Pitt Vs. Iowa Football: Cardiac Hill Game Preview

Game preview a little late this week with expansion talk, the quarterback controversy, Pirates games, and all kinds of other stuff. But nevertheless, here it is.

Pitt's first true test of the season comes on Saturday against Iowa:

"You know, and I know, the first two opponents aren't anything like the next opponents coming up," Graham said at his weekly news conference on Monday. "And naturally, our guys, they know what they are in for. And when you are going to Iowa to play, I have great confidence they will be ready to play."

Now, we've been hearing so much about Pitt's first two games. Well, the Maine one, actually, is the one drawing the most ire. But I'll buy the fact that the Panthers could have played down to their competition as Graham said in his press conference. That said, there shouldn't be any of that this weekend, obviously.

I wrote back in July that I really had no idea what to expect in this one and that's still pretty much the case. We know so little about either team at this point that it's difficult to get a good feel for the game. The Panthers are 2-0, but both wins have been lackluster. Iowa is 1-1, but their one loss came in a rivalry game against a BCS AQ foe in overtime. One thing's for certain, though - we should know much more about Pitt after this one.

The big thing to look for in this game? Obviously how Tino Sunseri does at quarterback.

Graham seemed to defend Sunseri saying there was no controversy immediately after last week's game, and while he hasn't backtracked from that, he's not been giving him a ringing endorsement, either:

"Has he played well? No, he hasn't played well. He has made some good plays, but he has to play better and execute our system.

"I have a lot of confidence in him. I have seen him do it in practice. I have seen him do it in games. In this system, there is no question I think he can be successful."

...

"We are a timing passing team -- 1-2 and out on our quick passing game; 1-2-3 and out on our drop-back passing game," Graham said. "The play has no chance because we are not reading what we are supposed to be reading, and we are not getting the ball off on time.

 

"There are about 10 or 12 plays a game like that. Then, the play breaks down, and it becomes a mess. Fans get frustrated. We get frustrated."

Graham said he counted eight sacks in two games while Pitt was aligned in a maximum seven-man protection scheme.

"I would tell you we haven't been sacked four times in four years (in maximum protection). That tells you where we are at. We, obviously, don't understand that."

I've said all along that regardless of what Graham says, there is indeed a quarterback controversy. Not in the sense that we're unsure who's going to be starting - that's clearly Tino. But in the sense of how long does Graham stick with Tino if he struggles. it's pretty obvious to me that if Sunseri plays poorly this Saturday, we're going to see Trey Anderson.

Then there's the kicking game to worry about. This is expected to be a close game (last I checked, -3 Iowa) and if it is, how do you not give the advantage to the Hawkeyes at this point? They're playing at home and Pitt's kicking game, should the contest come down to a field goal, has been questionable at best:

"Our kicks have been bad, we've just missed field goals, but Kevin Harper is a guy I think has as much ability as any kicker I've been around, so we've just got to iron that out.

Unfortunately for Pitt, based on what we've seen, the Panthers don't look like they're going to be blowing out a lot of teams. Field goals are going to be such an integral part of winning games and they'll need Harper to do well. After Sunseri, I'm probably the most interested to see what Harper does in kicking in his first road game as the starter.

And, oh yeah - if you were thinking Pitt's offense might be something new to Iowa this season, think again:

The Hawkeye defense will face a familiar offensive style in Pittsburgh with the team employing a high-paced, spread offense, similar to Iowa's first two opponents in Tennessee Tech and Iowa State.

"What we are going to see Saturday is probably a lot like we've seen the last two weeks," said Ferentz at his weekly press conference inside the Hayden Fry Football Complex. "The bad news is I hope there is no carryover.

So with all this doom and gloom, looking for a glimmer of hope? That'd be Ray Graham. Graham is not only the leading rusher in I-A right now, but Iowa hasn't been all that great against the run this year. They've allowed two 100-yard rushers in their first two games and neither guy has much of a track record. The thing is that I'd expect Pitt to try to run it down Iowa's throat, anyway. But with all the talk about Tino and the passing game struggling, expect even more of a heavy dose of Graham - maybe to the tune of 30 carries if need be.

And if you want another possible area for exploitation, there's the return game:

"I'm concerned about our kickoff team right now, mainly because we've been riding a roller coaster it seems like forever," Ferentz said. "With the work that we have to do defensively, to think that we can let somebody start with the ball on the 40, 45, 50 (yard line) or the other side of the 50 week in and week out, that's just not very realistic."

What used to be a weakness could be turning into a strength. I've been encouraged by Ronald Jones returning kicks, and while it's only been two games, he doesn't look like a freshman at all. He's confident, looks sure of himself, and seems to make something out of nothing. Would be nice if he could break off a long return or two.

Another 'under the radar' thing to keep in mind is that while this is one of three tough out of conference games for Pitt (along with Notre Dame and Utah), this is really Iowa's big OOC matchup. They have four non-conference opponents this season and Pitt is the only one of considerable consequence. Sure, I get the fact that Iowa State is a rivalry game, but the Cyclones aren't a very good team - especially since they squeaked out a one-point victory against Northern Iowa. Expect the Hawkeyes to come out keyed up for this game.

Prediction time: Seems Iowa fans are pretty well split on how this one will turn out. My favorite prediction from this message board? This.

Panthers beat Buffalo (2-10 last year) by a 35-16 count and 1-AA Maine (4-7 last year) 35-29. They were 8-5 last year, but they play a Wednesday and Thursday game this year so it's hard to take them seriously.

Iowa 24
Pitt 19

So we're basing predictions on what night of a week a team plays? Riiight.

So where do I stand on this one? To me, this is the definition of a pick 'em. I'll give the edge to Iowa since they're at home, but if Pitt can get Graham going, there's no reason to think they can't win this game. The offense is still a ways away, though, as we've seen, and the normally reliable defense hasn't been very good. Pitt's really going to have to play significantly better than they've done so far to come away with a win.

But who cares what I think? The most important prediction is obviously that from NCAA '12:

Iowa 34, Pittsburgh 27: Tino Sunseri is 7/23 for 113 yards and Ray Graham doesn't crack 100 yards rushing as the "high octane" offense sputters for Pitt. Iowa turns the ball over three times but is moving it so well on offense they are able to escape with a win.

For those out of the area and without ESPN3 these past two weeks, a national telecast is welcome news.

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