DATE OF CONTEST: Saturday, December 5th
VENUE: Heinz Field
ADVERTISED START TIME: 12 noon
THE SERIES: Pitt leads 7-1
LAST TILT: UC notched their first win over the Panthers 28-21 on 11/22/08
Although the Big East does not have a championship game, this is essentially it and a wise schedule maker somewhere anticipated this whole thing. The conference benefits the most here as the two best teams (in the league) will duke it out to see who gets the BCS bid.
While Pitt comes into the game with a loss at North Carolina State and a league loss at West Virginia, they could still earn the Big East bid with a win over UC.
Doesn't quite seem fair (and technically UC has clinched the co-championship). However, as Brian Kelly said this week, "We don't play for co-championships."
The math is simple. UC wins and they're off to another big bowl. Possibly, with some help from Nebraska and some computer quirks, that game could be the BCS championship game. More than likely, it would be one of the big New Year's games.
A Pitt win would give the Panthers the edge since they would've beaten UC head-to-head. That would then leave UC at the mercy of the bowl committees. Strong lobbying could maybe land them a BCS bid, but despite Brian Kelly's political savvy, you don't want to rely on that.
You have to play the hand your dealt and that states that the UC Bearcats must travel to Pittsburgh and beat Dave Wannstedt's crew on their home field (well actually, the Steelers home field).
Really, this isn't an insurmountable task. Sure, this Pitt team is having their best season since 1982 when Dan Marino was QB, but this Cincinnati team is having its best season EVER.
I recall as a lad watching UC play at Pitt against Dan Marino and the Panthers throttled the Bearcats 38-7. As memory serves me, a defensive back named Freddie Logan picked off Marino for UC's lone score on that Mike Gottfried-led team. (Trivial minutia that proves nothing more than I've followed the 'Cats for a long time.)
This is no longer the 80s. Sure, Cheap Trick, Kiss and the Boss are still touring, but the college football landscape has changed dramatically.
For the first time, you can sense that when a team faces a Brian Kelly squad, there's some trepidation and uncertainty. No longer can a team come in and assume the Bearcats will be in awe of their past. Now they are somewhat in awe of the present.
Now, is the time for the "perfect present"--the continuation of the "perfect storm/season".
UC's offense vs. Pitt's defense
The Bearcats come in to this game as a known, and an unknown. Dave Wannstedt knows UC will throw the ball, they always do. Tony Pike has returned as the starter and is coming off a game where he threw six touchdown passes and took Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors. Mardy Gilyard is a threat once he walks on the field. So is Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. Should, you cover them all, TE Ben Guidugli will expose you out of nowhere. Then there's the UC that can run the ball. That team wasn't on the field vs. Illinois but did rip through West Virginia with Isaiah Pead racking up 175 yards. And, while Pike surely will start, there's the UC "Collaros" version. Might there be a situation for Zach? Heck, maybe they'll "dust off" the Bearcat formation with Travis Kelce. The key is, while Wannstedt knows what Brian Kelly does, he may not be sure of what he will DO. The Panthers should have DB Aaron Berry back to help in the secondary that Tony Pike torched last year with a 26-32 showing for 309 yards and three touchdowns. Big DB Dom DeCicco is their leading tackler and your lone Tri-State connection is also a DB in Jovani Chappel from Trotwood-Madison. Mick Williams, a DL built in the Terrill Byrd mode (6-1, 280) leads the Panthers in TFL with 15. Greg Romeus is the sack leader with 8.
NOD: Pitt will certainly be playing with some "edge" as they're at home. Unless it's a blizzard, I don't see weather stopping the passing game as both squads are full of kids from the northern regions. I would guess Pitt would be bringing the house trying to stop Pike (which they were unable to do last year). If UC can get some quick, short hitters and pull off a few runs, everything opens up. If Pike gets in sync, it all opens up anyway. As long as UC can keep the tempo up, I don't think Pitt can stop the pass. Somehow a 5-7 NC State team put 38 on the scoreboard against them.
Pitt offense vs. UC defense
The Pitt offense is all about "balance". The "Wannstache" says he wants to run the football and be balanced. Translation? He's a defensive-minded guy who wants to get a lead and then chew the clock up on the ground. Thing is, for the most part, they've been able to do that as Dion Lewis has been incredible as a freshman running back. Of Pitt's 11 games, he's only missed the century mark three times. However, don't assume Pitt is "run only". Bill Stull can hit a man and particularly has hit tall WR (6-5) Jonathan Baldwin and TE Dorin Dickerson numerous times. Stull can be inconsistent at times though. Wannstedt made the senior re-earn his job in the spring and Stull's parents won't sit in the stands at Heinz Field because of the comments the Pitt fans have thrown out. UC's defense has been disrespected all year despite the undefeated record. This could be a game where they could earn some serious BCS fans if they're able to stop Dion Lewis. It's not easy, but it's not like Pitt is hiding anything they're going to be doing.
NOD: Lewis probably gets his yards, because he's going to get his attempts. Should the Bearcats execute long scoring drives, that could change, but that's not Brian Kelly's MO. If they can hold Lewis to between 80-100 and keep Baldwin and Dickerson out of the endzone, it should be a successful game. I would expect a similar close game as last year's. (Although, UC did lead 28-7 in that one early in the fourth quarter).
Jake Rogers has kicked the ball consistently through the uprights and on punts the last couple of weeks. More importantly, his kickoffs have been strong and have kept the opponents from major returns. Dan Hutchins is Pitt's guy and (like Rogers) handles punts and field goals. He's adequate and similar to Rogers in his success numbers. Overall, Rogers has the stronger leg. Cameron Saddler is Pitt's main return guy, but he's no Mardy Gilyard. Gilyard is a threat every time the ball is in his hands and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Panthers kick away from him. If they do so on kickoffs, they still have to deal with Darrin Williams who has that "spurtability" to break one (and has against Southeast Missouri State).
NOD: On a crunch-time kick, you go with Hutchins at home due to his familiarity. This is a game where a Rogers field goal might come in handy as Wannstedt's crew can be pretty stout on defense. It could be the type of game where it's better to settle for three rather than risk a 4th and 3 around the 30 and come up empty. But, that's not near as fun, is it?
Throw It Out And See Where It Sticks
Wannstedt and Pitt will pull out all of the stops to win this and they have a great advantage in that it's a home game. However, some of those tickets have gone to folks who favor red and black. Also, with the Bengals sweep of the Steelers, perhaps this is the year Cincinnati has Pittsburgh's number all the way around. It won't be easy. Pitt will pound and pound Lewis at you and then try to hit you long with Baldwin and Dickerson. You can nearly take that to the bank. What you don't know is exactly what Brian Kelly will do. He's won with the pass, with the run, with both, and with multiple quarterbacks. Watching the West Virginia game, I saw a decent Pitt team, but certainly not an unbeatable juggernaut. Again though, that was in Morgantown and this will be a far more fired up Pitt squad with a BCS bid on the line. The trophy for this is for the River City Rivalry. It may all come down to who's the bigger "river city gambler". I know who my money's on.