Friday, November 7, 2008

Pitt Football: Weekend Preview

Our beloved Pitt Panthers match up tomorrow at noon against the Louisville Cardinals in what is a pivotal game for this squad. A W will cement their status as a legit Big East conference contender, and will set them up to play for a spot in a BCS Bowl over their final three games. It would also cinch a bowl appearance for them, their first since 2004.

Laying another Heinz Field egg, though, would be a devastating development, and would further retard the progress they are trying to make in winning over the Pittsburgh fan base, and with a brutal 3 game stretch to finish the season, it would once again put their bowl hopes in some jeopardy.

And so, with that in mind, here's a quick look at what we can expect to see on the field when the Panthers battle the Cardinals:

Pitt Offense vs. Louisville Defense:
The Panthers offense has been all over the map all season long, but as everyone knows, this group goes only as Shady McCoy takes them. Billy Stull is going to be back under center, and while he hasn't exactly been Dan Marino, or even Tyler Palko for that matter, but he's also at least a steady hand for this offense. I think Pat Bostick did an admirable job last week filling in, and I still have faith in him long-term, but Stull is clearly the superior option for now. And while Stull still has difficulty with throwing the ball downfield, he has at least managed to connect with Jonathan Baldwin multiple times on the deep ball, and when big number 82 is in the lineup for Pitt, he's probably the team's second most terrifying weapon for opposing teams. I also want to give some credit to the Pitt offensive line for their increasingly strong play. They did a nice job last week against ND, and both run and pass blocking have improved a considerable degree since the season began.

The Cardinals defense, by all accounts, is a very athletic bunch. But like many athletic defenses, there are serious questions about their discipline. They can be especially vulnerable in the running game, and that is what I think could be the key point of the game for both sides. If Shady amd LaRod can break off some big plays and consistently run on this defense, it will be a long day for the Cards. However, they have also shown an ability to be suffocating for stretches. They absolutely shut down USF and K-State (among others), but got absolutely burned by Syracuse (over 200 yards!) and Connecticut in their losses. The pass defense for the Cardinals isn't prone to giving up big plays due to their speed, but we know Pitt will try to break a few downfield, so that will be a very interesting matchup, as well.

Cardinals Offense vs. Pitt Defense
Steve Kragthorpe has sort of remade the once explosive Cardinal offense since his hiring. After watching Brian Brohm sling it around the last few years, it has been startling to see the Cardinals consistently throw for 200 or so yards a game while their running game goes wild. They have three talented running backs, but bazzling freshman Victor Anderson is the real threat. He is a home run hitter and might be the most dangerous back the Panthers have faced all year. With Pat White, Noel Devine, and Donald Brown all playing the Panthers in the next month, how they handle Anderson and the other Louisville backs will be worth keeping an eye on. Cardinals QB Hunter Cantwell has done a serviceable job as the QB but has some accuracy issues and makes his share of mistakes, with 10 picks already this season.

Pitt's defense, meanwhile, is coming off what is likely their best stretch of the season, from the end of the first half of the Notre Dame game onward. Jabaal Sheard really broke out in the game as a major disruptive force, and the young sophomore has the look of a potential star in the making. The other linemen, especially Mick Williams, also had excellent games against the Irish, and that group really looks to be rounding into peak form. The linebackers continue to mature, as Scott McKillop continues his dominant play, Austin Ransom has done a remarkable job being that he was just very recently playing on the other side of the ball, and Greg Williams has the athleticism to be a legitimately special player thanks to his spectacular athleticism. The secondary still has some major issues to work out, but I still believe in Aaron Berry, and think that after a rough start, Dom DeCicco could be a solid free safety after all.

The Bottom Line
Neither one of these teams has shown much in the way of being able to dominate an opponent of roughly equal ability, so I fully expect this one to stay pretty close for pretty much the entirety. Shady McCoy has been on an absolute roll after the slow start to his season, and he has also been an absolute touchdown machine out there. Louisville's run game will likely give the Panthers some problems though, too. I also think that all this running will keep the score a little on the low side as both teams try to focus on controlling the clock.

My Best Guess: Pitt 24-17

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