Friday, December 5, 2008

Pitt-UConn Game Preview: Panthers Have a Lot to Play for

When Dave Wannstedt leads the troops onto the field in Storrs shortly, the Panthers will be playing for the right to be considered one of the best Pitt teams of the last 20 years and the breakthrough squad of the suddenly promising Wannstache era. Think about it: A win over tha always pesky Huskies and the Panthers not only have just their 2nd 9-win season in 25 years, but they also are set up for a shot at 10 wins in a solid bowl game (assuming the Sun Bowl is their destination). Others on the team will also have some things to play for as well: LeSean McCoy will be playing for a shot at the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. It Pitt wins and Shady goes off for a big day, expect him to take the award away from UConn's Donald Brown. If the Panthers lose or McCoy is sluggish, Brown figures to be the winner. Scott McKillop likely has the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award well in hand, but he could cement the award with yet another double digit tackle performance. And there are a few others on the roster that are playing for All Big East status and are borderline as of now. And of course, all the seniors are playing for this one. To go out on top. Of course, it doesn't get much sweeter than a Senior Day win over the hated Mountaineers, but after 3 years of frustration and underachieving, you know these guys want to say they put up 10 wins on the board and get a trip to a highly reputable bowl like the Sun. I mean, Charlotte (the next bowl down the list) is nice and all, and Birmingham... well I mean I guess it would be warmer there than here, but El Paso and a shot at 10 wins against an excellent Oregon State team is what they want.

Anyway, let's get to the details:
Panther Offense
After Billy Stull's late season regression, it's become very apparent that this offense is only going to succeed against good teams if Shady can be effective running the ball. I think by this point we know what we will see out of Cavanaugh as far as a game plan, as well. He will try to stretch the field a few times with Baldwin he'll throw some bubble screens and underneath routes hoping to catch a blown coverage assignment, and he'll give us a healthy dose of Shady while ignoring the vastly underrated LaRod Stephens-Howling, a talented player who could be a very effective weapon if the Panthers would use him more. But at this point, Cavanaugh clearly has no desire to change, so that's our game plan, regardless of who we are playing. So it all falls on the talented McCoy to carry the load and lead our squad to victory, and on Stull, who needs to at least have an OK game in order to reassure some very anxious Panther fans.

Huskies Defense
Because the Huskies O is so focused on ball control and long, churning drives, the Husky D is typically asked to prevent similar results from the opposition, and to help them convincingly win the time of possession battle. They have failed in that regard more than once, though, and despite having one of the top backs in the country, they have been outrushed multiple times. The Huskies D will be hurt by the loss of Greg Lloyd (yes, it's THAT Greg Lloyd's son) and his spot at middle linebacker is apparently being filled by a walk-on as another middle linebacker is also out, which is pretty much a death sentence when playing against a future first-round pick running back. While their linebacker corps is a little weak for this one, they have a highly disruptive defensive end in Cody Brown, who has 10 sacks and will be playing his last home game. They also have a solid secondary led by corners Robert McClain and Jasper Howard that could give Bill Stull some fits, especially given his recent performance.

Huskies Offense
If you think the Panthers rely heavily on LeSean McCoy to run their offense, then you are in for a bit of a shock when you see this UConn offense. They run the ball over 40 times a game on average and Brown gets the bulk of those carries, his future in the NFL be damned. They had a QB carousel this season that was essentially the opposite of the Cincinnati squad. That team won because they kept plugging in QB's who could win, no matter the circumstances. This UConn team has managed to string together 7 wins in spite of a dreadful series of QB's who've thrown 3 times as many picks as touchdowns. So long as they keep DJ Hernandez from taking any snaps, I think Pitt fans can breathe easy when the Huskies keep the ball with the QB. The Huskies also know that they will have a few weeks, at least, to rest up, so if they get the chance and if he is effective I am sure the Huskies will have no qualms about pounding Brown well over 30 times.

Panthers Defense
Everything filters through Scott McKillop, and he doesn't usually disappoint. He will need to string together a good game to slow down Brown, and the same goes for the dynamic tackle duo of Mick Williams and Rashaad Duncan. Because of UConn's dreadful "passing" game, there's little to really be concerned about with our woefully inconsistent secondary, and I'd expect Elijah Fields to see some playing time up in the box because of his size and the lack of downfield play I expect to see. Greg Williams and Austin Ransom will be important factors as well today. Both have played better than we could have expected from them given the circumstances, but they still have their struggles, and I expect UConn to attack them early and often with their stud back. How they respond will go a long way toward determining this game.

The Bottom Line
The Huskies have lost 4 of their last 6 games, and while the seniors would obviously like to go out on a surprising home win, it would probably have little impact on their bowl game, so the Panthers have at least as much reason to fight for this one. However, the Panthers have had a lot of trouble playing UConn, and are 0-2 in Rentschler Field. Then again, Cincy had always struggled against Pitt, too... Panthers 31 Huskies 21

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