Who the Heck is Pitt Playing: River City Rivalry Edition

Quitting a summer job never felt so good. On to the next preview.

Who the heck is Pitt playing? The Cincinnati Bearcats

When and where are we playing? Saturday November 5th at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Kickoff is TBA (Big East game, expect a nooner)

Why should I care? RIVALRY GAME! A conference game as well. Plus Pitt needs to get some sort of revenge after the last time Cincy was in Pittsburgh.

Have we played these guys before? Yes. Last season, Pitt beat the Bearcats in Cincinnati 28-10 to claim a share of the Big East title (Big East champs!) to break a two-game losing streak to UC. Pitt leads the all-time series 8-2.

What conference do they play in? The Big East

How did they do last season? After going to two consecutive BCS games with Brian Kelly, the Bearcats under Butch Jones was not nearly as good. They were 2-5 in the Big East, 4-8 overall, with losses to Fresno State, NC State, and a close loss to Oklahoma.

Who's the coach? Butch Jones, who in his first season in Cincinnati went 4-8. 

How many starters return? Five on offense, 11 on defense, one kicker/punter

What's the offense like? Butch Jones, just like when Brian Kelly was there, runs a spread offense with the Bearcats. Cincinnati, again similar to when Brian Kelly was coaching, was strong on offense in 2010 under Jones, who was hired as the head coach following Kelly's departure at Central Michigan and now Cincinnati. Cincy averaged 417 yards of offense per game, which was 32nd in the country - by far the best in the Big East (The next team was West Virginia, who averaged more than 40 yards less). Both attacks were fairly strong, although one was slightly better than the other. The passing game averaged 260 yards/game, good for 28th, while the rushing attack averaged 157 yards/game. However, even with that amount of yardage, they only scored 27 points/game for all that offense. So what was the reason? 29 turnovers. Can the Bearcats avoid a similar fate in 2011? Well, to be honest, I don't think the offense is the real problem with this team, but Cincinnati is a team that can handle shootouts and win them if they can hold on to the ball more. That will make the games against the Panthers exciting ones in the future.

The quarterback position is a solid one for the Bearcats. Led by senior Zach Collaros, the Bearcats will be fine, unless of course he is lost to injury. What do you want Collaros to do? Pass? He threw for almost 3,000 yards a year ago with 26 TDs and 14 picks, though his completion percentage (just under 59%) needs to be a little higher. Run? Collaros is a good scrambler and has speed to break away for scores. He rushed for 200 yards and four scores. In short, he is a good QB. As for the backup spot, there are two main competitors in Munchie Leguax and Jordan Luallen. Leguax seems like the QB of the future. He's tall (6'5") and has speed and a big arm, so he should theoretically be the backup at this point. But regardless, the QB position is fine and there are definitely bigger areas of concern on this offense. 

The Bearcats are also set at running back with Isaiah Pead as the starter. Pead rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2010 and six scores. He also had 26 receptions for just under 200 yards and a score and many are expecting big things from Pead, calling him "The Wonderman," After Pead, there are some good options. A former Pitt commit Jameel Poteat is a potential stud in the backfield. If there was an area where Wannstedt found gems, it was at RB, with NFL players like LaRod Stephens-Howling, LeSean McCoy, and Dion Lewis ... not to mention up-and-comer Ray Graham. The hope was there that Poteat could be a similar player at Pitt, but now he is with the Bearcats and he could very well be a similar back for Cincy. Another freshman vying for playing time would be Akise Teague

At wide receiver, the Bearcats have one sure target in senior D.J. Woods. Woods is the leading returner in receptions, yardage, and scores from a year ago with Cincinnati losing Armon Binns to graduation. Woods managed 57 catches for 898 yards and eight TDs, which make him the clear #1 receiver heading into 2011. The other two receivers that should figure prominently in the Bearcat offense will be junior Kenbrell Thompkins and Dyjuan Lewis, who have the potential to be great, but no experience or stats to really back it up. But in this offense, they are going to get plenty of opportunities. As for other names to watch, Anthony McClug is the only other returning receiver with double digit receptions a year ago with 22 catches for 217 yards. After McClug, there's not much proven talent. SB Nation's Cincinnati blog Down the Drive likes the immense potential in this group.

The potential is off the chart. This is probably the deepest most talented WR. core in the current spread era. But the lack of proven production creates some cause for concern. Regardless, there is enough he(re) to fashion one of the most productive receiving cores in the conference.

Potential is nice, but how many times have we seen players with loads of potential not pan out accordingly? That's why this unit is an area of concern, especially in this pass-heavy offense.

The offensive line is where Cincinnati is going to run into some problems. There are three positions on this line where UC will be fine - RT Alex Hoffman, LG Randy Martinez, and LT Sean Hooey, Hooey a little less than the other two due to position changes, but the talent is there. It's the other two positions where Cincinnati may have issues - center and RG. The center position will be given to Evan Davis, who did not fare well last season and while hopes are that another year in the weight room and in camp will help Davis improve, it's still isn't encouraging to know how difficult it was for him in 2010. At right guard, the concern isn't so much poor play but rather lack of experience. There is a competition for starter between Austin Bujnoch and Andre Cureton. Both have talent to play the position, but little experience - and that's what is a concern ... especially after the line allowed more tackles for loss and sacks from 2009 to 2010. Cincinnati will need improved play from this line if they hope to get back to the upper half of the Big East.

The offense, like in recent years, is going to gain yards. A lot of yards. It'll be up to the line to create spaces for the RBs and allow time for Collaros to get a good pass off. The WRs will also need to find proven depth in the multitude of options. The key stat to watch for Cincinnati is turnovers. 29 turnovers over 12 games is far too many for any team to win games consistently. Can Collaros cut down on the picks? Can the team cut down on the number of fumbles? I want to believe so, as Jones as done well following Brian Kelly as head coach. We'll have to see how year two is for Jones.

Ok, now what about the defense? The defense will work out of a 4-3 set. Cincinnati is fortunate in that they return 11 starters from 2010. No joke, they return literally every starter at each position on defense - a rarity in the college game. Like St. John's in basketball last season, the hope is that all the returning players will lead to better play. And while they were alright in 2010 (the defense allowed 369 yards/game), the passing defense left something to be desired, allowing 234 yards and 25 TDs while only picking off eight passes. Luckily, the rushing defense was fine, allowing only 135 yards a game and 19 scores while limiting opposing teams to 28 points/game. What really killed this Cincinnati defense was a lack of turnovers; Cincinnati had a turnover margin of -15, forcing only 14. That was second worst in FBS and it makes sense why Cincinnati was only able to win four games a year ago. But, like I said, with all that returning experience, the defense should get better.

Starting up front, the key thing to know is the move of Walter Stewart from OLB to DE. Stewart spent two years as a LB, one in a 3-4 under Kelly where he was a great fit and one in a 4-3 where he struggled. But now he returns to his more natural position and that should improve what was already a strong rushing defense and help with rushing the QB. Paul Myerberg at Pre-Snap Read likes the move as well.

Moving Walter Stewart (60 tackles, 2 sacks) back down to end from outside linebacker, where he spent last season, does four things for this defense: one, it puts Stewart back in a more fitting role; two, it beefs up the pass rush; three, it gives U.C. another presence to take some pressure off tackle Derek Wolfe (48 tackles, 4 sacks); and four, it pushes Brandon Mills (58 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 6 sacks) into a situational role, one where he’ll be a menace. It’s amazing what one move can do, isn’t it?

Joining Stewart on the line will be DT Derek Wolfe, which as Myerberg writes above, will see less of a focus on him from offensive lines. John Hughes and Dan Giordano will also start at NT and DE respectively. But several players can jump in and fill in nicely for Cincy, such as Mills at end or along the interior. Another player to watch will be sophomore Jordan Stepp, who performed well in a backup role in 2010. The line will be a strength for UC and clearly the strength of the defense.

Linebackers figure to be an area of concern. J.K. Schaffer will be the middle linebacker and hopes to register over 100 tackles for the 3rd season in a row. On the weak side, Malik Bomar should get the starting nod after registering 70 tackles and eight tackles for loss in 2010. The strong side linebacker is unsure at this point; the starting nod to go to either Ben Pooler or Solomon Tentman, both of whom have had their fair share of injury concerns. But there's very little experience and while there is more depth than last season, the lack of experience is the main problem.

The secondary is one to watch as well. CB Dominique Battle is a lock at starter, although the question is whether he is healthy after a knee injury sidelined him for most of 2010. FS Drew Frey also has a spot on the starting lineup. But who else? The defensive backfield was hit hard by injuries in 2010 and it showed in the number of big plays and the few interceptions. At SS, the battle for starting is between Malcolm Murray and Wesley Richardson, with Malcolm being just ahead due to his talent. At the other CB position, the battle looks to be between Reuben Johnson and Cameron Cheatham. Cheatham started ten games last season, but Johnson may be the leader after Cheatham's poor play in 2010. In nickel formations, Chris Williams will be the nickel back. The secondary should be the primary benefactor of returning every starter, but it remains to be seen as to whether the improvement will be enough to return Cincinnati to a bowl game.

The backfield is a huge concern. The linebackers are as well, but to a much smaller extent. Which is surprising when you consider that all the starters return. But the troubles that plagued this team a season ago are still there and it's tough to say how much the defense will improve. The line will be fine, the linebackers have potential to be good, and the secondary is a work in progress. Like the offense, the stat to watch is turnovers. Cincy hardly forced any turnovers in 2010 and it remains to be seen whether that number will increase. I don't think the number of picks will increase dramatically, there are too many questions in the defensive backfield. As it stands right now, the defense, despite returning everyone, is far behind the offense.

What about the special teams? Cincinnati does return one of the top punters in the conference in Patrick O'Donnell, which helps. Placekicking duties will be held by either Shane Popham, Tony Miliano, or Danny Milligan. The return game will feature Akise Teague as the primary returner.

Prediction? I like Pitt in this game. One, because it's in Pittsburgh and two, the defense of Cincinnati is a big concern. If the Pitt offense is in full gear and working fine, I don't see the defense stopping it ... although we all know what happened last time we got into a shootout with Cincinnati. But in the end, I see Pitt winning 35-17.

Stats come from the NCAA.

Information on Bearcat starters come from SB Nation's Cincinnati blog Down the Drive and Paul Myerberg's Cincinnati preview.

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