take a look at them, so here's a little breakdown of their newly full 40-man roster as it stands after yesterday's additions.

Strangely, with the addition of Steve Lerud, the Pirates now have a stunning 5 catchers on their 40-man roster, a number that can't possibly last. And even worse, only 1 of these guys is actually a legit major league catcher.

Ryan Doumit- Doumit obviously enters the 09 season with the starting catcher job in hand following a breakout 2008 season when he finally was able to stay (mostly) healthy. He fully displayed the dangerous bat everyone had been expecting for years with a .318 batting average, a .357 OBP and a .501 Slugging Percentage. For those of you less statistcally inclined, he also had 15 home runs and 69 RBI's. All impressive numbers for the usually paltry catcher position. Doumit still needs work on his defense, but developed that aspect some as well as the season wore on. There's no reason why he shouldn't be able to be a building block for this organization for the foreseeable future.
Raul Chavez
- Chavez was one of the more surprising names to appear on the Pirates roster for most of the season. He proved to be an okay backup, but will be 35 on Opening Day, so surely the Pirates are looking elsewhere for Doumit's backup. It seems the Pirates like a few other, younger catchers on the roster, so I'd be surprised to see Chavez survive the winter on the 40-man, even though he did spend more time with the big club then these other options.
Ronny Paulino-
Fat Ronny will never cease to drive Pirate fans crazy. He continued to be wildly underwhelming in his limited time with the big club last season, and was thus demoted. He proceeded to declare war on AAA pitching, but in true Fat Ronny fashion, just as he was showing promise and it looked like he might be getting his act together, he got hurt and missed a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, I kind of doubt he'll be taken off the 40-man, as he has definite potential, and teams are always willing to take chances on 27 year old catchers, even if they do waddle as much as they run.
Robinson Diaz- I would peg this guy as the most likely opening day backup for 2009. The Pirates seem to like Diaz, who is only 25, and if there is any hope for getting Fat Ronny forever off the Pirates radar, it lies with this kid.
Steve Lerud- I was a little surprised by this addition to the 40-man roster. I know most teams are desperate for catcher help, but this kid is 24 and just had his first at-bats above the A level this past season with a whopping 146 AA at-bats. In this AA stint, he batted just .233 and struck out an alarming 42 times to go with just 4 home runs. He does have okay power potential, and the stats look okay as a fielder, but what in the above stats make the Pirates worry that they could lose him in the Rule 5 draft? Maybe they know something I don't (well, I'm sure they know a lot of stuff I don't) but this raised a serious eyebrow for me.

The Pirates currently have 8 infielders on the 40-man, but 1 (Jack Wilson) figures to be dealt, 2 clearly aren't major-league ready yet (Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez) and 3 have major questions regarding whether they are capable of being everyday or even platoon type players for the coming season (Andy LaRoche, Luis Cruz, and Brian Bixler). So what I'm saying is that we should definitely expect to see some additions to the infield in the next month or two.

Adam LaRoche- Let's pray to the baseball gods that the elder LaRoche finally has the rules of the regular season explained to him by someone, and that he isn't under the continued delusion that the months of April and May are some sort of extended spring training. If he can't put together even a decent April and May, I fear the Pirates will be buried in the standings before he wakes up.
Freddy Sanchez- Similarly, the Pirates need a full season of Freddy Sanchez at his full powers if they are going to stay competitive. Sanchez had a rough 2008 after signing a hefty extension in the offseason. His OBP was a downright abysmal .298, and his slugging was an embarassing .371. He was one of the least productive everyday infielders in Major League Baseball, and if this continues, that contract is going to end up looking like a horrible, horrible mistake. Still, Freddy had some health issues last season, and if he can rebound back to the .300 hitter with lots of doubles and a handful of home runs that he was in the previous two seasons, then the Pirates will at least have a steady bat in the order, something that could go a long way in a season where the offense figures to be tough to come by for the Pirates. It's worth noting as well that Freddy will be 31 in about a month, and if these injury issues continue, it may be time to start looking at a succession plan for that 2B spot.
Jack Wilson- Most everyone who was still following this team at the end of the season (all 34 of them) seemed pretty certain that Jumpin Jack Flash played his last game as a Bucco in September. I tend to agree with this assessment, but it is worth noting that there has been almost nothing on the hot stove about Wilson thus far. Still the offseason is just getting warmed up, and Wilson, soon to be 31 and with a relatively clean bill of health, figures to have several more solid seasons in him. Of course, it's wildly unlikely that any deal offered for Jack will even approach the ridiculously favorable offer the Tigers made to Dunce Littlefield two seasons ago when they offered up the talented youngster Jair Jurrjens, who is now fresh off a 13 win 3.68 ERA season. Grrrrr...
Andy LaRoche- If the end of last season is any indication, the younger LaRoche will likely be all but handed the opening day 3B job the moment he arrives in Bradenton. I'm not even critical of this approach, as there really isn't much else in the works for that position right now, but I think the strange Jose Bautista trade will end up haunting the Pirates a little bit. I like Andy and think he will develop into a solid 5 or 6 hitter, but I am a little concerned that the apparent lack of competition at his position might hinder his growth a bit, at least until Pedro Alvarez or Neil Walker are ready to challenge him.
Brian Bixler- Bix is now 26 years old and is probably running out of chances to develop into even a utility infielder for the Pirates. He had an alarmingly terrible .423 OPS last season, and in his 106 at-bats, he struck out more than twice as much as he got a hit (36 to 17) a statistic that nearly made my jaw hit the floor. But if Jack Wilson gets dealt, I think Bixler and/or Luis Cruz become a near lock to make the Opening Day Roster, unless a significant addition is made as well. I see this season going one of two ways for Bix: Either he figures out how to hit major league pitching and carves out a niche as a middle infielder capable of being a stop gapper, or he struggles again, is written out of the Pirates future plans and develops the dreaded AAAA player tag. Unfortunately, after watching him last season, I'm betting on the latter.
Luis Cruz- Cruz was something of a surprise, and if he can show the same kind of progress early in the season that he displayed throughout last year, he will officially pass Bixler as the best young middle infielder in the organization. He is a little more than a year younger than Bixler as well, and while his numbers after being called up in September weren't good, they at least demonstrated the ability to cope with major league pitchers, as he struck out just twice in 67 at-bats, and his OPS was far superior to Bixler at .547, though this number isn't
exactly encouraging, either.
Pedro Alvarez- It appears as though Pedro has instantly become the top prospect in the Pirates organization, passing a few long-heralded prospects like Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. It seems unlikely though that Alvarez will figure into the major league club's plans for 2009. The Pirates have made it clear that they will not hesitate to advance Pedro, but it figures to be tough for him to make enough strides to make anything but a September call-up appearance. Still though, few players in the organization will have their stats more closely watched by the fans.
Neil Walker- It wasn't that long ago that Walker was considered to be probably the number two prospect in the Pirates organization, behind only Andrew McCutchen. Now, after a 2008 season in which Neal Huntington worked deliriously to acquire prospects and Walker struggled mightily in AAA, he is probably on the outskirts of the top 10 in the organization. It also hurts his future prospects that he plays the same position as the aforementioned Alvarez and LaRoche, two guys whom the current management clearly hold in high regard. Of course, at 23, it's far too early to give up on Walker, and many guys have trouble making the adjustment to AAA, so Walker's play early in 2009 should tell us a lot about the kid. I think his numbers improve a good deal this year, and after spending all of 09 putting up solid numbers in AAA, he re-establishes himself as a nice prospect for the Buccos.

Rather bizarrely, the Pirates currently have as many outfielders on the 40-man as catchers- 5. And one of those 5 in Brandon Moss figures to be out for the beginning of the season. What I'm trying to say of course is that adding at least 1 or 2 outfielders this offseason appears to be a near certainty.
Nate McLouth-In an otherwise hideous looking major league outfield, McLouth is the only thing resembling competence. He's coming off a breakout season with the bat, and while basically everyone was critical of his Gold Glove selection, he proved he is at least capable of playing the spacious center field in PNC Park. It will be interesting to see how he manages being a focal point of the team for the coming season.
Nyjer Morgan- Nyjer put up some surprisingly solid numbers at the end of 2008, and with the rest of the outfield an absolute mess, he figures to get a long look in spring training for the Opening Day roster. I think it's asking for trouble to have him starting, but I certainly think he's earned the chance to be a fourth outfielder.
Brandon Moss- If Moss is somehow healthy by Opening Day he is certainly assured a starting spot, but that sounds like its a coin flip, at best. He showed promise last season, but the knee injury that caused the surgery is a rather serious one it seems, and there is a chance he might not even be ready to do any work outs on it until spring training rolls around, which would certainly cause him to stay behind in Bradenton.
Steve Pearce- After obliterating just about every other pitch that came his way in 2007, Pearce predictably came crashing back down to earth in 2008. He was mediocre in both AAA and in the major leagues, and the lone bright spot for him was that he finally was able to develop something of a power stroke at the major league level with 4 home runs in 109 at-bats. If Moss is out, as expected, then Pearce will likely be given a shot as at least a part-time player.
Jose Tabata- Tabata looks to have gotten his head on straight after some serious questions were raised during his time with the Yankees. He is only 20 and has as much raw talent as any player in the organization. He also looks to be surprisingly close to being major league ready for a 20 year old. I don't think we'll see him in the majors this season outside of a late season call-up though, as McCutchen figures to be first in line among the younger prospects to get a shot.

The Pirates boast 22 pitchers on their 40-man roster, and most figure to be given a chance to win a spot on the big league roster at some point this season. This is the most depth the Pirates have had here since the '92 squad was disbanded, but the quality still looks lacking at the top.
Jimmy Barthmaier- Barthmaier struggled last season in his limited time in the majors, and he turns 25 before they report to spring training. The minor league numbers he put together were promising, so he certainly won't be discarded even though the Pirates have added a ton of starting arms.
Denny Bautista- Bautista was an intriguing addition in-season. He has a live arm, and while he definitely had some struggles as a reliever, he has talent, and will be one of a number of guys in the mix for middle relief spots.
TJ Beam- Beam is similar to Bautista, and assuming both remain on the 40-man, he will similarly be fighting with others in spring training for the open bullpen spots.
Sean Burnett- After a number of injury beset seasons, Sean Burnett looks like he has found his place with the Pirates, as a middle relief, lefty specialist. He is still quite young, just 26, and is still growing into the relief role, so he figures to get better as time goes along. His end of season numbers won't knock your socks off, but he demonstrated a solid knack for the bullpen, and his emergence enables the Pirates to deal a guy like John Grabow if they get a good offer.
Matt Capps- Capps' 08 season was derailed by injury. He put together solid numbers and somehow still had 21 saves for the season. He is the unquestioned opening day closer, but rumors about trades have been circulating about him for years.
Jesse Chavez- It seems highly likely that Chavez will be among the first guys to be taken off the 40-man roster whenever the Pirates start adding a player or two through the free agent market or trades.
Dave Davidson- I would have bet that Davidson would not have survived this past season on the 40-man roster, as he is 24 years old, a reliever, by all accounts has very mediocre stuff and spent an entire season in AA, meaning he is likely going to spend all of the coming season in AAA, at best. I think a few of the journeymen will be removed from the roster this offseason before Davidson, but he's on the edge of being considered a prospect, and it wouldn't surprise me much to see him purged sometime in the future.
Jason Davis- Actually wasn't terrible last season in his limited time in the big leagues. Certainly wasn't anything special, either, and there is definitely a chance he is designated, but I think he has at least a decent chance to stick out the offseason on the 40-man because of his ability to start, be a long reliever, and pitch in middle relief. If the Pirates have to rely heavily on him their season is certainly in trouble, but he's not a bad guy to have around in a pinch.
Zach Duke- Barring a miraculous spring, it's probably safe to assume that the Duke will start 2009 in the minors, and if the Pirates have it their way, there will be no reason to hurry him back to the big leagues. He certainly has more than enough ability to be a back of the rotation type starter, and will only be 26 this season, so there is no reason to give up just yet, but the depth the Pirates have acquired at starter, and likely still will acquire this offseason, will allow them to have him do his learning in AAA rather than in the bigs.
Phil Dumatrait- His performance last season before the season ending injury was among the most surprising performances of the 2008 season. His season long numbers are mediocre at best, but he definitely showed enough flashes of potential to merit serious consideration somewhere in the Pirates plans, and at 27 he is young enough that he still can be refined somewhat under the watchful eye of Joe Kerrigan. He could definitely be an X factor for the coming season.
Tom Gorzelanny- The biggest flop of the 2008 season for the Pirates ended the season with a very appropriate ERA of 6.66, the (sort of) number of the beast. Gorzo just needs to forget about this past season, and listen to literally everything Joe Kerrigan tells him while forgetting everything Jeff Andrews taught him. At 26, there is a chance that the one-time potential future ace of the Pirates could well end up starting off in AAA to prove himself.
John Grabow- This guy has been rumored in about 500,000 trades over the past couple of years, and one of these days one might just happen. Until then, he will be a steady presence in the bullpen.
Craig Hansen- The young flame thrower had a rocky go of it after being dealt from the BoSox at the trade deadline. Despite the rough time, expect Hansen to be given every opportunity to win an opening day spot in the bullpen, as he has probably the best stuff of anyone in the mix for the few open slots.
Jeff Karstens- Karstens practically lit the world on fire his first two starts in the Burgh, and then absolutely fell off the face of the earth from then on. The true Karstens is probably somewhere in the middle. To me, he looks like a 4/5 starter, which means he is the same as just about every other starter in the mix for an Opening day slot, save Paul Maholm and Ian Snell. I think he will get a starting job simply because he can be an effective innings eater and is a solid presence.
Paul Maholm- Maholm was far and away the best pitcher on the roster for the Pirates in 2008. I, for one, could not have really been more surprised by that development. His 206 innings and 3.71 ERA were stellar numbers in an otherwise disastrous rotation, and he enters spring training as the only sure thing in the starting rotation.
Evan Meek- Many people who watched Meek early last season might want to throw up a little bit when they hear that he is in the mix for a bullpen spot, but I tend to disagree with those folks. Granted Meek was wretched last season in Pittsburgh, but he showed promise after being re-acquired and shipped to the minors. I'm not sure he opens the season in Pittsburgh, but I think we see him playing on the North Shore at some point this year, and I think he could be a useful arm in the pen for the Bucs.
Ross Ohlendorf- Ohlendorf was initially viewed as the best pitcher acuired in the Nady trade, but was quickly overshadowed by Karstens. After watching him in his 5 late season starts in Pittsburgh, I'm not so sure I see the appeal here. He does seem to have decent stuff, and can definitely put some zip on the ball, but his stuff just seemed very hittable to me. I don't know if his off speed stuff was struggling or he was still having difficulty re-adjusting to being a starter, but I am nowhere near sold on him. He will be in the mix for a starter spot, but I wouldn't bet on him, unless last season was just an example of too many things changing around him for him to succeed.
Romulo Sanchez- At 6'5 and 260 pounds, Sanchez is one of the biggest people in the organization, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. He seems to have Jimmy Anderson's disease (AKA he could stand to drop a few lb's). Still, he wasn't bad in his limited time in the bigs last season, so he'll get a shot for a middle relief spot.
Ian Snell- Similar to Tom Gorzelanny, 2008 could not have been much more disappointing for Snell. A year ago, most viewed Snell as one of the better young right-handers in the National League. Now? He's not even a lock to have a spot in what figures to be one of the least talented starting rotations in baseball. The flashes were still there for Snell, and I think he will figure some things out this season and re-establish himself as at least a middle to top of the rotation guy. I also think that, despite what Neal Huntington and others say, there is no way the Pirates stick Snell in Indy to start the season. The guy is way too good for that.
Jeff Sues- Few people in baseball would view a 25 year old reliever with a serious injury history who just reached the AA level in the past half-season as a legit prospect. The Pirates are not just any organization, though, and they named Sues their minor league pitcher of the year. Yowza. I really don't have anything else to add here, as I know little about this guy.
Ronald Uvedio- Uvedio is probably the biggest unknown on the entire 40-man roster. He is young (just turned 22), and has made only a brief appearance above Low A ball. Still, he demonstrated excellent control and has solid stuff. As a reliever, he certainly could have been a candidate to be snagged in the Rule 5 draft, so it makes sense that he was added.
Tyler Yates- Yates was one of the Pirates' best options early in the season in the bullpen. He clearly wore down as the season went along, though, as JR just went to the well with him too often. He demonstrated enough stuff and ability that I think there's little question he is a top set-up candidate entering the '09 campaign, though, no matter how painful parts of his '08 may have looked to some Pirate fans.

Pitt-Cincinnati Preview

Reporting Live From Cincinnati, we are preparing to leave our hotel room now for some heavy tailgating followed by what should be a very exciting Panthers- Bearcats Big East tilt, a game that could potentially decide the Big East championship (although the hated Brokeback Mountaineers stayed alive with a W just now over Louisville). Before we peaced out, though, here is the promised preview of today's matchup from Cincy for the coveted River City Rivalry Trophy.

Pitt Offense
The last time we saw our Panthers take the field a few weeks ago against Louisville, it looked as though some alien life form had inhabited their bodies. They were barely recognizable from the usual Shady-centric offense. Bill Stull, while still showing the usual inconsistences, was the driving force for the offense for much of that blowout game, with downfield passing and across the middle tosses that took advantage of the turf the Cardinals were conceding. Stull proved once and for all that you need to do more than just stop Shady McCoy in order to stop this Panther offense. Jonathan Baldwin had just two catches, but they went for 80 yards, and you could tell the abject horror he struck in the Cardinals' minds every time he took the field, as he continues to develop into the most dangerous receiver the Panthers have had since Larry Fitzgerald was donning the number 1. That's not to say that Baldwin is going to mature into Fitz, as he is much more raw than Larry was as a freshman, but his size and freakish athleticism make him just as imposing of a downfield target even if he doesn't have the total package just yet.
Still, though the Panthers final three games will rest squarely on the chiseled legs of one LeSean McCoy. He has blown past the 1000 yard mark and has 16 scores on the season, and if the Panthers are going to run the table and advance to a BCS Bowl, they will likely need 100+ yards from Shady every game.

Cincinnati Offense
Brian Kelly has continued to cement his reputation as a coaching-star-on-the-rise this season. 3 different Bearcats quarterbacks have thrown at least 50 passes, and yet this team is in contention for a BCS birth, a truly remarkable coaching job by Kelly in just his second (and maybe final) season in Cincy. Tony Pike is almost certainly going to be the man under center today for the Bearcats, and he has been surprisingly effective despite injuries and not even being the opening day starter for the 'Cats. Pike still has a bruised sternum though, so I am going to be curious to see how he looks early on in the game, as Pitt's pass rush has haunted a number of quarterbacks this season. Dustin Grutza, who was the opening day QB, lost the job after an injury, but has been very effective as well, and the Bearcats likely won't drop off much if Pike is forced out of the game. The real drivers for the Cincy squad are the top receivers, Dominic Goodman and Marshawn Gilyard, who are the second and third leading receivers in the Big East. Cincy also has a number of secondary receiving options, though none strike the same fear as those two. Their running backs also don't strike any fear in the Panthers hearts I'm sure, but they have two solid runners in Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. No one on this team has had a 100 yard rushing day all season though.

Pitt Defense
Given that the Bearcats are much more dangerous through the air, I think we should expect to see a good deal of the 5 and 6 defensive back packages that the Panthers like to deploy. Players like Elijah Fields, Andrew Taglianetti, Ricky Gary, and the other reserves all should get some serious snaps today. Because of this pass heavy offense, I think the ultimate key today is the play of the embattled starting corners, Aaron Berry and Jovanni Chappel, as well as the work of deep man Dom DeCicco, all of whom have been inconsistent for much of the season. If the Pitt defensive line can continue its recent dominant level of play, it could be a very long day for the banged Bearcats quarterbacks, especially Pike with that bruised sternum. Few injuries can be as painful as that sternum area, especially if monsters like Mick Williams, Rashaad Duncan, and Jabaal Sheard are falling on top of you all game long.

Cincinnati Defense
The Bearcats know coming in that they have to at least keep Shady in check if they hope to win this game. That's not to say that they will constantly put 8 and 9 in the box like Louisville did, as they certainly saw how that worked out miserably for the 'Ville. Still, the Bearcats are much better equipped to prevent any of Shady's long runs with their front seven personnel then Louisville was. They have a very solid defensive line led by Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel, both tough defensive tackles. Pitt's interior line will have have tough time pushing these guys out of the way, so Shady may have to make some ground up on the outside, a scenario that could either pay huge dividends (like the Notre Dame game) or could end up with McCoy struggling to even get to the line of scrimmage (like the early season games and the Louisville game). The Bearcats also have a solid secondary led by Mike Mickens, a tough cornerback who figures to match up against Baldwin and Derek Kinder most of the day. The Panthers will still get some of the bubble screens and underneath stuff they have had all season, as those are difficult to stop, but big plays could be at a premium against the Bearcats secondary. The key matchup will be Baldwin's height and ability against the Bearcat secondary's smarts and double teams.

Other Factors

Pitt has played remarkably well on the road, especially in big games, the last season and a half under Wanny, with big wins in places like South Florida (though that one looks less important every week), Notre Dame, and West Virginia. There should be no intimidation factor on the part of the Panthers playing on the road. That is definitely a good thing to have in their advantage, because this town has been surprisingly alive with Bearcat fever since we arrived here yesterday. Not surprisingly, I got into a big argument at some dumpy Cincinnati bar Thursday night while watching the Steelers take apart the Bungles. What was surprising is that we didn't almost come to blows over the NFL game, no instead it was the Panthers-Bearcats game today that caused the heated dispute and ended with us getting booed out of the bar. There are few things in life more amusing then listening to delusional Cincinnati fans talk about how great their football program is, when they have exactly like 1 year worth of tradition to back it up, and their coach is likely bolting to Tennessee after the season (this was the topic that led to the heated argument). And of course, for good measure, me and my comrades walked out of the bar chanting, "Kimo von Oelhoffen, Kimo von Oelhoffen" and "Ki-ja-na" "Ki-ja-na". And if you don't know what these references mean, I'm not sure we can be friends.

The Bottom Line
I think McCoy has a good but not great day with 100 yards or so and a TD, and Stull is his usual inconsistent self with a deep ball or two and a boneheaded mistake or two, and Brian Kelly's pass happy scheme breaks a few big plays against the war-torn Pitt secondary. I also think this one stays very close and very much in doubt for the duration, but the Bearcats lack of a run game hurts them in the end. Pitt 24 Cincinnati 20