While basketball seems to be in freefall at this point, we get the chance to be distracted for a short while as the football team takes the field for the final time this season in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday against the SMU Mustangs of Conference USA (and soon the Big East).
Even though we're nearing the Paul Chryst era, we're still technically in the Fraud Graham nightmare season. Despite that, this is the final time several seniors will put on their Pitt uniforms when they take the field. So let's continue to show our support for these guys that have been through so much in the past year.
Here are a few keys to the game:
When Pitt has the ball
1) Move past the distractions
This actually applies for both sides of the ball, but we're starting with the offense so I'll mention it here. While they weren't as loyal to Todd Graham as they were to Dave Wannstedt, it still is troubling for the players to go through this situation again. Unlike last year, though, Pitt has a head coach hired and waiting to take over the team. The players were able to get through the bowl game last season in a similar situation, so hopefully they can do the same this season.
2) Do what Pitt does best - run the ball
SMU ended the season losing four of their last six games and in each loss, SMU gave up nearly 150 rushing yards. Assuming Zach Brown is back for the game, he along with Isaac Bennett should give Pitt a solid rushing option.
3) Protect Tino Sunseri
The biggest question Pitt has faced each game this season is whether the offensive line can provide enough protection for Sunseri. While the Mustangs are 62nd in pass defense, they're also 27th in sacks this season averaging about two per game. Pitt can coast to victory if Sunseri has enough time to throw and, you know, actually gets rid of the ball.
When SMU has the ball:
1) Get to J.J. McDermott
Ever since the Mustangs lost leading rusher Zach Line after their loss to Navy, SMU has become one-dimensional on offense. They only rushed for 24 yards against a questionable Houston defense and then struggled in the passing game against a bad Rice team. SMU will probably look to strike through the air since Pitt's pass defense has been susceptible to breakdowns this season. If they can get to QB J.J. McDermott quickly, though, they can get sacks or force bad passes. McDermott is only completing 59% of his passes and has thrown 16 picks, so he's a candidate to make some mistakes in the game.
2) Force turnovers
SMU has had nine turnovers in their past three games, including a whopping five in the season finale against Rice. Pitt, meanwhile, has done a good job forcing turnovers towards the end of the season. The Panthers have racked up 11 in their final three games, including six against Syracuse in the finale. Both teams are trending in the opposite direction when it comes to turnovers and I think we'll be seeing more of the same in the bowl game.
3) Win the red zone battle
The Mustangs are one of the worst teams in the nation at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In 49 trips, they have just 29 touchdowns. Pitt has done a good job defending the red zone, allowing just 19 touchdowns in 33 trips. The Panthers need to make sure SMU doesn't score touchdowns instead of converting field goals.