His lineup is depleted with injuries, including a crucial one that has cost him the services of the nation's No. 2 rusher, Ray Graham, for the season. But University of Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham is not accepting that as a crutch as his Panthers enter the home stretch of the season with the game he calls "the biggest of the year."
It is Cincinnati, the only unbeaten team in Big East play, that comes to town and Todd Graham sees it not as an insurmountable obstacle without Ray Graham and a couple of starting linemen, but as a challenge his team has to meet head on.
"I don't know how in the world you cannot be ready for this week," he said. "You are playing Cincinnati, they're undefeated in the Big East, you have four games left, you win all four you control your own destiny."
It is a tall challenge but one he believes the shorthanded Panthers are ready for.
"I'm thankful for Zach," Todd Graham said. "We have a coach who was at Wisconsin and knew him. Zach Brown could have gone to Miami or Pitt. He was looking for a place he could come in and compete. I think the opportunity to contribute is what sold him."
Brown, a quiet person, has been a hit with his teammates.
"He has become close with Ray Graham," Todd said. "It's hard to be a leader when you come in from the other side but he has been a leader. He's a special guy."
NOTES, QUOTES --QB Tino Sunseri was named the Big East's Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for a career-high 419 yards in a victory over Connecticut last week.
--DT Aaron Donald has recorded five sacks in the past two games.
--The Panthers have recorded at least one sack in each of the past 20 games.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads Cincinnati, 8-2. (last meeting, 2010, 28-10 Pittsburgh)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Pitt's offense will have to change with RB Ray Graham out for the year due a knee injury. He was ranked second in the nation in rushing when injured against Connecticut. He finished with 958 yards. Zach Brown is Graham's replacement and is a capable runner, but Graham is out of the mode of Shady McCoy and Dion Lewis, the two men who preceded him and went to the NFL. That threw the load on a questionable passing game and QB Tino Sunseri responded with his career-best game, throwing for 419 yards against UConn while completing 29 of 42 passes and hitting two touchdowns without an interception. Sunseri's 419 yards were the most throw for by a Pitt QB in eight years and were a collegiate record for Heinz Field. The big question this week is the offensive line, which has been decimated by injury. Senior G Chris Jacobsen was lost for the year in the Iowa game, Lucas Nix has been out three games with an injury against South Florida and against UConn freshman OL Matt Rotheram suffered a season-ending ankle fracture.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt has been turning up the pressure on the passing game all season through the rush, leading the Big East in sacks with an average of 3.38 per game and ranking fifth nationally in that department. Sophomore DT Aaron Donald is leading the way with seven while three Pitt players -- Donald, DT Chas Alecxih and DE Brandon Lindsey rank among the Big East's top five. Pitt's attacking defense is tied for 12th nationally in tackles for a loss but that statistic is skewered somewhat because against Utah the Panthers managed a stunning 17 tackles for losses, including seven sacks. Pitt does need to do more work in forcing turnovers, having created only seven with four fumbles and three interceptions.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm very confident about where our team is right now. I like the attitude and approach. It's not going to be easy but nothing worth having is." -- Coach Todd Graham as his team gets ready for a huge game against Big East leader Cincinnati on Nov. 5.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Nov. 5 -- The game matches up two of the three teams in the Big East who hold their own fate in their hands. The other team that could win the conference outright by going unbeaten is West Virginia. Pitt lost to Cincinnati in 2008, 28-21, and again in 2009 in a classic game, 45-44, that propelled the Bearcats to the Orange Bowl. They beat Cincinnati last year, 28-10, with RB Dion Lewis scoring all four TDs. That game was played in snow that limited passing and Lewis carried 42 times for 215 yards. Pitt has won five of six games with Cincinnati played in Pittsburgh and is 4-2 since the Bearcats joined the Big East.Pitt won 28-10 at Cincinnati
KEYS TO THE GAME: Offensively Pitt always has two keys to its game. "If we can avoid negative plays and turning the ball over, we will score points," coach Todd Graham preaches. Even though they had a solid game last week against UConn offensively, Graham called it only average because there were three sacks. "It would have been good if we didn't have the sacks," he said. Defensively against Cincinnati, an explosive, efficient offensive team, Graham says they have to "stop the run and don't give up any cheap touchdowns." Cincinnati, of course, will pass the ball and do it often with QB Zach Collaros, but the big weapon is Isaiah Pead in the running game. "Pead's the key. He's explosive, strong, people bounce off him. They can throw the ball but he's the one you have to stop."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tino Sunseri -- Sunseri comes off the best game of his career, passing for 419 yards against Connecticut and all eyes -- including the defense's -- will be on him from here on out. Without running back Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher, the offense is forced to feature its air game. Graham suffered a knee injury against UConn. Sunseri showed an ability to hit open receivers and spread the ball around, no receiver gaining 100 yards despite the 419 passing yards.
RB Zach Brown -- With Graham out, Brown will pick up the bulk of the carries. Brown is averaging only 3.1 yards on 41 carries but when entering in place of Graham he has shown he can catch the football, possessing 16 catches on the year, nine in the UConn game when he saw extensive action.
WR Mike Shanahan -- Pitt's leading pass catcher among receivers, Shanahan broke out of a slump with four catches against Connecticut. He had caught only one pass in the previous two games and was coming off a game against Utah in which he was held without a catch. While Pitt's offense likes to spread the ball around, Shanahan is a big play player who needs a chance to make those plays.
--Junior RB Ray Graham, on his way to a memorable season, suffered a season-ending right knee injury on his first carry against Connecticut on Oct. 26. He was leading the Big East in rushing and was seond in the nation, averaging 134.1 yards per game. RB Zach Brown replaced him and while not the runner Graham is, he did catch 9 passes to lead all receivers.
--Redshirt freshman OL Matt Rotheram sustained a season-ending left angle fracture against UConn. He had played in all eight games, starting the last two at tackle and guard, respectively.
--Chris Jacobson will seek a medical hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility after suffering the second season-ending injury of his career. In 2007 Jacobson suffered a right knee injury in the preseason. He had surgery on his left knee after the Iowa game.
--Sophomore LB Kevin Adams was dismissed from the Pitt team for what coach Todd Graham termed "disciplinary reasons." Adam played in eight games, starting one. He made 11 tackles.
--Backup QB Trey Anderson has a wrist injury and may not be able to play for a few weeks, according to Coach Todd Graham.