January 8th, 2011/12:00 pm Eastern
Birmingham, Alabama – Legion Field
It’s a bit of a downer to get through all the big bowl games and be left with the BBVA Compass and Kraft Fight Hunger bowls to set the stage for the National Championship game on January 10th.
A once top notch stadium fallen on hard times, Legion Field, will be the sight of this bowl game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and Kentucky Wildcats.
It was a disappointing season for Pittsburgh, who had Big East Title and BCS bowl aspirations in the preseason only to finish 7-5 and end up in a lower tier bowl against of the bottom SEC teams. The season started off with a tough three point loss to Utah and only got worse from there and they ended up starting conference play at 2-3. To their credit, they went 5-2 in the Big East, but ultimately their struggles resulted in head coach Dave Wannstedt’s firing.
We all know what happened after that with the hiring and firing of Mike Haywood for off the field issues and the Panthers will try and weather that distraction through the bowl game.
Quietly, Kentucky will be playing in their fifth straight bowl game. The success that was started when Rich Brooks was roaming the Lexington sidelines has continued under Joker Phillips, who completed his first regular season with the Wildcats with a 7-5 record.
Kentucky continues to be a solid football team, but they haven’t been able to get over the hump to the upper echelon bowl games. Kentucky gave #1 Auburn a run for their money in Lexington and then came back the next week and upset then #10 South Carolina for their signature win of the season.
Kentucky, like Pittsburgh, will have to overcome off the field distractions in this game. Starting QB Mike Hartline was arrested early in December and was suspended for the bowl game, which will leave backup Morgan Newton making his first start of the season.
Newton has talent, but has only thrown seven passes this season in mop-up duty for the Wildcats. Kentucky’s success in this game will hinge on Morgan Newton’s ability to play with the lights shining brightest.
- Pittsburgh: We have all seen how much better Pittsburgh is when RB Dion Lewis is on his game. It was a tumultuous season for the sophomore running back who had dreams of the stiff-arm trophy in the preseason. He struggled mightily for most of the season and didn’t notch a 100+ yard rushing game until the seventh game of the season against Rutgers. Pittsburgh went 3-0 when Dion Lewis rushed for over 100 yards and if he can do it in this game, then Pittsburgh should walk away with the win.
- Kentucky: Few players in the country do as much for their teams as WR Randall Cobb does for Kentucky. Cobb is the heart and soul of the Wildcats and is a do-it-all player for them. He’s a receiver first and had 955 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns this season. He’ll also run the football, either out of the wildcat or straight out of the backfield, and racked up 401 yards with 5 touchdowns. If that’s not enough, Cobb threw three touchdowns this year and returns kicks. You’ll hear Randall Cobb’s name throughout the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
The key to this game will be how each rushing offense fares against the opposing rushing defense. Kentucky has a top-25 passing offense, but will likely rely heavily on the running game with Mike Hartline’s suspension. Pittsburgh’s run defense ranks 19th in the country and life won’t be easy for Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb when they try and move the ball on the ground. Pittsburgh is at its best when Dion Lewis and Ray Graham are running well. They should be able to find holes against a Kentucky run defense that on average gives up 170 yards per game on the ground. They’ll need to if they want to win as well, because I don’t think Panthers fans can be confident in Tino Sunseri’s ability to win the game by himself.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Passing Game: This game could very well come down to which QB is able to have the better game. Tino Sunseri has a solid season for the Panthers, but is more of a game managing QB and depends on the Panthers running game to open up the passing game. Morgan Newton of Kentucky will be making his first start of the season in place of suspended starter Mike Hartline. Also, both teams boast top-20 pass defenses and will not give up anything easy to the opposing team through the air. Pittsburgh and Kentucky both have playmaking receivers with the Panthers’ Jon Baldwin providing a tough assignment for the Wildcats secondary and Kentucky’s Randall Cobb doing the same for the entire Pittsburgh defense. At this point though, you have to have a little more faith in Tino Sunseri’s ability to have a better game than Morgan Newton.
Both of these teams have had to weather off the field distractions and the team to do so the best will likely walk out of Legion Field with a bowl victory. Even though these two teams combined for just 13 wins this season, they both have talent and playmakers that could provide for some fireworks. I think both teams will try and rely on the running game in this one and that should lead to it being sort of low scoring. I would like Kentucky’s chances much better in this game if they had the services of Mike Hartline, but I don’t think I can pick them with a QB making his first start of the season. I think Tino Sunseri will hit some passes and expect Baldwin to get a big play or two receiving, but I also expect Dion Lewis to have a big day on the ground to lead Pittsburgh to a close victory.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 24, Kentucky 20