Saturday, November 22, 2008

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

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