Despite reaching the ACC conference championship game, the last few contests haven’t been real kind to Pitt’s football team.
The Panthers backed into that game with a deflating 24-3 loss to Miami in the regular season finale. Then, the conference title game was even uglier as Pitt dropped the game against Clemson, 42-10. Once 7-4, the Panthers now sit at 7-6 and could be on the verge of a three-game losing streak. In their final game of the year, Pitt will face Stanford in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
The Cardinal are 8-4 and have had a solid year themselves. While their early-season win against a then-ranked USC team looks less impressive, Stanford also managed to knock off a ranked Oregon team that also finished 8-4. And while they lost handily to Notre Dame (38-17), they nearly beat another ranked foe, losing only 41-38 to Washington State. That game, along with a four-point loss to Washington, were pretty close games. Stanford’s other loss was a 40-21 defeat to Division winner Utah.
From a personnel standpoint, as we covered, their star running back Bryce Love will miss the game as he prepares for the NFL Draft. That obviously will help Pitt here but the Panthers still have to contend with a potent passing attack.
Quarterback K.J. Costello has thrown for 3,435 yards on the season and has an impressive 29 passing scores against 11 picks. He has three primary targets in wide receivers J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin, and tight end Kaden Smith. Arcega-Whiteside and Irwin each have 60 catches on the year and the former has 969 yards and an incredible 14 touchdowns. Smith added 47 grabs on the year. Just how good is that passing attack? 19th on the year in terms of yardage.
Key to the offense is how the loss of Love impacts the team. Stanford almost certainly becomes at least a little more one-dimensional. And while Love’s backups, Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights, have been adequate in limited action (the pair averages nearly four yards per carry and has seven touchdowns), how they’ll fare still has to be somewhat of a question mark. Both are upperclassmen, though, and have plenty of game experience.
Defensively, though, Stanford has struggled a little bit. They give up just over 415 yards per game and rank 79th in the FBS (Pitt is a barely more impressive 69th). The Cardinal have looked impressive at times on defense, allowing fewer than 15 points in five of their 12 games. However, they’ve also had some issues, too. Stanford allowed 38 to Notre Dame, 40 to Utah, and 41 to Washington State. That will be overlooked by some because those were some pretty good teams. But the Cardinal also gave up 42 to a 3-9 UCLA squad. Jokes about Pitt’s offense in the 2008 Sun Bowl aside, Stanford is a team that will probably allow some points.
The question will be if Pitt’s offense can outpace what the Cardinal does. And that’s what makes calling this one so hard.
The Panthers have shown the capability to score points this season, topping 30 points six times, including a pair of 50+ games against Duke and Virginia Tech. But, as we’ve seen in games against better defenses, they can have a difficult time, too.
So what does that mean for this game? Well, it’s fair to point out that most of Pitt’s offensive woes have come against good defensive teams. In Miami, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Virginia, Pitt has faced four of the 25 stingiest defenses in terms of yardage this season. Miami and Clemson are both in the top five. That they only scored 50 total points against those four teams was unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected. Otherwise, Pitt has mostly been okay on offense, bad games against a good Penn State defense and not-so-good UCF defense, aside.
While Pitt has been up and down this year in terms of scoring points, the smart bet here is that they’ll be able to, at a minimum, move the ball and presumably score some points. Stanford probably won’t be a pushover on defense but they’ve allowed teams to move the ball offensively, too. That’s good because Pitt will need to have some success on offense since shutting down Stanford’s offense isn’t likely to happen.
Whether or not Pitt can score enough to win, though, is up in the air.