2011 BBVA Compass Bowl
Pitt (7-5) vs.
Saturday, January 8th, 12:00, ESPN
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By Richard Cirminiello
Without warning, the BBVA Compass Bowl has a much-needed lead story to pump.
About a month before kickoff, Pittsburgh announced that head coach Dave Wannstedt would not be back for a seventh season. Shortly thereafter, athletic director Steve Pederson handed the reins to Miami University coach Mike Haywood. The plot in an otherwise vanilla game in Birmingham now
is on Phil Bennett, after Haywood lost the job after being charged with
domestic battery, while Wannstedt, a very popular alum, decided not to
remain on the sidelines for one final game. Now, Pitt is just hoping to
For Pitt, this was a very typical season, marked by enough talent to win the Big East, yet not enough results on Saturdays to actually deliver. The favorite in the league entering the season, the Panthers set the tone early on, losing to Utah, Miami, and Notre Dame before even reaching the halfway point of the schedule. Still, they rallied to take control of the conference, only to squander it with losses to Connecticut and West Virginia. Falling to the rival Mountaineers, 35-10, at home pretty much sealed Wannstedt’s fate. The brass could no longer tolerate the mediocrity.
While Bennett, in the interim, will get to show what he can do in the bowl,
the search begins on Jan. 9. The new head coach will inherit a program that’s done a decent job of recruiting and will be bringing back a fair amount of playmakers on both sides of the ball. It’ll be his job to elevate that level of talent and get it to mesh more cohesively. He’ll want to pay extra attention to QB Tino Sunseri, the sophomore who was predictably inconsistent in his first season on the job. With two years of eligibility left, he’s the present and the future behind center unless someone says otherwise.
Kentucky is one of those programs that’s fortunate the postseason is as inclusive as it is. The Wildcats are 6-6, with four of those victories coming over Western Kentucky, Akron, Charleston Southern, and Vanderbilt. They did beat South Carolina and rival Louisville, and were competitive for much of the year, but clearly needed a cushy schedule to qualify for this school-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance. It might sound cosmetic, but the program is itching to avoid its first losing season since 2005. It matters to the players and the staff.
Go ahead and label Joker Phillips’ first season as the head coach in Lexington as a table-setter. No, there wasn’t a lot to crow about, but he and his kids navigated the typical growing pains together. This game will afford him to get an earlier than expected look at his quarterback situation for 2011. Senior starter Mike Hartline was suspended following an arrest, opening the door for sophomore Morgan Newton to audition for next year’s job. He gets first dibs, but don’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski gets a few reps as well.
To most, this is the game formerly known as the PapaJohn’s.com Bowl. In Pittsburgh, it’s the Wann song. Before taking on an administrative role in the athletic department, Wannstedt has one more shot to give a little something back to a university that’s meant so much to him as a player and coach.
Players to Watch: Kentucky’s Randall Cobb is technically listed as a wide receiver, but it’d be doing him a disservice to label him with a single position. The Wildcats’ version of a Swiss Army knife, he’s one of the most versatile and exciting players in America. Sure, he’s caught 79 passes for 955 yards and seven touchdowns, but he’s also run for 401 yards and five scores and is a threat in the return game as a punt and kickoff returner. His presence plus the return of a healthy RB Derrick Locke, who missed four games, ensure that Newton won’t have to carry this offense in Birmingham.
Newton will have plenty to be concerned about whenever he drops back to throw. Pittsburgh likes to bring the pressure the old-fashioned way, getting a consistent push from the defensive linemen. While Kentucky has a budding star at guard in sophomore Larry Warford, the rest of the line can be vulnerable. Even in a year when DE Greg Romeus rarely played, the Panthers still managed to rack up 30 sacks. They’ve got an inside-outside thing going, with DT Chas Alecxih busting up the gut and Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey coming off the edge. Sheard made himself a lot of money this year, earning All-American recognition with 14.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and 15 hurries.
The Panthers have a pair of quality options out of the backfield, sophomores Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Both possess the workhorse potential to wear down an average and beatable Kentucky front seven. After delivering a phenomenal debut in 2009, Lewis regressed in his second season, producing about half of last year’s yards so far. However, he’s been aided by some juggling along the offensive line, and started to flash some of last season’s form in the second half. In the regular season finale with Cincinnati, he was at his best, running 42 times for 261 yards and four touchdowns.
Kentucky’s brightest hope on an otherwise shaky defense comes from LB Danny Trevathan, a tackling machine. Cleaning up a lot of the messes left behind by the front four, he has 130 stops, 16 tackles for loss, and three sacks. He’s also forced four fumbles, testament to his penchant for bringing the payload. An All-SEC first teamer in his second year as a starter on the outside, he’ll be one of the key defensive cogs being asked to prevent Lewis and Graham from picking up yards after contact.
Kentucky will win if ... Cobb is able to take the game over.
Unfair to ask so much of one player? Maybe. However, the junior is capable of delivering and is clearly the one bellwether player on a modestly talented team. When he’s making things happen, the Wildcats suddenly become a very dangerous team. Just ask South Carolina. And his impact cannot be relegated to simply the offense. Sure, he’ll have to catch passes, take direct snaps, and even complete a pass or two. However, he’ll also need to be a factor on special teams. With Hartline out, field position will be more important than ever, and Cobb is just the guy to ignite the offense even before he gets in the huddle. If he can keep the Panthers on their heels and Locke can return to his pre-injury form, Kentucky has enough playmakers to finish the year above .500.
Pittsburgh will win if ... it rushes for more than 200 yards.
This remains a fairly conservative offense that aims to establish the run, mixing in the pass occasionally. The Panthers want to wear opponents out with Lewis and Graham, who both operate in a no-nonsense, north-south manner. It’s just when those two start rolling downhill that Pitt will unleash Sunseri and his favorite receivers, Jon Baldwin and Mike Shanahan, on the Kentucky secondary. Trevethan aside, the ‘Cats don’t harbor many stoppers on the first or second line of defense, which will compel the Panthers to keep things conservative. Pittsburgh is at its best when it’s playing ball-control offense, out muscling the other team. If the running game is successful, it limits the other guy’s possessions and helps make the Pitt D doubly effective.
What will happen: Panther players truly liked their former head coach and plan to show him how much at Legion Field. An inspired Pitt will have the success on the ground that they covet, getting 100 yards out of Lewis and ample help from Graham in a supporting role. Sunseri will sprinkle in some key connections as he continues his maturity, providing balance and diversity to the offense. Cobb and Locke will be up to the challenge on offense, but losing Hartline will prove to be a significant blow to the overall attack. This is a tall order for Newton, who lacks experience and will spend a big chunk of the afternoon trying to make things happen as the pocket collapses. In an emotional finish, the Panther will survive, winning a game for a coach that they’ll miss and admire.
CFN Prediction: Pittsburgh 28 … Kentucky 21 ... Line:
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PapaJohns.com Bowl History
2010 Connecticut 20, South Carolina 7
2008 Rutgers, 29, NC State 23
2007 Cincinnati 31, Southern Miss 21
2006 South Florida 24, East Carolina 7
Pick ATS: Kentucky
Confidence Score: 24
OVERALL CONFIDENCE (35 most - 1 least): 7 out of 35
Pete Fiutak: Pick ATS - Pitt Pick Confidence -
- It might not be the sexiest matchup, but it should be competitive. Pitt flexed its muscle a bit in the season finale against Cincinnati, with Dion Lewis and the attack rolling for a dominant 28-10 win. Kentucky closed with a thud, losing three of its last five games with the wins coming against Charleston Southern and Vanderbilt. However, the offense has enough firepower to make this a decent 30-27ish sort of a fight.
Richard Cirminiello: Pick ATS -
Pitt Pick Confidence -
- There’s never a bad time to watch Kentucky WR Randall Cobb, one of the most exciting and versatile players in America. Whether it’s in 2011 or 2012, you get the feeling he’s going to be a very valuable weapon for someone at the next level.
Matt Zemek: Pick ATS - Kentucky Pick Confidence -
- Once the basketball jokes subside (kinda like UConn-Oklahoma), there will be a lot of skill-position talent on hand in Birmingham for this contest. Dion Lewis, Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, and Jon Baldwin. Not bad. Thankfully for Baldwin, Dave Wannstedt won’t coach him anymore. Thankfully for Dave Wannstedt, Baldwin didn’t unload on the Panthers’ ex-coach one month earlier.
Russ Mitchell: Pick ATS -
Kentucky Pick Confidence -
- We’d skip this on principal, but it might be the last chance to watch Kentucky’s Randall Cobb.
Barrett Sallee: Pick ATS - Pitt Pick Confidence -
- Probably the final collegiate game for Kentucky wide receiver Randall Cobb, who has been one of the most underrated players in the SEC over the last decade.
Gabe Harris: Pick ATS - Pitt Pick Confidence -
Brian Harbach: Pick ATS -
Kentucky Pick Confidence -
Matthew Smith: Pick ATS - Pitt Pick Confidence -
Billy Gomila: Pick ATS - Kentucky Pick Confidence
Clucko (A coin flip): Pick ATS -
Kentucky Pick Confidence