Cincinnati for the first time that I can remember will be playing two ACC opponents in a single season. In fact, a third one is just around the corner in Syracuse. That’s the beauty of playing in a conference with only five teams, you can schedule multiple games with fellow AQ competition. It gives the Bearcats and the Big East the opportunity to showcase their skills to teams they would otherwise not normally play but are competing with for the best bowls. How ’bout that!
Ok Pitt and Syracuse are still in the Big East for the next two seasons. I guess my angst comes from the fact that now I have to watch UC play in a Frankenstein-constructed C-USA amalgamation of a conference. Also that pair along with TCU were expected to help garner a massive media contract that would rival some of the better payouts per school in college athletics. Well you can kiss that goodbye, along with the hopes of creating true stability in the Big East for the future and taking more power away from the basketball schools. No, I’m not bitter about it at all. Maybe a little. I guess I really can’t blame a school for wanting to get away from this cluster of a conference and the inept John ‘Meatball’ Marinatto. Through this entire process I have been campaigning the loudest for the Big 12 to invite Cincinnati along with Louisville and West Virginia. Basically if UC was in the same situation, I’d expect them to bolt and I’d be extremely happy about it.
But let’s move away from news surrounding the University of Pitt and starting talking about the Panthers themselves:
The biggest, most important news for Bearcats fans is that Ray Graham will not be playing in this game with a season-ending knee injury he suffered last week against UConn. Graham was pacing the team, and the rest of the conference for that matter, with nearly 1,000 yards on the ground, 9 TDs, and 120 yards per game. Having him out will be a big boost for Cincinnati but the team shouldn’t sleep on his backup Zach Brown, who is no slouch rushing for 4 TDs already as Graham’s backup. His running style is more of the ground-and-pound those Big 10ers like and is a leftover from the Dave Wannstache days. Of all the running backs UC has faced this season he reminds me most of Tauren Poole on the Vols. Pitt runningbacks have a history of playing well against the Bearcats so
At quarterback, Tino Sunseri has been average at best throwing for only 1,600 yards and has equalled his 7 TDs with 7 picks. His up-and-down season is very reflective of the Pitt offense as a whole. I suspected that transitioning from the pro-style to the Todd Graham-taught spread offense would be difficult for the Panthers and I was right. They are the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in the Big East this season playing very putrid football against Iowa and Notre Dame, blasting ranked South Florida with 44 points the following game, and doing next to nothing on offense in losses to Rutgers and Utah the next two weeks. In those games Sunseri looked very out of sorts and the entire offense fed off of that.
Some of the problems Pitt has had stems from simply keeping Sunseri upright. The Panthers offensive line has given up the most sacks in the nation with 36 and are facing a Bearcats defensive front that is the best in the conference. This is again a testament to how this team is adjusting from running the ball 60-70% of the time to throwing it 60-70% of the time that most spread teams like to do. Not helping matters any is the fact that offensive lineman Matt Rotheram was injured against UConn and will not play against Cincinnati. The one mark of consistency for the Panthers has been the receivers and, more specifically, how much Pitt spreads around the ball. Five receivers have caught balls for 200 yards or more. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan are legit threats and have to be accounted for by the UC secondary. I would add Cameron Saddler to the mix but he will also be out for this game. Across the middle, the Panthers seem to use their tight end Hubie Graham (Pitt loves their Grahams!) well who has almost 250 yards through the air and 2 touchdowns.
The Panthers opt for a 3 – 4 look like their big brothers the Steelers. Normally this defense poses a unique set of challenges for offenses to deal with but Cincinnati should be ready for it. As a spread team, the Bearcats see a lot of nickel packages where the defense opts for less defensive linemen and more speed (linebackers/defensive backs), much the way a 3 – 4 defense is built. Two weeks ago South Florida actually started the game in the nickel package but also ran blitzes while lined up in that way, very similar to the 3 – 4.
To the players themselves, the Panthers are again stacked at linebacker. That’s a good thing (for them at least) because to run the 3 – 4 defense properly a team needs to have solid linebackers. Brandon Lindsey was a well-known threat coming into this season and has played the tweener role of outside linebacker/defensive end much the way Walter Stewart did at Cincinnati before this season. He has is fair share of tackles but leads the linebackers with 4.5 sacks. Taking his place at the regular linebacker positions are Max Gruder, who has put up video game like numbers with 71 tackles so far this season, and Tristan Roberts.
To the defensive line and defensive backs (I did this weird, I know), the Panthers are led by Chas Alecxih and Aaron Donald who have a combined 64 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 11.5 sacks between them. Overall the defensive line does a good job creating pressure on its own and allowing the talented linebackers to shoot through the gaps and make plays. The Pitt secondary is the suspect area of the defense allowing about 250 yards per game through the air. They have also only picked off opposing quarterbacks twice this season and the only other interception on the team came rom Mr. Alecxih as I listed above.
The Panthers’ special teams unit has to be accounted for. Senior Buddy Jackson is averaging almost 30 yards per kick off return and has already taken one back for a touchdown. Pitt also defends punts well allowing only 5.83 yards per return (38th in the nation) and has even blocked one returning it for a touchdown against Utah. On the flip side of the coin, the Panthers’ punter Matt Yoklic averages only about 40 yards per punt which is 92nd in the nation. Junior Kevin Harper is the place kicker for the Panthers and has nailed about 63% of his field goals (not good) and 22 of 23 extra points (very good).
Cincinnati – 24
Pitt – 17
UC’s first bye a couple of weeks ago allowed me to rethink my game-by-game predictions for the Bearcats. I originally had Cincinnati beating South Florida and losing to Pitt. But with the Ray Graham injury along with a porous, injured offensive line, the cards are stacked in UC’s favor this Saturday. I’ll get to some of the keys to this game on Friday just relish in the fact that I haven’t missed on a prediction all year and will be wearing my red ‘Cincinnati Bearcats’ shirt for the game in which the team has gone 6 – 0 when I’ve worn it.