With injuries to Cam Saddler, Matt Rotheram, and more notably, star running back Ray Graham, the Cincinnati game on Saturday has been a little overshadowed. Without Ray, this game is going to be a real toss-up when it comes to picking a winner. Nearly every game in the Big East this season seems like it's that way going in.
The Panthers are going to have their hands full trying to contain the tenth ranked scoring offense in the nation led by the senior tandem of quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead. Collaros has been playing extremely well since his sophomore season in 2009. With 50 career touchdowns and only 22 interceptions in about two and a half seasons, he does a great job at getting the ball in the end zone without turning it over very often.
Pead has also been contributing since his sophomore season, topping 1,000 yards on the ground for the first time last year. His eight touchdowns this season already topped the six he had in 2010 and his career average of six yards per carry is one of the best in the conference.
These two players are the backbone of the Cincinnati offense and are directly related to the success of the team. In their first game of the season, the Bearcats put up an astounding 72 points against a much lower opponent, Austin Peay. Regardless of the strength of the opponent, 72 points is still 72 points. This team can definitely score and Pitt's defense will need to step up in a big way.
Defensively they rank surprisingly high at 25th in the country when it comes to points allowed. Through the air, their defense is very vulnerable, though, allowing about 286 yards per game. But with the second ranked rushing defense in the country, the Bearcats allow only 73 yards per game. They have held their last four opponents under 90 yards - two of which (Miami, OH with negative-3 and NC State with negative-26) actually lost yards on the ground overall.
So how will Pitt be able to win this game?It will all start with the defensive side of the ball. Getting to Collaros early and often will ultimately win the battle against the high-powered Bearcat offense. While Pead is a great runner, I do believe that Pitt's defensive line and linebackers will do a good job at containing him enough so that he isn't the focal point of the offense.
Pitt cannot let Collaros stand in the pocket and pick apart the secondary. Big gains through the air take a lot of momentum away from the defense even if they are playing well against the run. If Pitt can shut down the passing game as much as possible, it should result in a win.
Last season, Pitt shut down Collaros and the passing game allowing just over 100 yards while intercepting three passes. The Panthers won that game by 18 points and also held Pead under 100 yards on the ground. If Pitt can do the same thing this time around, they will give their offense a great shot at winning the game.
The second thing that Pitt must do is get good quarterback play from Tino Sunseri. If the defense plays well, Tino isn't going to have to put up the huge numbers he had last week against UConn. As long as he keeps the ball out of the hands of Bearcat defenders, Sunseri will be doing his job. While most people think that this offense has to be led by a huge performance every week from Tino, I believe Pitt can survive with even average play as long as he doesn't turn the ball over and the defense does its job.
Sunseri's performance last season wasn't as good as he would have hoped. He threw for only 168 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. The offense was lead by a monstrous day from Dion Lewis, totaling 261 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. Like I said earlier, the Panthers can win if Sunseri simply manages the game and ensures that completed passes land in the hands of players wearing Pitt jerseys. I am a big believer that turnover margin is one of the biggest factors in any given game.
If the Panthers can manage to do these two things, I have faith that they will ultimately win the game. This game comes down to a battle of the quarterbacks and how they fare against the defenses. If Collaros can be pressured and forced to make some bad throws that result in turnovers while Tino plays a solid game without turning the ball over, Pitt should come out on top.