If there is one thing both teams have in common, it's the changes each have had to endure, entering this bowl game.
Pitt wrapped up its regular season five weeks ago today with an impressive 28-10 win over Cincinnati. Kentucky, the week before, lost 24-14 at rival Tennessee. Both teams had an idea they were heading to Birmingham following their respective last game of the season. They did not know the mysterious road they were going to take to get there.
For Kentucky, the Wildcats will be starting a different quarterback against Pitt than they had for the bulk of the 2010 season. Starting quarterback Mike Hartline was arrested two weeks after the Wildcats wrapped up the regular season for public intoxication. He was suspended for this bowl game. Former starter Morgan Newton--who went 5-3 as a starter in 2009--returns to the starting lineup, after Hartline initially replaced him due to an injury.
Kentucky will also be losing a running back in Donald Russell, who after the season, announced he was transferring. Russell was the team's third-leading rusher, and had a season-high 110 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Charleston Southern. Freshman defensive tackle Elliott Porter also announced he would transfer after the season.
Also after the regular season, assistants Larry Brinson (running backs) and Chris Thurmond (safeties) were replaced, respectively by Steve Pardue and Rick Minter.
Kentucky players remain optimistic despite all they've had to overcome over the last six weeks.
"This is really like the first game of the next game," receiver/running back Randall Cobb said. "It's the first game of (2011). It will be a different team next year. It will still be a team similar to this year. All the young guys getting reps; it's important for a successful program."
Pitt, though, has clearly been under more of a microscope in terms of changes. After their regular season ended, head coach Dave Wannstedt was dismissed after six years on the job. At the time, it was unknown if he would coach in this bowl game.
Though Pitt has not officially announced any players transferring, as Kentucky has, the Pitt staff intact decreases by the week. The remaining assistants coaching in today's game, could be with new schools by this time next week. Wannstedt decided Monday not to coach in this bowl game. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was named interim coach, and has led and handled this team as if he's been the head coach for awhile.
Bennett said that he tried talking Wannstedt into coaching today's game. In fact, he got angry with Wannstedt, to try to change his mind a little.
"I got on him, I was mad at him early on," Bennett said. "He expressed, 'Phil, I just don't think it would be fair to the players for me to be the topic of conversation, and I believe that.
"I say this truly heartfelt, but they don't come any better," Bennett said, referring to Wannstedt as a good person. "He was passionate about this program; still passionate about this program.
On top of that, Michael Haywood was hired as Wannstedt's replacement on December 16. He was dismissed 16 days later, following an arrest on alleged domestic abuse charges in South Bend, Indiana the day before. Pitt is now on its second coaching search, through this bowl week. Though the players haven't said anything publically on whether the coaching search has been a distraction to their preparations in Birmingham, the coaching search has been the hot topic of debate; not the bowl game.
Frank Cignetti Jr. was announced as Rutgers offensive coordinator earlier this week. In his place, tight ends coach Brian Angelichio will call the plays, in addition to managing his regular duties as tight ends coach. Graduate assistant Luke Getsy has filled in at Cignetti's quarterbacks coach role.
Tony Wise is unchanged as offensive line coach, just as Greg Gattuso is as the defensive line coach. David Walker will coach the running backs. Friday, sources informed Panther Digest that both Gattuso and Walker have been linked to assistant coaching jobs at Maryland. Bennett, of course, is expected to take the defensive coordinator position at Baylor.
Scott Turner will coach the receivers. Secondary coach Jeff Hafley was the first to depart, taking an assistant coaching position at Rutgers. The secondary has been split between Bennett and graduate assistant Eric Thatcher.
"The coaches that are here, that have stayed, I'm proud of them," Bennett said. "We're coaching with six guys. We got three (graduate assistants) that are involved. I'm very proud."
While Kentucky has a suspension on its mind--the starting quarterback no less--Pitt has been hit with the injury bug. Pitt lost starting defensive end Greg Romeus in his first game back against UConn on November 11, only to lose him in that same game to a season-ending ACL injury. In the regular-season finale at Cincinnati, Myles Caragein sprained a knee which would keep him out of this bowl game. Jabaal Sheard had an elective surgery on his elbow. He will miss this game as well.
Both teams have some new starters they are trying out--partially because the players involved have earned their opportunity, but also to see how they handle a starting spot; taking a look at the future. For the Wildcats, Billy Joe Murphy will start at left tackle for the injured Chandler Burden. Freshman tight end Tyler Robinson will start in this game as well.
Aaron Donald will see a significant amount of reps at defensive tackle. It's unclear if he is the starter yet, but he will see a lot of time based on Caragein's injury. Freshman corner K'Waun Williams gets the nod at corner. Brandon Lindsey will start at one defensive end spot, as he has for much of the year. Justin Hargrove will make his first start today, in place of the injured Sheard.
The bottom line is that both teams have had some adversity leading up to this bowl game--it's the one thing they have in common with each other. No team will be able to play the pity party, or use its rough spell as a reason for winning Saturday. However, there's no question that both teams will be aiming to prove a lot to a lot of people, because of the obstacles they've had to battle over the last couple of months.
Phillips, the Kentucky coach, said despite being without three starters, though he's not as familiar with some of the replacements, he knows Pitt's style of play and expects a good game from the Panthers.
"I happened to see one of their backup defensive nose guards (in person this week)," Phillips said. "He looked like an eight-year, NFL vet. I happened to be in front of him in the lunch line the night of the bowling (event). I quickly put him in front of me because I didn't want him to be angry.
"They have great personnel. Every year, they've lost guys, but somebody else steps up and becomes the Defensive Player of the Conference. We expect the same. We expect those guys to be physical. We expect those guys to get after our young quarterback."