GAME SNAPSHOTBBVA Compass Bowl
KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
SERIES: First meeting.
RECORDS: Pittsburgh 7-5, Kentucky 6-6
POLLS: Neither team is ranked.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 17-10
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For Pittsburgh: The signals certainly are mixed here. Pitt was buoyed by getting a share of the Big East championship with Connecticut and West Virginia, but that was something of a downer, too, as the Panthers went into the final two games needing only to win out to go to the BCS. Then there's the coaching situation with Dave Wannstedt's resignation under pressure.
On the field, the running game is the bread-and-butter of the Pitt offense. The ground game opened the season in something of a funk, with RB Dion Lewis not living up to his 2009 season when he gained 1,799 rushing yards. Two changes, however, helped jump start things: changes in the offensive line and the use of RB Ray Graham, who produced the second greatest rushing game in Pitt history. Lewis got better as the season wore on and in the finale against Cincinnati carried 42 times for 261 yards and four touchdowns. Pitt doesn't do much fancy in the run game; it just keeps coming at you.
Pitt runs a pro-style passing game with QB Tino Sunseri not being asked to beat people but to make smart, accurate passes. The Panthers make use of their running backs and tight ends in the passing game, but the big weapon is WR Jon Baldwin, a dangerous deep threat who is tall and fast. Sunseri made huge strides as the season progressed, his first year as a starter, completing 65 percent of his passes for almost 2,500 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Wannstedt's defensive theories are based on the pro game, where he spent many years as an assistant and head coach. His run defense starts up front, where he plays four down linemen whose main job is to rush the passer and keep the guards off the linebackers. The result was that Pitt held rushers to about 120 yards a game in a conference in which there are a lot of teams that run the ball really well. LB Max Gruder and S Dom DiCicco are far and away the leading tacklers, but linemen like Jabaal Sheard, Chas Alecxih, Brandon Lindsey do the grunt work.
The defense lines up in a 4-3, doesn't blitz a whole lot, stops the run first and beats the pass with a strong pass rush from the defensive ends. Pitt held Cincinnati's high-powered passing game to 12 completions and 109 yards in the regular season finale, with three interceptions. Two of them were made by DeCicco, who ended tied with S Jarred Holley with five each. The defensive ends -- Jabaal Sheard with nine sacks and Brandon Lindsey with 10 -- terrorized passers.
P/PK Dan Hutchins is one of the nation's best two-way kickers. He has a 45.1-yard punting average and he made 16 of 23 field goals. Pitt also led the league in kickoff coverage. The Panthers have dangerous return men in Graham, who brought kickoffs back 23.0 yards a try, and PR Cameron Saddler, who was second in punt returns with 10.7 average.
-- For Kentucky: The Wildcats figure to have more to play for in this lower-tier bowl game since Pittsburgh has endured a highly disappointing 7-5 season. The Panthers were expected to be a nine-win team and had their eyes on a BCS bowl game and not spending early January in Birmingham. The Wildcats need a win to avoid a losing season.
The Wildcats run the ball better when RB Derrick Locke is healthy, and all signs point to Locke being 100 percent when Jan. 8 arrives. Locke rushed for 816 yards despite missing four games, and his presence also opens things up for Kentucky's passing game. The Panthers have been stingy on the ground, ranking 18th nationally in stopping the run at 121.3 yards per game.
QB Mike Hartline passed for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns in a solid season but won't play in the bowl after being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in an incident after the season. Sophomore Morgan Newton, who played in only four games, will take over to face a Pitt defense that ranks 17th against the pass, allowing only 182.9 yards per game.
The Panthers figure to run Dion Lewis a lot against a Kentucky defense that allowed seven players to top 100 rushing yards and ranked just 79th against the run (170.1). Lewis rushed for a career-best 261 yards and four touchdowns in Pittsburgh's regular-season finale against Cincinnati. Kentucky's defensive line play has been shaky this season, prompting LB Danny Trevathan to make a lot of downfield tackles.
Kentucky held opposing passers to a 54.3 completion rate while ranking 18th in passing defense (183.8). But the regular-season finale against Tennessee had some rough moments, particularly when Volunteers freshman Tyler Bray took advantage of a first-half suspension to Wildcats CB Martavius Neloms to hit second-quarter completions of 44, 49 and 48 yards to Denarius Moore. S Winston Guy is Kentucky's top player in the secondary.
Kentucky P Ryan Tydlacka had a 43.7-yard average and placed 13 punts inside the 20-yard line, and PK Craig McIntosh connected on 10 of 13 field-goal attempts. The Wildcats are always a threat in the return game with Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb fielding kickoffs and Cobb handling punt-return duties.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
DE Jabaal Sheard -- Sheard became the fifth Pitt player to be named conference defensive player of the year in the Big East. He won the award for the 2010 season as he has been the force that has led the Pittsburgh defense. Faced with a devastating injury to DE Greg Romeus, the Big East's 2009 co-Defensive Player of the Year, Sheard had to pick up the slack and, at the same time, overcome the stigma of an offseason arrest for a fight. Sheard wound up making first-team All-American team and was a finalist for both the Bronko Nagurski and Ted Hendricks awards. Sheard has nine sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses, 15 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.
RB Dion Lewis -- He looks to be the Dion Lewis of old again, and that does not bode well for Kentucky in the bowl. Lewis came into the season as a Heisman candidate but got off to a slow start. In his place, RB Ray Graham produced the second greatest rushing game in Pitt history, which allowed coach Dave Wannstedt to ease Lewis back in. By the season finale against Cincinnati, however, Lewis was ready to turn it loose and he did, carrying 42 times for 261 yards and four touchdowns. Lewis finished the year with 856 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
WR Jon Baldwin -- Baldwin created a stir on the same day Dave Wannstedt "stepped down" when he announced that he was "definitely leaving" school after his junior season. Baldwin has struggled to find a rapport with QB Tino Sunseri, the team's first-year starter, and said at times he felt like the team was working against him.
WR Randall Cobb -- Cobb does it all for the Wildcats. The junior caught an SEC-high 79 passes for 955 yards and seven touchdowns, rushed for 401 yards and five scores and also passed for three touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown as a punt returner. Cobb needs just 119 all-purpose yards to break Darren McFadden's conference record for single-season all-purpose yardage. Cobb has 2,192 all-purpose yards this season.
RB Derrick Locke -- Locke should be at full strength for the bowl game after having a midseason injury sideline him for four games. The missed time kept Locke (816 yards, 10 touchdowns) from having a 1,000-yard rushing season. He caught 28 passes and averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns.
LB Danny Trevathan -- Trevathan has been a tackle machine with eight straight double-digit tackle games and an SEC-leading 130 tackles. Trevathan is intelligent in his recognition of offenses and has terrific speed, which has helped him amass 16 tackles for losses this season.
DT Ricky Lumpkin (knee, probable), QB Mike Hartline (suspension, out).