Big East

BBVA Compass Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh vs. Kentucky

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I admit that this game is big for Kentucky. You would much rather finish the season above .500 than below. There’s no denying that the extra three months, actually a little over a month, of practice will benefit them next season. Morgan Newton getting snaps under center as the No. 1 and then getting to start his second strait bowl game could be huge for his confidence leading into 2011. And the bottom line is that it’s always good to end your college football season with a bowl win.

But, the fact remains, I’m having a hard time getting motivated for this thing. It’s January 8th. It’s basketball season. And I’m not even one of those UK followers who holds the basketball team in higher regard than the football team. I live and die with every snap of the football. I don’t miss a game at Commonwealth Stadium. The LSU win in 2007 is one of my fondest memories. It’s just that it is January 8th. January 8th! You aren’t even supposed to play the NCAA Championship this late in the college football season, much less the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Bowl system is so broke. FIX IT!!!!

Still, the Cats have a game to be played and that means I have a job to do and that is preview the game for you. So now we take a look at the mustachioed-less Pittsburgh Panthers.

The Panthers finished the season with a 7-5 record and a three-way tie for first in the Big East with a 5-2 record in league play. West Virginia and Connecticut also finished with 5-2 records, but UConn was sent to the Fiesta Bowl to lose to Oklahoma courtesy of their head-to-head wins over the Mountaineers and the Panthers.

Pittsburgh entered the season favored by many to win the Big East and go on to a BCS bowl. Their failure to do so ultimately cost Dave Wannstedt his job, but not his mustache.

The head coaching situation for Pitt is a bit of a connundrum. After firing Wanny, they brought in Michael Haywood of Miami (OH). A few weeks after the hiring, the University of Pittsburgh was forced to fire Haywood after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge. With Wanny out and Haywood out before we even got to see what he looked like, defensive coordinator  Phil Bennett will serve as interim head coach.

With high expectations entering the season, Pitt got off to a slow start, losing three of their first five games. They lost at Utah to start the year, two games later lost vs. Miami, and two games after that lost at Notre Dame. Now, all of those games were against teams that went on to play in a bowl game, but it continued an on-going trend for the Panthers: they struggle in big time games.

They had a chance to pretty much wrap up the Big East title in their second-to-last game vs. West Virginia, AT HOME, but refused to show, falling 35-10 and creating the three-way tie. They struggle in big time games. Period. Many blamed these struggles on Wannstedt. But, I find it difficult to believe that a team that refuses to show up for big games will show up this time simply because there is a little less facial hair on the sidelines.

This team has talent, especially on the defensive end. They rank 11th nationally in yards allowed with just over 304 a game. But, the Big East had some terrible offenses and because of that they have four schools that rank in the top 12 in the nation in defense. They are only allowing 19.8 points-per-game, which ranks 20th in the land. But, once again you must look at their competition.

Competition or not, they have two ball-hawking corners that could cause any quarterback problems. Senior Dom DeCicco (6-4, 230) and sophomore Jarred Holley (5-10, 180) rank in the top 12 in the nation in interceptions with five each.

They also have 30 sacks as a team on the season, which ranks 31st in the country. The vast majority of Pitt’s sacks have come from their outstanding defensive line, which allows the Panthers to lay low on the blitz packages and focus on defending the pass.

While they have had success with their defense in Big East play, their offense has been kind of an up-and down story. They posted back-to-back 40-point games in wins over Syracuse  and Rutgers, marking the first time that they have ever put up 40 or more points in consecutive Big East games, but overall their offensive attack is nothing that will intimidate you. They rank 70th in the  land with 210.0 passing yards, 54th with 157.8 rushing yards and 69th in points scored with 26.3.

On offense they are led by a pair of sophomore running backs in Dion Lewis (5-8, 195) and Ray Graham (5-9, 195). Lewis leads the Panthers with 926 yards and is averaging 4.9 an attempt, while Graham has racked up 832 and is averaging 6.4. Lewis has 12 touchdowns and Graham has taken it to the house eight times and both players have touchdown runs greater than 76 yards. So they both have the ability to break one.

They have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, as well. Both players have more than 23 catches and 200 yards on the year. In fact, Graham ranks 31st in the country with all-purpose yards with 135.5 per-game.

Guess who ranks second? Our boy, Randall Cobb with 182.7.

Pittsburgh’s passing attack is led by first-year starter and another sophomore Tino Sunseri (6-2, 210). Sunseri has completed 65-percent of his passes for 2,476 yards, 15 TDs with eight interceptions.

The Panthers sport a tall receiving corps that will test the Kentucky secondary. Junior wideout Jon Baldwin (6-5, 230) is a big play monster and in three seasons has 19 catches of 40 or more yards, and 11 of those catches have gone for touchdowns. This year he leads the Panthers in receiving with 52 catches for 810 yards and five touchdowns.

Despite their success on defense in the Big East, I just don’t see them slowing down Kentucky’s offensive attack, even without Mike Hartline. The Wildcats moved the ball as well as anyone all season long. That didn’t mean they always ended up with points, but it was very seldom that teams were able to stop them completely.

With Morgan Newton under center I do expect the Wildcats to play a little more conservatively on O’s, but from the sounds of it Joker Phillips has been extremely impressed with Newton in practice. Expect them to let him go more than they did a year ago when he was forced into action after Hartline’s injury.

On the other side of the football, their two-headed monster at tailback has to concern Kentucky. Despite the fact that Pitt hasn’t always had a ton of success on offense, you have to take into account the Wildcats’ past struggles with running attacks. Now neither Lewis or Graham or power backs, which should make things a little easier, but still it unsettles you a bit when you know they have two guys back there that can hurt you.

Expect Kentucky to load the box and force Sunseri to hurt them with his arm. Five of his eight interceptions on the season have come in their losses. It’s important to rattle the first-year starter into some early mistakes.

Speaking of mistakes, Kentucky has to avoid them. Turnovers have been the key to Kentucky’s season. When they protect the ball they usually win. When they don’t, they lose. Their playmakers can’t fumble the rock and give a schitzophrenic Pittsburgh offense good field positions. Newton can’t force throws and allow DeCicco or Holley to turn the tide with timely interceptions.

The simple fact is that even without Hartline the ‘Cats have too many weapons on offense and Kentucky will score. As has been the case the entire season, they have to avoid mistakes. If they do, they will win.

Kentucky 27, Pittsburgh 23